Comeback Kid - Part I

He didn't have the swagger of a Jim Kelly, the precociousness of a Bernie Kosar, the God-given physical tools of a Vinny Testaverde or a Heisman Trophy like Gino Torretta, but by the time he left the University of Miami, Steve Walsh may have been the greatest signal caller ever to play at the University of Miami.

He would leave Miami after the 1988 campaign with a career record of 23-1 as a starter, leading the Hurricanes to a national championship in 1987 and a number two ranking in '88. To this day his name is littered throughout the Miami record book for his various feats under center.

But the most indelible mark he may have left was his legacy of comebacks and the cool he displayed under fire. Nothing ever fazed or rattled Walsh when the chips were down. He was the comeback kid. In fact, he even came from behind in the recruiting process to end up in Coral Gables.

Walsh, a native of St. Paul, Minnesota, was putting up big numbers at Cretin High in 1984, throwing for 2,000 yards and 25 touchdowns his senior year and was the Minnesota/St.Paul Metro Player of the Year along with being a member of the National Honor Society. But he still wasn't being recruited by any of the traditional college football powerhouses. Early on, only schools like Northwestern and Iowa St. had shown any interest in the lanky right-hander. But they say that in life, that's it not what you know, but who you know. Luckily for Walsh, he had a Miami connection on his high school staff.

"The key to all this, to me getting to Miami was Marc Trestman," explained Walsh of UM's former quarterback coach." One of my high school assistant coaches played college football with Marc. I was a star in Minnesota throwing the football but I wasn't getting recruited by Minnesota, so a lot of the other Big 10 schools shied away.

"I was putting up big numbers throwing the football but I wasn't really getting recruited. I was getting letters but no one was really coming in visiting. And so my high school coached called Marc Trestman and said, 'Hey, I really think you should really come up and look at this kid.' Marc came up and watched one of my playoff games and then he went back to Miami and told Jimmy (Johnson), 'We need to recruit this guy.'

"Marc ended up leaving at the end of that year to go coach for the Vikings and he also told Howard Schnellenberger who was at Louisville to go up and take a look at me."

And for him, UM was an easy choice.

"Oh, absolutely, I was actually supposed to go visit Northwestern the same weekend as Miami and Dennis Green, who was the coach at the time, told me through the recruiter that I needed to bring film because he wasn't sure if he was going to offer me a scholarship," said Walsh, who would later gain a level revenge on Green a decade later, when he would quarterback the Chicago Bears to an upset win over Minnesota in the 1994 playoffs, in the Metrodome, no less." When we beat them in the playoffs a few years after that it was a nice little twist of the knife in his back."

So Miami, had themselves an unknown and lightly regarded quarterback from an area more known for producing hockey players than quarterbacks. Not exactly the pedigree needed for entrance into 'QB U.'

"The quarterback machine wasn't really rolling," Walsh points out. "Jim Kelly, went through college as a good, maybe even great college quarterback but didn't put up the numbers that some of the preceding quarterbacks did at Miami. So basically it was Jim who was starting to make his mark in USFL, who was probably was just getting ready to go over to the NFL, you're talking 1984. Bernie, was really doing well as a freshman quarterback, obviously winning the national championship and had a great sophomore year and that was it.

"They thought they had a pretty good quarterback in Vinny, ultimately they did but he hadn't proven himself to anybody. So they had put out two quarterbacks in a row but once Vinny came out, then all of sudden, 'Who's the next quarterback at Miami?' and then I went through there, Craig (Erickson) and Gino (Torretta), so on and so forth.

"But the reputation was there as a team that knew how to throw the football but they hadn't necessarily set the tone for ‘Quarterback U.'

After red-shirting the 85 season and serving as a backup on the dynamic 86 squad, Walsh would then battle to take the place of Testaverde for the upcoming '87 season. His main competitors would be Greg Jones and the heavily recruited Bill Turkowski - and it wasn't much of a competition. Walsh quickly established himself as the man throughout spring practice and then into fall camp.

"I felt pretty confident," said Walsh of the race to replace Miami's first Heisman Trophy winner." Bill was a good kid; he struggled with some basic things. Greg had a great arm but didn't know the offense as well as I did. And I learned a lot from Vinny and the biggest lesson I learned is that you didn't have to do it all. You had great athletes around you, just use the offense, move the chains and somebody's going to make a big play running with the football after they catch it."

