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How long can Miami sustain run of excellence?

THE BALTIMORE SUN

MIAMI -- College football's Team of the '80s has barreled into the '90s in search of unprecedented excellence. The University of Miami wants another decade-long dance atop bowls, polls and Seminoles, but more than that, the school wants to secure a lasting place in history.

Since the Associated Press poll began in 1936, no team has won four national championships in back-to-back decades. No team has strung together eight consecutive top-five finishes. No team has appeared in 10 consecutive major bowls.

Miami wants to be the first and the last. The Alpha and Omega of college football.

"If we can do this a couple of more years," Miami kicker Carlos Huerta says, "There will be no question we'll be the biggest dynasty in the history of the NCAA. If I live to be 50 or 60, I can say I scored points for the best team ever to play."

The Hurricanes have a way to go 10 more years of winning at the same pace if they are to be considered as the greatest of all time. Nebraska has the best 20-year run in history. From 1970 to '89, the Cornhuskers won 201 games, lost 40 and tied four, a winning percentage of .829. During that span, Nebraska played in 16 major bowls, had 15 top-10 finishes and won two national championships.

Jim Van Valkenburg, NCAA director of statistics: "As far as consistency and won-lost records, you can't beat Nebraska."

Hurricane safety Charles Pharms: "There's no doubt Miami could become the next Nebraska."

Miami already has forged one of the great 10-year runs in history, going 95-16 (.856 winning percentage) from 1981-90, second only to Nebraska (99-14, .876) during the same period. Since 1981, the Hurricanes have played in eight major bowls, recorded eight top-10 finishes and won three national championships.

And although Nebraska has the higher winning percentage, the Hurricanes lay claim to Team of the '80s on two counts: They beat the Cornhuskers in their only two encounters and won more national titles, 3-0.

Becoming college football's Team of the '90s will be infinitely more difficult. Just ask Keith Jackson, ABC's voice of college football.

"Normally, you can't maintain that kind of run for more than a decade," Jackson says. "History shows that. Look it up."

The record book supports Jackson.

Consider Michigan, which set an NCAA record with 11 consecutive top-10 finishes from 1940 to '50, then disappeared from the top 10 for the next five years.

Consider Oklahoma, which tied the record from 1948 to '58, then made only three top-10 appearances during the next 11 years.

Consider Notre Dame. After dominating the '40s with four national titles and nine consecutive top-10 finishes, the Fighting Irish managed only five top-10 finishes in the '50s and won zero national championships.

From dynasty to mediocrity. The ebb and flow of power appears cyclical.

"That's something the University of Miami has to be aware of," Jackson says. "Cracks begin to appear, and you already have one down there with Bryan Fortay going to Rutgers."

Fortay, a third-year sophomore and former prep All-America quarterback, recently transferred after Miami coach Dennis Erickson named Gino Torretta to start yesterday's season-opener at Arkansas.

Fortay's departure leaves Miami with two backups, Frank Costa and Alan Hall, neither of whom has taken a college snap.

Jackson sees other cracks. The schedule is more difficult than usual. Miami has regular-season games against three teams Houston, Penn State and Florida State who could win the national championship. A fourth opponent, Arizona, has a history of upsetting nationally-ranked teams in Tucson. Then there's a probable tough bowl opponent.

"I think 9-3 with that schedule is possible," Jackson says.

If Miami is to sustain its level of excellence, Jackson says, this season will be pivotal. The Hurricanes will be bucking history, starting an unproven quarterback, playing a tough schedule and fielding an inexperienced team.

Miami lost 12 starters from last season; it started only five seniors yesterday.

Cracks?

"They're always trying to find cracks," Huerta says. "But there's no doubt in my mind that if we go out and play like we're capable of, there's nobody in the country who can beat us."

Adds linebacker Micheal Barrow, "We feel we can contend for the national championship. Sure, we play a tough schedule. But if we have a good outing against Arkansas Saturday, it should be an indication of where we are likely to finish."

Arkansas has had a pretty decent run over the last decade, going 79-30-2 (.721), 10th best in college football. After winning consecutive Southwest Conference championships, though, the Razorbacks went 3-8 last season. This season, they are being picked to finish eighth in the nine-team SWC.

The end of a cycle?

Miami doesn't believe in cycles. Or cracks. Or cynics who say they cannot win with unproven quarterbacks.

"We did it in 1987," says Art Kehoe, who coaches offensive linemen. "Steve Walsh had never started a game. We didn't have anybody behind Steve. And we won it all. So who knows what can happen?"

What's happened at Miami over the last decade is surreal.

Herschel Nissenson, who spent 28 years covering college football for The Associated Press, calls it one of the greatest accomplishments in college football history.

Fifteen years ago, Miami went 3-8 and fired coach Carl Selmer. There was talk of disbanding the football program, which had gone 37-59 from 1968-76. Five years later, Miami vaulted into the top 10. Two years after that, Miami beat Nebraska then hailed as the greatest team in college history in the Orange Bowl for its first national championship.

Winning has spiraled to unimaginable levels, breeding what Kehoe calls "psychotic expectations."

"People look at our success and say it's crazy," Kehoe says. "It's not just going to New Year's Day bowls but going to New Year's Day bowls with a shot at winning the national championship every year. That's crazy."

The Hurricanes already have made history. By finishing third in last year's final AP poll, Miami became the first team to finish in the top three five consecutive seasons.

More history is within reach:

If the Hurricanes win but one national title this decade, they will be the first school to win four national championships over two decades.

If the Hurricanes finish among the top five teams this season and next, they will tie Oklahoma (1952-58) for most consecutive top-five finishes (seven).

If the Hurricanes play in major bowls in each of the next two seasons, they will become the first to play in 10 straight.

"It's going to be very hard to perpetuate any dynasty in college football," Nissenson says. "A lot is going to depend on Torretta. They seem to be solid everywhere else. Torretta may be solid, but he hasn't proven it."

Miami has built its success on a foundation of homegrown talent, first harvested by coaches Lou Saban and Howard Schnellenberger in the late '70s. Until Saban and Schnellenberger arrived, Miami lost the state's best players to the University of Florida, Florida State and a host of out-of-state schools.

Since 1981, Miami has produced 16 All-Americans, 10 of them from Florida. During the past five years, Miami has produced more NFL first-round draft picks, 11, than anyone. Seven are Floridians.

"Miami probably has more great players in its metropolitan area than Nebraska has in the whole state," Van Valkenburg says. "As long as they continue to get that Florida talent, they will continue to be great."

There are more cracks in Nebraska's dynasty than in Miami's. The Cornhuskers failed to finish in the top 20 last season for the first time since 1968. They are being picked to finish No. 15, the first time they haven't made the AP's pre-season top 10 in 14 years.

Have we seen the end of Nebraska's run?

"Very possibly," Jackson says. "They don't have the great big men in the trenches. Either they weren't able to recruit them, or they weren't able to grow them. Some people say you can't give them steroids anymore. That's the blunt truth."

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