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Miami Hurricanes, Nebraska Cornhuskers seek old glory

Clockwise from top left: Turner Gill, Bernie Kosar, Jimmy Johnson, Eric Crouch and Tom Osborne.
Published Sep. 19, 2015

When Nebraska and Miami met at the Rose Bowl in January 2002, they were on top of college football, in line for their eighth national championship in 19 seasons.

The Cornhuskers had transitioned seamlessly from the Tom Osborne era, thanks to a Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback (Eric Crouch), world-class facilities and one of the nation's most passionate fan bases. UM controlled one of the country's most fertile recruiting grounds and boasted a roster with 17 future NFL first-round picks.

As the titans battled at the sport's most storied venue, enduring success seemed like a given for a pair of blueblood programs that had ruled the past two decades.

"You would think," Crouch said.

But it didn't happen.

When the teams renew their rivalry today at Sun Life Stadium, neither program is ranked. It has been 12 years since either school has won a conference title, let alone a national championship.

Nebraska lost its 2015 season opener for the first time since 1985. A plane circled South Florida last week begging to "Make Miami great again" — and that was before UM needed a second-half surge to outlast lowly Florida Atlantic.

So what happened?

Former Huskers and Hurricanes say times simply changed. Administrations got too impatient, sparking a vicious cycle of coaching turnover. Recruiting evolved, damaging some of their built-in advantages. And as the losses piled up, each passing season pushed their glory days and once-proud traditions further into the past.

"It's really hard to get to the top," said Dave Gillespie, a former Huskers running back and recruiting coordinator. "It's even harder — incrementally harder — to stay there."

•••

To understand why both powerhouses crumbled, you have to know what made them powerhouses in the first place. For both programs, the success started at the top.

"I'm sure we had the greatest coaching staff in the country," said Kenny Calhoun, a former Miami defensive back and the hero of the 1984 Orange Bowl win over Nebraska.

Loaded UM staffs led by Howard Schnellenberger, Jimmy Johnson and Dennis Erickson turned blue-collar recruits into elite players. The 1987 national title team featured at least four assistants who became future college or NFL head coaches.

While the 'Canes cycled through head coaches who eventually went to the pros, Osborne spent 25 years turning the Huskers into a dominant machine, regardless of which players took the field.

By the time Crouch arrived in 1997 as part of Osborne's final recruiting class, the system was so established that it kept churning out wins, even after Osborne handed the program to one of his assistants, Frank Solich.

"It was the program," Crouch said. "I was a product of the environment I was around."

But the environment around college football was changing. The money grew, and heightened expectations made patience disappear faster.

"They were complaining about Tom until Tom won a couple national championships," said Glen Mason, a former Kansas coach who competed against Osborne in the Big 8. "People always want more."

Schools aren't always willing to wait for it.

Solich won more games (58) in his first six seasons than Osborne (55) but was fired. So was Bo Pelini, who had one more win than Osborne through seven full years.

Miami dismissed Larry Coker in 2006 — five years after a national title — even though he had one fewer loss in six years than Schnellenberger did in five.

The cycle of coaching turnover led to more losing, as the next staff tried to fit old players into new systems.

"You've got to start over, almost," Crouch said.

And each time you start over, you risk moving farther away from what made you great in the first place. Former UM defensive end Kevin Fagan said Schnellenberger built the program with discipline and structure — and both dissolved into empty swagger.

The Nevin Shapiro booster scandal led to sanctions. Tight end Kellen Winslow Jr. drew national scrutiny for calling himself a soldier during the Iraq war. On the field, Miami ranked worse than 96th nationally in penalties six times from 2000-06.

"When they started out-athleting people, they didn't play with a lot of discipline," said Fagan, a member of UM's athletic hall of fame. "But when other schools started getting the same athletes, it started to tell on them."

Especially when other schools started invading Miami's backyard to get those athletes.

In 2003, UM landed 11 of Rivals' top 33 recruits from either Miami-Dade, Broward or Palm Beach counties. Last year, the Hurricanes took three out of the top 38.

"We've got to get back to that — point blank," said former UM running back Al Shipman, now the head coach at Palm Beach Lakes High. "We've got to own the city of Miami."

But the parity of college football has made that even harder.

Elite prospects no longer need to attend a name-brand program to play on TV or make it to the NFL. Early playing time and world-class facilities became more important, and Miami couldn't offer either.

"Unfortunately young men see the flash; they don't see the substance," said former UM quarterback Steve Walsh, now IMG Academy's director of football. "That hurts in recruiting for Miami."

Although the 'Canes have upgraded their facilities — a new nutrition center opened just last week — other resources continue to lag behind. Coach Al Golden's $2.25 million salary in 2014 ranked 42nd nationally last season — below programs such as Kansas and Northwestern, according to USA Today.

That's not the case at Nebraska, where first-year coach Mike Riley's contract begins at $2.7 million a year at a program that still has top-notch facilities and rabid fans. But Riley has his own challenges in the Big Ten.

"I think the advantage we used to have of walking in anybody's living room and, 'Wow, Nebraska is interested in me,' — they've lost some of that," Gillespie said. "Sometimes you take for granted that everybody knows Nebraska's one of the great programs."

When the Huskers peaked under Osborne, the NCAA and Big 8 allowed them to accept partial qualifiers, players who weren't immediately eligible academically but could practice until their grades rose. The Nebraska team that throttled Florida in the 1996 Fiesta Bowl featured six partial qualifiers who were either starters or major contributors.

"It was a piece of the puzzle," said Mason, now a Big Ten Network analyst. "There's absolutely no doubt."

The Huskers tried to keep admitting partial qualifiers into the conference when the Big 8 morphed into the Big 12. They were outvoted 11-1.

•••

As the years have passed since the 2002 Rose Bowl, that night in Pasadena looks less like a clash of titans and more like a last stand. The programs have combined to fire five coaches since then. Their storied traditions have receded into history.

"It's going to be hard to ever think Nebraska will have that again," Crouch said. "They're really on the edge of where they lose their identity as a national powerhouse or whether they get themselves back in the hunt."

Each year that passes without championship contention makes that identity harder to remember.

Mike Rumph's players at Plantation American Heritage School know that you can win a Heisman at Baylor or play for a national title at Oregon. But the last time Miami or Nebraska finished in the top 10, his seniors were in kindergarten.

"I just thought UM would be a legacy, where '01 would carry on for years and years," said Rumph, a defensive back on that UM title team. "But the legacy stuff kind of played itself out."

And both programs are wondering if it will ever come back.

Contact Matt Baker at mbaker@tampabay.com. Follow @MBakerTBTimes.

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