Northwestern Connection - Roland Smith

Mel Bratton, Tolbert Bain, Brett Perriman, Nate Webster, Vernon Carey and current Canes David Williams, Jerrel Weaver, Travorous Bain and incoming freshman Leo Waiters all share a common bond. They all would play their high school football at Dade County powerhouse Miami Northwestern and sign letters of intent to play college football at the University of Miami.

Roland Smith, is also a part of this long and illustrious lineage. Smith who was once a part of the Northwestern pipeline to UM is now it's gatekeeper. Smith for the last three years has been the head football coach at Miami Northwestern Senior High School.

From 1987 to 1990, Smith was a diminutive cornerback for the Hurricanes. Over his four year run at Miami, his teams would go 44-4 and garner two national titles.

"It was four of the best years of my life," reflected Smith on his career at the University of Miami. "I came in as a true freshman, came in early during summer workouts to be with the veteran guys and made the team as a true freshman and worked my way up to the second string on the depth chart behind TolbertBain, Donald Ellis and Bubba McDowell."

Smith would be one of just nine true freshman to earn a varsity letter on the Canes national championship team of 1987. At that point in his career he would be a supporting player to the star-studded cast of 'Bennie and the Jets' which was led by two-time All-American Bennie Blades.

"I learned a lot playing in that program playing under the leadership of Bennie Blades and the great defensive backs they had there," said Smith, who was known for his quick feet and heady play. "They taught us the hard work, it pays off, putting in the time and the togetherness that we played in as a bond, as a unit, as a team. And the friendships that last forever coming through that program was tremendous."

And those bonds are still tight to this day for Smith.

"I still have feelings and concerns with the players that I played with because we became a family, everybody," he explained. "We had guys come from all part of the state, Florida and the nation and came together for one goal and for one goal only- and that's to win the championship."

It's been well-documented that the Miami football program is unusually tight. Players come back in droves throughout the year and you can be sure to see the alumni roaming the sidelines each and every game. Smith believes no other collegiate program matches the loyalty from it's former players as Miami.

"I haven't seen one," he insists. "I mean that sincerely in my heart that this program is close-knit. The guys truly care for one another, the guys are always seeing what the other guys are doing and if I needed a guy to speak to my players at the current job I'm at in my high school to speak to them, they'll come out and speak to them. So I must say I haven't seen a college program as close-knit as the Hurricanes."

The saga of Roland Smith begins in 1986, after leading Dade County with nine interceptions he was voted all-state, all-district and was named Northwestern's most outstanding defensive player. Smith would begin the process of picking a college- and it was an easy one for him.

"Jimmy( Johnson) did a great job with me, he offered me on my recruiting trip," Smith said. "And I told him that I didn't get a chance to see much of the world and that I wanted to go on some more recruiting trips just to see the world. And he told me that he was going to honor my scholarship no matter what and that a scholarship would be waiting but just don't renege on it. I told him he had my word and he gave me that opportunity to do that. But he was a great guy to play for."

And he would be following the path of Bratton, Bain and Perriman from Northwestern to UM.

"By them being graduates of my high school, I wanted to follow in their footsteps. Being how successful they were, leaving Miami Northwestern going over to the University of Miami to play," he explained. "I was courted to play for other programs across the nation: Michigan, University of Minnesota, Pittsburgh, Florida, Florida State.

"But something about that program in Coral Gables, I just fell in love with and I wanted to be the next guy to fall in line to follow those guys. Because it's a good school academically as well as athletically and they competed against the best teams and we did a good job at winning big time games."

After winning the national title in 87, the Canes would go 11-1 and come excruciatingly close to winning back-to-back titles. It would be Johnson's final year as head coach. Shortly after guiding the Canes to a 23-3 thrashing of the Nebraska Cornhuskers in the Orange Bowl Classic on January 1,1989, Johnson would accept the job of taking over the reigns of the Dallas Cowboys. Smith and his teammates would be getting a new head coach.

"At first, it was kinda rough because we didn't know, it just hit us off guard. All the guys were in the Student Union getting ready to go to class and then we look on the TV and we were shocked," recalled Smith of the tumultuous time. "You couldn't hear nobody talking, everybody's mouth just dropped and looking around and saying,' Where did that come from?'"

Soon, they'd be getting the news from Johnson himself.

