Bubba McDowell, the Fifth Beatle - Part 2

Bubba McDowell is a lot like Stuart Sutcliffe. No, he didn't die young or anything like that, but in what was a highly distinguished secondary at the University of Miami in the late 80's, he was a forgotten man. Sutcliffe, is forever known as 'the Fifth Beatle' who never got the acclaim of his former bandmates John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr, who went onto superstardom without him.

Bubba McDowell would play his high school football in Merritt Island, making all state, All-Space Coast and all-county as a running back in coach Gerald Odom's wishbone offense.

Soon, he made the decision on where to spend the next few years of his life. The Hurricanes would be making their pitch with coaches Don Soldinger and Tom Olivadotti after his senior year in 1983.

"Don Soldinger was actually coming to my basketball games, he was at damn near every basketball game at the end of the football season," recalls McDowell, of the current running back coach for the University of Miami. "Honestly, my whole high school coaching staff, they were trying to get me and my friend at the time, Eric Ham, who was a running back (to go to Florida), we used to always say, 'Hey, we're gonna go together, wherever it may be' and we were at Florida, to be honest."

But the tides can change quickly in the game of recruiting.

"We were there and all of sudden, the Florida recruiter stopped calling for a week, week and a half," says McDowell. "In the mean time, Soldinger was at every one of my basketball games. We were like,' Hey, those guys are serious, they want us' And sure enough, we didn't hear anything from Florida, so we didn't know what was going on and we didn't even think about the fact they were about to go on probation that year. We said, 'You know what? Let's go to Miami.'"

While the Gators would come under NCAA sanctions, McDowell would join a burgeoning dynasty in Coral Gables. For McDowell, the Gator diss, was a blessing.

"Exactly, God had a plan for me all along," he agreed. "It wasn't meant for me to go there and I think that's why, had he been calling me, who knows where I could be at this time? Soldinger and Olivadotti, they used to tell me, 'Hey, you got a better chance of getting looked at or being a pro prospect at the University of Miami, then you would at Florida.'"

He almost never made to Miami.

"I actually thought they were going to take my scholarship, I was foolish in playing basketball after I signed and ended up tearing up my knee," McDowell recalls. "I was playing basketball and it was a freak accident, I was just standing by the goal and one of my high school buddies hit my knee and tore my anterior cruciate. By the grace of God, they took me in anyway, brought me in, fixed it up, cleaned it out and got red-shirted that year."

But just as he was getting settled in on campus, like many newcomers, he wanted out. What worried him was a stacked depth chart that might keep him on the sidelines for the next few years.

"I came off the redshirt year, I honestly thought I could've been playing more and actually decided to transfer to Florida," he admitted. "And my high school teacher, Joanne Bentti, talked me out of it, basically telling me, 'Bubba, the grass is not always greener on the other side. Why don't you just stay there and stick it out?'"

And while McDowell had problems playing in a deep Hurricane secondary, he found his niche as a special team's demon. By the time he graduated, he had earned the reputation as of the programs great punt blockers, snuffing out five in 1986.

"Fortunately, I started producing on the special teams so that made things a whole lot better for me there," McDowell says. "And I said,' this is where I'm going to stay, if I had to make in the pro's as a special teams player, that's what I'll do.'"

While he signed on with Howard Schnellenberger, he would never actually play for him as Schnellenberger would leave UM just months after leading the 'Canes to it's first national championship. McDowell, would instead play for a relatively unknown coach from Oklahoma St. named Jimmy Johnson.

And what was that like?

"Scary," said McDowell, with a laugh. "Oh, yeah, it's scary, because I remember one day vividly, it was in 1985, and we were killing the offense, man, Jimmy stopped practice and he said, 'Listen, you guys may think that you're on a four-year scholarship. As long as I'm here, if I ever see anything like that happen again, I just want you to know, your scholarships are one-year renewable.'

"And that scared a lot of people. He made an example out of a lot of people, probably about 10, 15, guys that could've gone to the next level that just didn't make it."

And under Johnson, while some accused the Canes of lacking class on the field, off of it, they went to it.

"We had no choice," insisted McDowell. "I mean Jimmy made it very clear that if you didn't go, you aren't going to play. And we were being monitored and that's how a lot of the guys were made examples of. Because they thought they could beat the system, nah, he had people in there monitoring. We didn't know that till a lot of those guys got taken out and sure enough, people were going to class."

It bothers McDowell, who graduated from the university with a degree in business management, that the perception is that he and his teammates did not fulfill their academic duties.

"It does bother me," he admits. "We got our degrees, but that's what people perceived us as and we used to say, 'Let 'em talk.'"

McDowell played in the era of the 'Miami Vice' Canes that terrorized college football with their swashbuckling manner and trademark swagger.

"It was fun, it was wild, it really was," he says, while laughing at the memories of the 80's Canes. "Overall, it was fun and the thing is you never knew what to expect because some things got totally out of control and just having fun, man, during the course of a those years, you didn't know what to expect."

During his four season on the field at UM from 1985-87, McDowell would lose just four games, while winning 44. Winning the national title in 1987 and finishing second in both 1985 and 1988. During his run at Miami he totaled 181 tackles, four interceptions, 18 pass break-ups and two fumble recoveries.

After his last game, a 23-3 win over the Nebraska Cornhuskers in the 1989 Orange Bowl, McDowell would move onto the next level. He would be drafted in the third round of the NFL draft by the Houston Oilers as the 77th overall pick.

The Jerry Glanville-led Oilers were consistent winners, but not to the level that McDowell was accustomed to.

"The only part that I truly struggled with is the fact I was from such a winning program, I really wasn't used to losing," he says. "I just wasn't used to losing as many games as I did when I got to the Oilers. It took a little adjustment to get used to it, although we did make the playoffs, I just was not used to losing like that."

McDowell was a highly respected player throughout his NFL career, the bulk of which was spent with Houston. But like many other athletes, he found it tough to walk away.

"I had withdrawals so bad I wouldn't even watch football for a year-and-a-half," says McDowell of his post-football blues. To take up some of his time he took up golf. But football is in his blood, and now McDowell, who lives in Houston with his wife and two sons, is in his second year as the assistant secondary coach at Texas Southern University.

"I like it," he says of his new career. "I like to teach, I really do. I hope and pray that it can take me far but I know how the coaching business is."

But in his heart, no matter where he is, McDowell will always be a Hurricane. To this day, he still keeps in touch with his former teammates like Alonzo Highsmith and Melvin Bratton. To McDowell, it's the closeness of the program that separates from the others.

"No, doubt, I tell people today and I try and instill it to my kids now at Texas-Southern. And I can honestly say I have not seen a university, an alumni of players so closely knit to their former team. We have everybody and that's why I'm so glad that Larry Coker is trying to do something to bring all those guys back for the spring game."

A few weeks ago, over 200 former players gathered for a weekend reunion.

"I don't care where you go, those guys will be there, especially at home. I don't think anybody ever supports the home team as much as our former players do. And that's why I think we've been so successful throughout the years."

(Steve Kim is an avid Hurricane fan who has been logging onto Canestime.com since 1998. For any questions or comments, he can be reached at k9kim@yahoo.com)

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