Walsh would be in charge of getting Miami back to the mountain top after coming excruciatingly close in the two previous years with Testaverde leading the way. It was thought that Walsh was a steep downgrade from the prototypical Testaverde.

Terms like, 'heady', 'smart', 'makes good decisions' and 'he won't make the huge mistake' were used often when describing the St. Paul native. In other words, he was no Vinny.

"People tried to compare you with the guy that started before me. Vinny, was bigger than I was, stronger, he was faster, he had a better arm," Walsh admitted. "So what else is there to say? You just can't say that, 'the kid is a bum, good luck Miami.' So they came up with other adjectives, that, ‘Hey, he knows the offense, he's smart, he makes good decision, gets rid of the football' blah, blah, blah.

"On a stat sheet there was no way I could compare to Vinny as far as physical attributes," Walsh said. But he did bring something else to the table. While Testaverde may have been a flame throwing Nolan Ryan, then Walsh was a pin-point and accurate Greg Maddux, who won with more finesse and control. "What I brought to the team was a little bit of a calm demeanor amidst a huddle of a lot of personalities- to say the least," he said with a laugh. "Somebody that knew the offense inside and out. I knew exactly how I could highlight and exploit a defense with the talent that I had, understand reading defenses from listening and watching Vinny, listening to Gary Stevens, our offensive coordinator, learning from him. I knew exactly what the defense was trying to do to us and I knew how to take advantage of that."

And despite the heavy losses to the NFL, Walsh still had weapons like Michael Irvin, Brian Blades, Brett Perriman, Warren Williams and Mel Bratton to work with in '87. All he had to do was to make sure he got the football into their hands.

"I was not only able to use a great offense but great offensive talent," Walsh said. "And that's where I was able to be a great success at Miami."

Miami would begin the '87 campaigns with two lopsided wins over ranked opponents on national TV. Against the hated Florida Gators, Walsh would get off on the right foot by completing 17 of 27 passes for 234 yards and a touchdown to Brian Blades, with only one interception to lead the Canes to a 31-4 trouncing of the Gators. Then in Johnson's homecoming to Arkansas, Walsh would have another efficient performance, finding the target on 20 of 28 passes for 215 yards and a touchdown in Miami's 51-7 blowout of the Razorbacks in Little Rock.

It was coming easily to Walsh and the Canes. Too easily, it seemed. But they would soon get their first real test when they traveled to Tallahassee to take on Florida St. It was a 'Sunshine State' battle between the number three and four ranked teams in the country.

And behind the rampaging running of Sammie Smith and a swarming defense led by one Deion 'Prime Time' Sanders the Noles would dominate the Canes for much of the game and build a 19-3 lead, late into the third quarter. With Walsh struggling at that point, CBS commentator, Pat Haden would say, "You'd have to wonder if Jimmy Johnson will look to his freshman Craig Erickson, the highly regarded freshman to play quarterback."

And as Miami took the ball over with 2:45 to go in the third, the story is the Johnson did have Erickson warming up in the bullpen.

"There might have been (a change)," Walsh admits. "Craig came in as a highly recruited freshman out of West Palm Beach and had an outstanding fall camp. He really came in and did a lot of good things. I think Jimmy was thinking about it more as a spark to the offense type of deal. I don't doubt I would've been in there had he taken me out a series later or the rest of the year."

But Walsh felt as though he had put a stranglehold on the quarterback job against Arkansas with the command of the offense he showed on a particular drive early in that game.

"The first play from the line of scrimmage was an audible; I threw to Michael Irvin for a gain of ten. The second play was an audible I threw to Michael again for a gain of 35 down the middle. The next play was an audible where I handed it off to Warren Williams and we scored. It was like three plays, three audibles and a touchdown and everybody - at least on the offensive side of the ball- said, ‘Wow, this kid can handle this' so that was my mark."

But the Canes weren't doing much on offense this day against the Noles. "We weren't running the ball, we weren't throwing the ball very well and I'm sure that thought entered into Jimmy's mind," said Walsh, looking back.

The Hurricanes would have their backs to the wall in front of a sellout crowd at Doak Campbell Stadium; it was there that the Walsh legend began.

He would begin the drive with an 11-yard out to Brian Blades, then five plays later he would hit Bratton coming out of the backfield down the seam for a 49-yard touchdown to complete a 76 yard, six play drive. And when Walsh would hit Blades on a fade pattern on the two-point conversion attempt, suddenly, Miami was only down 19-11. That drive seemed to loosen up a Miami offense that was being stifled all day.