"Then we were told we were having a meeting with our head coach and when he came in he gave us the announcement. There were guys crying, teary eyed, upset but then we had to re-focus and get ourselves going and try to put in a bid for Gary Stevens our offensive coordinator- just like the guys did for Larry Coker- but he was denied. Then they finally brought in a head coach, Dennis Erickson and he came in and he saw us work."

The team that Johnson left behind made quite an impression on Erickson, who was coming over from Washington St.

"Before he even came, he came out on the field, the first time we saw him, he just looked at us and we didn't know who he was. We just saw this guy with sandy, white hair, looking at us. And we were working out doing our sprints, 110's and stuff and he came in and met with us after that workout and told us that he'd never been around a bunch of guys who worked as hard as we were working.

"He told us he was glad to be the new head coach at the University of Miami and he said he didn't want to change anything. He just wanted to keep everything rolling. If anything, he may add a little bit more spice to help our game offensively but defensively he wouldn't touch a thing."

But there would be more meetings for the Miami players.

"Then we had a team meeting and the seniors stepped up and everybody said, 'Hey, look here, if you want to transfer, transfer. But we came to the University of Miami to win football games no matter who's here. We're going to win football games. If anybody wants to leave, stand up and walk out right now' Nobody in the room stood up, everybody stayed there. We said, 'Let's see what the man has to offer us, let's bust our butts. We know what it takes around here to win championships and win games. So we're going to continue doing what we've been doing as far as not losing focus and work ethic and practicing real hard and doing what the coaches wanted us to do and win games.' And we did that with Erickson as well."

The team that Erickson inherited would go 11-1 and capture the programs third national title, stamping itself as the 'Team of the 80's' in college football. Lost in all the deserved hoopla of the 1986 and 2001 editions of the Canes, the 1989 team may have been as talented as any team in Miami history. A guy like Jimmie Jones, who ended having a long NFL career, couldn't even crack the lineup as a senior.

"He was projected to be a starter but he missed the spring because he was working, he had a family, he was married and had to work during the spring," Smith said of his teammates predicament. Soon he'd be Wally Pipp to Cortez Kennedy's Lou Gehrig. "He missed the spring and Cortez finally got himself in shape, lost a lot of weight and had a tremendous spring and was a terror. That helped Cortez out, Cortez had one year to sell himself and boy did he ever sell himself."

And coach Smith will put that team with any other at the 'U'.

"I would say so," said Smith, who lead that ferocious 89 defense with six interceptions. "I mean it's hard to say because every team was at their different levels but when you look at the rosters and the players we had on that team, it was just as talented as 2001 and the teams before us that were rated very high too."

Perhaps that team isn't given it's credit because of it's 24-10 loss to Florida St. at Doak Campbell with freshman Gino Toretta under center in place of an injured Craig Erickson. It would put the Canes behind the eight-ball in terms of the national title hunt heading into late November but their Thanksgiving weekend showdown with Notre Dame a few weeks later would give Miami a chance not only to get back into the hunt, but more importantly redemption and retribution.

It was reported that Johnson's last words to his team before leaving for Dallas were: 'Beat Notre Dame' The year before the Irish had downed the Hurricanes 31-30 in South Bend that was marred by a pre-game tunnel fight and a controversial fumble call that went against Miami. The 89 showdown was one of the most widely anticipated and talked about games in decades. It was college footballs version of Ali-Frazier.

"Oh, most definitely," agreed Smith. You can just hear the enthusiasm in his voice as he reflects back on this night. "I mean we walked into that stadium we felt like the year before we got robbed, we should've won, we should've been playing in the national title game. It was a 31-30 loss, Cleveland Gary put the ball over the endzone and the ball came out and we could clearly see it was a touchdown, they said no. And if it wasn't, we should've received the ball because we recovered it."

The Irish, armed with a 22 game winning streak, would be walking into one of the most raucous crowds in Orange Bowl history.

"When we came out for warm-ups before that game, that Orange Bowl was shaking, rocking and we just felt like there's no way we were going to lose this game because we had so much support, so many people there for us to play against them and it was electrifying. It was the most electrifying stadium I had ever been in that night."

On that night in front of a nationally televised audience watching on CBS, Smith would make the most memorable play of his Hurricane career. With Miami leading 3-0 in the first quarter, Tony Rice would drop back and throw a deep post pattern to a streaking Raghib Ismail. But an alert Smith would have over the top coverage of 'the Rocket' and pick off Rice's errant throw. On the ensuing drive, Craig Erickson would hit a streaking Dale Dawkins and the Canes would take a 10-0 lead. Smith would be knocked out of the game later with a season ending knee surgery but he played a key role in Miami's 27-10 revenge win over Notre Dame.

