1989: Simply The Best

Another "undiscovered" coach makes his mark, wins a championship, becomes a legend and takes his talents elsewhere. Welcome to University of Miami Football. Of course the follow up to Jimmy Johnson's 1988 departure was the hiring of unknown Dennis Erickson – who quickly made his mark in Miami history guiding the Canes to a National Championship his first year as head honcho.

In typical South Florida fashion, Erickson wasn't the fan favorite. The safe bet was coordinator Gary Stevens earning a long awaited promotion. Instead the Washington State head coach was now "the man" at one of most recognized, scrutinized and highly publicized universities in the nation.

Bienvenidos a Miami, Senor Erickson. Translation – "welcome to hell on earth and prepare for a short stay if you don't hit the ground running."

Fresh from the west coast with one-back offense in hand, Erickson led the preseason No. 3 Hurricanes into Madison for a date with the Wisconsin Badgers. Actually, two Ericksons led the Canes into the season opener of 1989.

Gone was UM favorite and legendary Cane QB Steve Walsh. Enter Craig Erickson – next in line of a stable of legendary Miami gunslingers. Against the Badgers, No. 7 threw for more yards in a debut than any Cane quarterback to date. The 51-3 thrashing of Wisconsin and the following week's 31-3 pounding of Cal had the Canes outscoring the opposition 82-6 with over 900 yards of total offense to go with the 2-0 record.

While Coach Erickson may have tinkered with the offense, he knew not to look a gift horse in the mouth in regards to UM's legendary defense. The mantra was still complete and utter domination of opponents. While Bernard "Tiger" Clark remained the heart and soul, Maurice Crum led the team in tackles and the unit as a whole, led the nation in scoring defense and total defense.

Sporting a 3-0 record after a 38-7 beating of Missouri, the Canes took their aerial assault to East Lansing for a meeting with Michigan State. In what should've been a routine win over a Big Ten team, the Canes lost Craig Erickson to injury, just as he was hitting his stride. Unknown freshman Gino Torretta stepped in with the poise of a veteran and with the help of Carlos Huerta's 45- and 52-yard field goals, the Canes escaped with a 26-20 win.

Torretta was called upon for the following three games and led the Canes to blowout wins over Cincinnati and San Jose State before leading Miami into a four-interception day at Florida State. The result was a 24-10 loss and the end of a 13-game Miami win streak. The good news – a healthy Craig Erickson would return the following week against East Carolina and after the 40-10, the 7-1 Canes were mentally back in the title hunt.

While both Ericksons were having incredible inaugural years, none would've been possible without the game breakers Miami had on offense.

Wesley Carroll was the Canes leading receiver and punt returner until injury forced him to the sidelines. With Miami's "we don't rebuild – we reload" mentality, that just meant someone else would have to take their game to the next level. Dale Dawkins and Randall "Thrill" Hill did just that. Dawkins became the go-to guy with 54 receptions, 7 touchdowns and over 800 receiving yards in 1989. Hill, the Canes fastest receiver, averaged over 15 yards per catch and provided the spark and personality the team needed at times. All the while, Rob Chudzinski remained the reliable, big time tight end Miami needed to help the short game and open up the running attack.

And what a running attack it was.

Fear not fans of the two-back offense, Erickson's one-back approach got the job done and then some. Leonard Conley – pound for pound the toughest player on this Miami team – returned for his junior season and was the Canes' leading rusher with 529 yards. Back up Stephen McGuire found the end zone more than any other UM back as he scored 10 times in the 1989 campaign while Alex Johnson enjoyed success in his third string role. In total, the Miami offense average 454 yards in the air and on the ground.

With its No. 7 ranking, the Canes cut through Pittsburgh and San Diego State – merely appetizers for the main course they would endure on November 25th when defending National Champions and current No. 1 Notre Dame would travel south for another memorable evening at the Orange Bowl.

Holding a 6-0 record against top ranked teams in the 1980's, Miami didn't flinch when Lou Holtz brought his crew to town. In fact, the Canes welcomed the challenge in front of a national television audience. Still stinging from the two-point conversion in South Bend the previous year that kept Miami from a championship of their own, it was time to make the Irish pay for a year's worth of bragging rights.