"I think so," agreed Walsh, "because it was something me and Melvin just made an adjustment on at the line of scrimmage, it wasn't a full blown audible. But I saw what they were doing, I just kinda turned back to him and gave him a little hand signal and so when something like that happens it gets you back in the game like, ‘Hey, I know what's going on, I know how to react to what they were doing' and all of sudden, boom, we're only down eight after the two-point conversion."

And what was a flat and listless Miami team, came to life emotionally.

"The defense was starting to feed off of that – and that's the one thing I loved about that team- the offense and defense really fed off of one another and we had lot of interplay there," explained Walsh. "Getting each other fired up and that's the way I really felt you had to play football and every team I went and played for, I tried to create that same attitude, that you've got to encourage each other, you gotta be out there and beg them to stop them and give you a chance and it worked for the most part."

When FSU would take over the ball their drive into Miami territory would be halted by a Danny Stubbs interception of a Danny McManus screen pass. Miami would take over on the Noles 40. Five plays later, Miami would be facing 3rd down and eight from the 26. With a blitz staring him in the face, Walsh would find Michael Irvin down the middle of the field for a touchdown. And when Walsh would hit Williams for the two-point conversion, suddenly and shockingly, the game was tied at 19.

But Miami's usually sound defense had problems corralling the Noles. The Seminoles would drive deep into Canes territory on the next drive only to miss a chip shot field goal attempt- one of several kicking gaffes on the day for Bobby Bowden's team. Miami would take over and then punt the ball away. FSU would take over and quickly get the ball upfield to Miami's 18 yard line behind the strong running of Smith. But with less than four minutes remaining in regulation, McManus would have problems with the center exchange and Bennie Blades would quickly pounce on the loose football. Miami had dodged another bullet and was handed another chance at somehow winning this ballgame.

After a 13 yard run by Williams to start the final drive, Miami would be looking at 3rd and seven on FSU's 27 yard line. And from there, would be one of the most memorable and historic plays in Hurricane history.

"They were in a cover-two and we had a particular route on and I knew what I wanted to do," Walsh recalled of his hook-up with 'the Playmaker.' "I knew I was going to work that corner opposite Deion, it was the short side of the field and I knew I could work the safety with my eyes. So when I called it, Michael pretty much knew what I was thinking, so he was able to get by the corner that was up kind of in press coverage and he knew that I was going to fit it in the little 'side pocket' as we call it in cover-two.

"So on the snap, I just kinda looked off the safety real quick, I knew Michael would get past that corner and I was going to get it in as quick as I could on the sideline and let him see if he could out-run the safety."

Which he did, Irvin would out-run both Dedrick Dodge and Martin Mayhew down the sideline and Miami would take a 26-19 lead. It was an improbable, if not impossible comeback. "WAY TO BRING US BACK, MAN!" said alum Alonzo Highsmith, who was on the sideline because of the NFL strike, to Walsh. And when Bubba McDowell batted down a two-point attempt intended for Pat Carter, Miami had secured a pulsating 26-25 victory over their in-state rival. Despite being outnumbered in yards, (426 to 302) in first downs (25 to 11) and time of possession (40:32 to 19:28) they had found a way to ‘press on.'

It was at this point, the Steve Walsh bandwagon would fill up quickly and it was an eye-opener for 'Cool Hand' Walsh.

"No question," he states emphatically. "I mean there was a general consensus after that game, walking onto that bus, I mean you talk about a gratifying experience, walking on. And I think I was crying in the lockeroom after the game, like, 'Wow' because being a kid from Minnesota, you don't really understand Miami-Florida, Miami-Florida St., when you first get there and it was just all the emotion that you could feel in the stands and the way the game ended.

"It was like, ‘Wow, this is pretty cool.' The emotion just flooded out of me a little bit. But walking on that bus and looking at the coaches faces and they're all just kind of shaking their heads in amazement that we were able to hold it together and comeback."

Walsh would then proceed to lead the Canes to big wins over Notre Dame and South Carolina to complete an 11-0 regular season. He would then throw two touchdowns against the Oklahoma Sooners in the Orange Bowl Classic in Miami's 20-14 win that clinched Miami's second national title.

Walsh had done it; he had led Miami to a national title. But for Walsh, even without 'the Bomb Squad' and 'Bennie and the Jets' on the other side of the ball, the best was yet to come the following year.

