Sometimes Steve Walsh finds himself standing in front of the team photo hanging in his Kenner, La., home. It is the 1986 University of Miami football team and, frankly, it is amazing.
"I look at that picture, and I think about what kind of team we were," says Walsh, now a quarterback for the New Orleans Saints. "There were a variety of races, from a lot of different places. I was from St. Paul (Minn.) and there were six, seven kids from the Chicago area, another six, seven from New England, a few from California and a whole bunch from Florida.
"I look at that picture and wonder: What if? What if we beat Tennessee in the '86 Sugar Bowl? What if we beat Penn State in the '87 Fiesta Bowl? We could have been the greatest team in college history."
As it is, that Miami team will have to settle for being the greatest college team in professional history. Thirty-four of the 91 players on the 1987 Fiesta Bowl roster eventually were drafted by NFL teams. Twenty-eight players played in the NFL.
Yes, Miami would have won back-to-back national titles if it hadn't lost to Tennessee, 35-7, in 1986 and to Penn State, 14-10, in 1987. Still, the Hurricanes have managed to win four titles: 1983, 1987, 1989 and 1991. A victory over Alabama in the Sugar Bowl New Year's Day will give the Miami program five in 10 years, a staggering achievement.
And yet, another success is likely to be met by . . . by what?
"Apathy," says Dallas Cowboy wide receiver Michael Irvin, who was a junior on the 1986 team. "If you put all those same accolades on a Notre Dame or a Penn State, man, that's all you'd see and hear.
"But people look at Miami, and because of what they think we stand for, they get tired of seeing us win. We just don't get the respect we should."
Even when Miami won the national championship in 1983, the Hurricanes didn't exactly inspire hatred. The line of demarcation was Nov. 30, 1985. That was when Miami gave Irish Coach Gerry Faust a brutal send-off in his final game at Notre Dame. The Hurricanes beat the Irish, 58-7, at the Orange Bowl and many, including announcer Ara Parseghian--the celebrated Notre Dame coach--said Coach Jimmy Johnson was running up the score.
No one bothered to note that the reserves played the bulk of the fourth quarter. Or that a late blocked punt came with only 10 Hurricanes on the field.
And then there was a series of off-field incidents, brushes with the law that generated enormous publicity. When a dozen or so Hurricanes got off the plane at the '87 Fiesta Bowl wearing combat fatigues, the evil image was crystalized.
"It was good vs. evil, and we were evil," says Rich Dalrymple, a member of Miami's sports information department from 1984-89 and now the Cowboys' director of public relations. "Maybe that scared people a little. I think the fatigues emphasized our players' brash enthusiasm, that they weren't afraid to express themselves."
And though the image left middle America a little queasy, it was a boon to recruiting. Johnson, building on the base of Lou Saban and Howard Schnellenberger, told high school stars they could be themselves--and win a national title. And they did. Every Miami player who stayed in the program four years since 1980 has a championship ring.
Johnson's offensive and defensive schemes demanded speed. It was the secret to his 1980s teams at Oklahoma State and remains the key factor in his present success with the Dallas Cowboys.
"Speed is the single most important ingredient for a football team," Johnson says. "A lot of my kids come from inner-city backgrounds. I think that's one of the reasons Miami doesn't get a lot of respect, because your average football fan might not relate to that.
"One thing Miami does stand for, though, is excellence. They believe they are the best. And that's come from a lot of winning over the years."
Johnson, for example, was 44-4 his final four years there (1985-88), before leaving for the Cowboys. Dennis Erickson has gone Johnson one better, a 44-3 record in four seasons at Miami. More importantly, he has won all three of his bowl games, which is one of the reasons he recently signed a new seven-year contract.
There will be future Miami teams oozing with talent, but none are likely to approach the 1986 version for sheer ability and depth.
Here's a look at five of those gifted players:
For 11 games in 1986, Testaverde was superb. The 6-foot-5, 214-pound quarterback from Elmont, N.Y., completed 175 of 276 passes for 2,557 yards and 26 touchdowns. Jim Kelly, Bernie Kosar or Walsh were never better than Testaverde in a Miami uniform.
Testaverde won the 1986 Heisman Trophy by the second-widest margin ever (2,213 points to 672 for Paul Palmer of Temple). Later, he was the first pick of the 1987 NFL draft. In between there was one small problem: Penn State.