"I would say (it was my biggest play) because of the significance of the game," Smith says. And it's almost a play he never got to make. "A play or two before I made that play I can recall I was in the huddle, I was thinking about coming out of the game."

Smith had been involved in tackling Ricky Watters, when the hard-hitting Hurlie Brown would come over and crush his hand on Watters', causing some pain and swelling.

"What's wrong," asked Russell Maryland.

"I smashed my hand," answered Smith in the huddle.

"I was shaking my hand, I wanted to go into the training room but Russell said,' No, we can't have you go out, man. It's a big series, we need you in this, shake it off' And so I stayed in and like two plays later I got the big interception and Russell said, 'See that's what I'm talkin' bout, that's why we need to stay in!!!'

"And those are the types of things there when you hear your teammates telling you, 'We need you, suck it up, we can't afford you to be out' And I stayed in and I ended up making one of the biggest plays in that game that got us really going."

The following season- Smith's senior campaign- two early season losses to BYU and Notre Dame would end the national title dreams of the Canes. But the Canes and Smith would go out with a bang against the Texas Longhorns in the 1991 Cotton Bowl in Dallas, Texas.

The resurgent Longhorns led by coach David McWilliams had come into the game with a 10-1 record and ranked third in the country. This game was supposed to be the renaissance of the fabled Texas program that had faltered from it's glory days under Darrel Royal. Prior to the contest the Canes were unusually subdued, there would be no fatigue clad players coming off the team plane or steak-fry walkouts. All the pre-game woofing would come from Texas, most notably Stan Thomas and Stanley 'the Sheriff' Richard. And to put it simply, they pissed off the Canes.

"Oh, did they ever," said Smith, laughing at the thought. "We were going to the bowl festivities, we had our black Hurricane jackets and we were going to the functions, we had practiced real hard during the day and then at night the bowl festivities we had fun. We danced, we had fun like any other regular kids would do. But they were sitting around watching us being boring, not enjoying themselves, still being football focused.

"So the next day they came out in the paper saying how we act like thugs, how we were partying, dancing and stuff, they're not here to play a football game. It really bothered us and once they said that, we wanted to go back into the papers and say something but coach told us that if we say anything in the paper we wont play. So we kinda held back in the papers."

Call it the calm before the storm.

Earlier in the season in a 52-24 blowout of Cal, Miami had done everything short of a 'Soul Train Line' The schools administration was so taken aback by what they saw, the team was put on university orders to tone down it's act. For the rest of the 1990 season the Canes were on their best behavior. Come time for kickoff against Texas- they went buck-wild and then some.

"When we came out and saw them coming out of the tunnel at it was warm," Smith remembered. "It was cold all the time we were there in Dallas and we thought it was going to be cold for that game but it was Miami weather- we went off. They held us back, we came out ready to go. Robert Bailey made the big hit on the kickoff and that just fired us up even more."

From there, you'd see Hurricanes doing 'the Bunny Hop', taunting the Texas fans with their own upside down version of 'Hook'em Horns', Randall Hill's jaunt up the Cotton Bowl tunnel and a mid-field victory dance. Yeah, it was Hurricane football and Thomas and Richard didn't have much to say after the Longhorns were on the wrong side of a 46-3 thrashing.

This game, which featured over 200 yards in penalties for the Hurricanes, would be the impetus for the NCAA to institute anti-taunting and celebration rules.

Otherwise known as 'the Miami Rule'.

But it was still a great way to go out for the departing seniors like Smith.

"We were clicking on all cylinders that day. I don't know, if we played against an NFL team, the way we were playing, we may have beaten some of the weaker teams. I maybe exaggerating but that's the way we felt," stated Smith, of his last game in the orange and green. "We felt so powerful every pay, every run, we had speed everywhere across the board from the O-line to the D-line, to the receivers to the backs. Everyone was just playing on all cylinders that day."

* In part II with Smith, Roland faces the real world and prepared for life after his playing days are over. He would end up in a familiar place.

(Steve Kim, is a free-lance writer and also an owner of Kim is an avid Hurricane fan and has been logging on to for the past few years. For questions or comments Steve can be reached at

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