The '88 season was thought to be a rebuilding year for Miami with another wave of heavy losses for the Canes to the NFL, but expectations were quickly heightened when behind Walsh's 228 yards passing and two touchdowns, Miami would spank pre-season number one Florida St, 31-0 in front of a national audience on CBS in the season opener. The secret was out; Miami would be players once again in the national title hunt. After their thrashing of the Noles, Miami would be ranked number one.

But much like the year before, after a quick start, Miami would be faced with adversity on the road. They would go into the famed 'Big House' of Michigan, where they had been tripped up as the top ranked team in 1984. And as Yogi Berra once said, 'It was deja vu, all over again' as Walsh was suffering through one of the most frustrating days of his career. His passes were on the mark but he was plagued by numerous drops and passes to Dale Dawkins and Cleveland Gary would eventually be dropped, deflected and picked off by Wolverine defenders on back-to-back possessions in the third quarter and Michigan would gain the momentum of a hard fought contest.

With the score 23-14 Michigan, Wolverines back-up quarterback Demetrius Brown would hit Chris Calloway on a corner post for a 16 yard touchdown to give Michigan a 30-14 lead with about ten minutes to play.

"The water is getting veeeeery deep for the Miami Hurricanes," said ABC's legendary play-by-play voice Keith Jackson, at the time. And things wouldn't get any better when Miami would go three and out in their next possession. The Canes looked like they were drowning in an abyss of maize-and-blue. The Hurricanes defense would hold the Wolverines on the next drive and Miami would take over on their own 20 with 7:16 to play.

Miami would go to their two-minute offense. It was time for the Walsh magic once again.

"It's cliche, but really I got in the huddle and I looked around and there was not a lot of familiar faces from that previous year," recalled Walsh. "But I said, 'Hey, we've been here before' and everybody knew what I was talking about and a couple of lineman that were there just nodded their heads and said, ‘Let's go' and I told them what we were going to do and we went into a hurry-up offense."

Walsh would find Dawkins on a deep square in for 23 yards. After two incompletions, he would then hit Andre Brown for 13 yards and a first down at the Michigan 44. It was at this time that Mike Adamle, the sideline reporter for ABC Sports chimed in with this report: "One of the Miami defensive coordinators was on the sideline trying to exhort his troops, saying, 'We need some key turnovers next time' but the sparkle wasn't in the players eyes and Michigan has taken it way. A superbly conditioned Miami team, they looked fatigued."

Mike, there's a reason why the Hurricanes put up four fingers at the beginning of every fourth quarter.

Walsh would then hit Rob Chudzinski for 20 yards to the Michigan 24 and then find 'Chud' three plays later for seven yards for another first down and two plays later again on a square out for a seven yard touchdown with 5:23 to play. Dawkins would haul in a Walsh pass for the two-pointer and Miami was down only 30-22.

On the next Michigan offensive series, they would go three and out with the help of a controversial incomplete ruling on a Greg McMurtry catch on the Miami sideline, that coach Johnson seemed to more than influence with his bobbling gesture as one official was about to rule it a first down catch. Michigan would be forced to punt and Miami would take over at their own 43 with 3:45 remaining.

Three plays into the drive the Canes would be looking at a 4th and two near midfield. Walsh would take his drop and initially find no open receivers, but he would hang back long enough to find a crossing Gary, who with the help of a devastating block down field by Dawkins, would be sprung for a 48 yard touchdown jaunt. Miami had closed the gap to 30-28, the two-point conversion would fail but Miami was still far from dead.

On the ensuing onside kick from Carlos Huerta, Bobby Harden would make an incredible play by tipping the ball to himself and coming through a convergence of players to recover the ball. Miami was in business at the Michigan 47. And after a 14-yard pass to Andre Brown and a 17 yard run from Gary on a draw, Miami was in position to pull of a miraculous comeback. But it would have to come off the foot of a former walk-on, redshirt freshman from Columbus High School named Carlos Huerta.

"That's the amazing thing about that game, here's a walk-on freshman going out in front of 106,000, you know, it's a 30 yard field goal and the coaches are like, ‘What hash do you want it on?' And Carlos is like, ‘I don't care, it's a 30 yard field goal' and just strikes it down the middle and walks off and hey, we won it!"

It was a comeback that may have even trumped the one that took place the previous year against Florida St. and left even grizzled, veteran observers in awe.

"That was another one of those games walking on the bus and Joe Brodsky, our running back coach, I remember stopped me as I'm walking back to my seat and he's like, ‘Steve, I don't know how you do it, but just keep doing it.'"