The highly touted ND running game was stonewalled in the first quarter. Miami would have no part of it and forced the Irish to punt three times. On the other side of the ball, the Hurricane offense blew the playbooks wide open as Craig Erickson found Dale Dawkins for a 55-yard touchdown and a 7-0 Miami lead.

On defense it was a "Tiger" Clark interception and 48 yard return that kept the Canes in the driver's seat for the entire first half.

Late in the second quarter it was a Stephen McGuire touchdown that kept the momentum on Miami's side and the Canes' defense which kept the Tony Rice to "Rocket" Ismail duo completely in check.

Still, the game's defining moment came in the form of a 3rd and 44 completion from Erickson to Randall Hill. Throwing from the one-yard line, Erickson's pass and Thrill's catch sucked out what soul was left in the nation's No. 1 team. Miami held onto the ball for the first eight minutes of the third quarter before Erickson reconnected with Dawkins for another Miami score.

"The Notre Dame win proved that this new coaching staff could win the big game and it could play with anybody in the country," recalled head coach Dennis Erickson after the championship season.

"The game between the two maybe best programs in the country is always an outstanding rivalry – and of course this year lived up to what everybody thought it would. We played extremely well and had a great win. Probably the best win in my coaching career."

By evening's end the Canes sat atop a 27-10 score and could smile knowing that they sent the Irish packing with an 0-5 Orange Bowl record in the 80's.

Boo-hoo, Lou.

No. 2 in the nation with a 10-1 record, the Canes held half of their destiny in their hands as the New Year approached. While Miami was to take on No. 7 Alabama in the Sugar Bowl, a third National Championship would hinge on Notre Dame finding a way to knock off No. 1 Colorado in the 1990 Orange Bowl game.

The Canes took care of business in The Big Easy. With a balanced air and ground attack, Miami was able to exploit Alabama's out man defense. On a drive that provided a big pass to Wesley Carroll, it was a Stephen McGuire touchdown that would give Miami their first lead of the day.

‘Bama would tie the game at 7-7 but Miami quickly responded with another huge Erickson to Carroll completion – this time for a touchdown.

Miami would never look back.

While the Crimson Tide countered with a field goal, the Canes put together a nine-play drive – all on the ground – where Alex Johnson would get the short carry for another Miami touchdown.

On defense the Canes held a weary ‘Bama team to 19 yards in the third quarter while Miami's offense continued beating the Tide into submission.

In the blink of an eye an Erickson to Chudzinski touchdown was followed up by a Charles Pharms interception had the Canes in position to put the game out of reach.

By the beginning of the fourth quarter the rumor floating around the sideline had been confirmed. The Irish knocked off the No. 1 Buffaloes in the Orange Bowl. What a perfect time to break that 0-5 Orange Bowl streak. Thanks, Lou.

Knowing that 15:00 minutes were all that stood between the Canes and the school's third championship, the Miami offense went to work one final time.

Erickson delivered the short ball into the hands of receiver Randall Hill. Thrill bobbed and weaved for 42 yards, setting up the game-winning pass to tight end Randy Bethel.

The 33-25 final was a result of a last minute Alabama score – still, nothing could dampen Hurricane spirits as Miami players, fans and coaches danced around the Superdome hugging and kissing anyone wearing orange and green.

The unthinkable had occurred. A third championship was Miami's. The no-name first year coach had delivered. His players were called out and they responded. 11-1 and the nation's best team for the third time in seven years. A fitting way to close out the most amazing decade in Hurricane football history.

Click here to buy the 1989 "Simply The Best" video!

"Simply The Best" is the third installment in our four part "Remember The Times" series leading up to the 2002 Rose Bowl. Take a trip back in Hurricanes' football history and relive the amazing championship seasons of 1983, 1987, 1989 and 1991 in these editorials written by Grassy.com's Chris Bello. Also, be sure to check out our National Champs Video Set in the Online Store to get in that Rose Bowl state of mind!

Born and raised in Miami, Chris Bello now lives in San Diego, CA and works as a freelance writer. Feel free to send your comments or to contact him for potential writing assignments at cbello@san.rr.com

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