MIAMI -- When they beat Alabama in the Sugar Bowl to win the national championship two years ago, the Miami Hurricanes were still more Jimmy Johnson's team than Dennis Erickson's. Taunts were as common as touchdowns. It was almost as if cheap shots were a part of their playbook.
Despite claims by Erickson to the contrary, as well as a relatively incident-free 1990 regular season, last year's 46-3 trashing of Texas in the Cotton Bowl did little to alter Miami's ornery image. The Hurricanes had little regard for the Longhorns, or the rules.
It began with Miami pointing fingers at Texas as the teams came on the field. It got nastier during the coin toss. It resulted in 16 penalties for 202 yards, most of them for late hits or other unsavory behavior. And it culminated with the Hurricanes being lambasted from all corners, including by their coach.
"Most of the things that happened were done by the seniors," said junior receiver Lamar Thomas. "They were recruited by Jimmy Johnson and called themselves 'The Last of the Renegades.' They wanted to make a statement."
Miami's actions drew not only sharp criticism, but also a new rule from the National Collegiate Athletic Association. The NCAA made its own statement, instituting a penalty this season for excessive celebration or taunting opponents. It was called "The Miami Rule," and for good reason.
As the top-ranked, 11-0 Hurricanes prepare themselves for their Orange Bowl matchup against No. 11 Nebraska (9-1-1) New Year's night, they are still struggling to change the image that once prompted former Miami receiver Michael Irvin to say, "We're No. 1 with AP, UPI and the FBI."
Said linebacker Michael Barrow, "I think we've changed for the better. The NCAA basically gave us enough rope to hang ourselves. Now we're 'The Fun Bunch.' "
The Hurricanes have certainly had their share of fun this season, the highlight coming Nov. 16 when they turned a 16-7 deficit against Florida State in Tallahassee into a 17-16 victory. The win gave Miami the No. 1 ranking and set up the possibility for its third national championship in the past five years.
Despite few problems on the field during the season -- the Hurricanes were called only once for taunting, by Thomas against Tulsa -- there have been other, more serious off-field developments involving a current player and a former athletic department employee.
Martin Patton, who was scheduled to start against the Cornhuskers at fullback for an injured Stephen McGuire, was arrested earlier this month and charged with credit card fraud. Patton, a sophomore from Missouri City, Texas, had been suspended before Miami's victory over Florida State after a fracas with police.
Earlier this year, Tony Russell, a former academic adviser, was charged with falsifying information on Pell Grant applications. Russell, who is under investigation by the U.S. Attorney's office here, allegedly received $50 for each application and said he needed the money to support a cocaine habit.
"I think all this adversity has made us a closer team," said junior quarterback Gino Torretta. "The things that happened this year were not within our control. The only thing we had control of is the way we acted on the field. We're going to still have fun when we play, because that's the way the game should be played."
Said Erickson: "The personality of this team has definitely changed. I think the players took it upon themselves to change it, to play with class. There were a lot of things that happened last year [at the Cotton Bowl] that contributed to it."
According to several Miami players, the incidents in the Cotton Bowl were motivated by some stories they read and TV reports they heard about their past sins. Things got ugly at a pre-game barbecue when the players danced to some country music. Needless to say, they weren't doing the Texas two-step.
"We were in their home territory, and they were saying how we were criminals," said Thomas. "We took out our frustrations on Texas. I can say now that we probably crossed the line, and Coach Erickson was pretty upset. Very upset."
Erickson has worked as hard at cultivating a different image as he has at coaching this team. It's a constant battle, but he appears to be slightly ahead on the scoreboard. While most of the Hurricanes were surprisingly low-key yesterday, Erickson hasn't been able to muzzle all of his players.
Senior center Kevin Harris, who actually might be the last of the renegades, said recently that "If Washington played in the state of Florida, they'd be the fourth best team in the state." The quote, of course, was picked up in Seattle and Erickson, who is from Everett, Wash., heard about it from his friends and family.
"Coach told me that those kind of statements were a thing of the past," said Harris.
If anything, it was the normally quiet Cornhuskers who were doing most of the talking yesterday. In particular, it was sophomore tight end Johnny Mitchell who attracted a lot of attention for some of the inflammatory remarks he made during the Media Day news conference.
"They're a good team, but they're not as good as some of the Miami teams in the past," said Mitchell. "When people are telling you how great you are all the time, you start believing it yourself."
Said Harris, "You know what happens to teams that [tick] us off."
0$ No two-stepping around that one.