A few weeks later in South Bend, Walsh nearly pulled off his wizardry once again. In the face of a rabid Irish crowd and a fired up Notre Dame squad, the Hurricanes overcome a slew to turnovers and one horrific call to trail the 'Fighting Irish'31-30 in the last stages of their historic confrontation. Miami had come into the game ranked number one and a tie could have secured their ranking but these were the Canes, they played to win, they were going for two - which was ultimately unsuccessful. Miami would lose by a single point that day.

"It never fazed my mind," Walsh said of that decision. "When we scored when I hit Andre Brown for that touchdown, it was, ‘All right, which hash are we putting it on for the two-point conversion?' There was never a doubt, now as you sit back and learn from history, hey, a tie would've put us back in the Fiesta Bowl against Notre Dame, who knows what happens then?

"But there was never a doubt; we weren't going to play for a tie. In the age of the BCS there's other things you've got to factor in and maybe things are different nowadays but no, there was never a doubt we were going for the two-point conversion."

And with Miami's recent history, they still believed they were somehow, someway, going to pull it out.

"Even after we missed to two-point conversion, my thought is on the sideline, ‘Ok, we're going to get the onside kick,' that's just the way I thought. There was never a doubt that we weren't going to get that on-side kick."

In his only loss as the starting quarterback for Miami, Walsh would complete 31 of 50 for 424 yards and four touchdowns. It was one of the best performances ever for a visiting quarterback at South Bend.

It was clear that on a team with an out-going personality and zany antics, Walsh was the calm in the eye of the Hurricanes. Where there was chaos, Walsh was there to keep his team together. It wasn't anything that was mandated by the coaches but just his nature.

"That was just the way I was," he explained. "That's the way I am, still. A lot of things can go crazy in the business world and I'm just pretty relaxed about it, it's not going to stress me out too much. But Jimmy came to the point where he realized my attributes but he also realized that the team played better on emotion and it didn't matter the way I played.

"But he knew that Michael Irvin, Bennie Blades and Greg Mark, these guys had to play with emotion, Danny Stubbs, he had to play with emotion and so he kind of gave them a little more slack but he never approached me because he never had to. He knew the way I was going to react, that I was going to keep my poise out there. A lot of times he stressed that to the team but he knew that they had to play with emotion to be successful, to play up to their capabilities they had to play with emotion."

On a team full of braggadocio and mercurial personalities, Walsh's demeanor differed from many of his teammates. It was a period where the Hurricanes were looked on as 'Miami's Vice' who reveled in the, ‘Us Against the World' mentality. The perception of the program was not always positive.

"I think through 86, there was a lot of Indians running around," he says laughing, looking back at that era. "I think there was a lot of people that thought they were the chiefs and they were just Indians and they were causing problems for the program. And you had people running around in a lot of different directions and no kind of general path or controlled path so to speak and then Jimmy finally came in in the spring of 87 and said, ‘Hey, listen, I don't care if we win another football game, we're not going through that B.S. we went through again.'

"And he kind of laid the groundwork and everybody got the message loud and clear. And was there an incident or two? Absolutely, I mean you're talking about college age kids and they're going to make bad decisions every once in awhile. But we were able to keep it under our hats, so to speak, not necessarily have it blow up in the media and we kind of policed ourselves to an extent."

Walsh would ultimately lead Miami to an 11-1 season, finishing just behind the eventual national champions Notre Dame. Leading a Hurricane squad that didn't possess the marquee names of years past, he would guide the Canes to wins over FSU, Michigan, LSU, Arkansas and Nebraska, in what was one of the nations toughest gauntlets.

Walsh would be named A.P. first team All-American, finish fourth in the Heisman Trophy balloting, the Football News College Player of the Year and the runner-up for the Davey O'Brien Award. After throwing for 277 yards and two touchdowns to lead the Canes to an easy 23-3 over the 'Huskers in the Orange Bowl, it looked like Walsh and the Canes were poised for another championship run in '89.

It turned out to be the last game he ever played for the University of Miami.

* In Part II, Walsh talks about why he left Miami for the NFL, his career as a professional, life in the business world, his family and why he's not coaching at the 'U'.

(Steve Kim is an avid fan of the Hurricanes, who has been visiting Grassy.com since the 1998 season. Kim is owner of his own website, MaxBoxing.com. For any questions or comments, you can email him at k9kim@yahoo.com)

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