Amid trash, Miami due heap of credit


NEW ORLEANS -- For those who can summon enough reasons to work up a good mad at the very sight of the arrogant, cocksure Miami Hurricanes, be advised that there is an ample body of evidence contradicting your position.

If the trash-talking Miami manner doesn't suit you, fine. If it puts you in Alabama's corner for Friday night's Sugar Bowl, fine. It doesn't exactly comply with the Olympian ideal of good will and sporting cigars all around. But please understand that the Hurricanes are famous for such football gall only because they invented it. Now, almost every team plays mouth-first. Or maybe you hadn't noticed the celebration after every play of every game.

Go ahead and take umbrage with the Hurricanes for being the forerunners, but the truth is that just about any recruit anywhere -- including those on your team -- would sign with them in a second. Everyone wants to wear that all-bark, all-bite swagger. Remember when the Hurricanes piled up all those unsportsmanlike-conduct penalties while cashing Texas into cow chips in the 1991 Cotton Bowl? It was too much, but the Texans were not offended. They just wished they'd had such intimidating hubris.

OK, let's see, another supposed strike against the Hurricanes is that they're "bad," always running afoul of the law, sporting or otherwise. Or, as former Miami receiver Michael Irvin so eloquently put it: "No. 1 UPI, No. 1 FBI."

Two players being federally indicted didn't exactly quash the image this season, but it's time to call off the morality play with scandals simmering at Washington, Texas A&M; and Alabama -- schools that are, or were, in the No. 1 hunt. Even Notre Dame admitted to a major violation this year.

College football is just too messy to dismiss anyone on moral grounds. Peel the lid off just about any team and you'll find unpleasantries.

And in any case, the Hurricanes have no reason to be ashamed these days. Their "bad" reputation was not without a factual basis five years ago, but some act cleaning has occurred. They have scads of players on schedule to graduate, and the NCAA has never investigated them in this decade-long run that has produced four national titles and a fifth on the line Friday night. That's "bad?"

But the hands-down best reason of all to give a cheer for the Hurricanes, instead of a boo, is that their success is all about players. Not some "legendary" coach.

A win Friday would make the Hurricanes the first team to win five titles in a decade, so, naturally, a debate has risen about the best team ever. There's no answer, but there's a lesson in the contenders: Bear's Alabama, Rockne's Notre Dame, Wilkinson's Oklahoma, Leahy's Notre Dame. Get it? All teams defined by their coaches.

The brightest stars of the college game (basketball even more so) invariably are coaches, which is inevitable considering that the players come and go, but hardly seems fair, especially with schools now making millions off the players. Is it a square deal that the players get none of the money and the coaches still get most of the glory?

But here, finally, is a story all about players. Three different coaches have won titles at Miami in the last decade: Howard Schnellenberger, Jimmy Johnson and now Dennis Erickson. The thread connecting their teams is a steady funneling of talent, unmatched in the game's history for quantity and quality. Thirteen Hurricanes have been NFL first-rounders in the past six years. Scouts say this year's team has 12 to 15 pro prospects. All three linebackers might be first-round picks.

When the reckoning of this spectacular run of success is posed in the end, it will not be about a Bear or Bo or Woody, but about Jerome Brown turning into Russell Maryland turning into Mark Caesar, and Irvin turning into Randal Hill turning into Lamar Thomas. And so on and on.

What's more, the former players stick around, in mind if not body. They keep in touch with the current players, offer tips and advice, show up on the sidelines and essentially scare the current team into preserving the domain they built.

"The relationship between former and current players sets us apart," Erickson said. "It's not like this anywhere else."

There's another brilliant generation ascending. No end in sight. And maybe that's the best reason that the Hurricanes deserve a clap. They have won 29 straight games and 107 of 119, beating all comers at home and on the road. Maybe they're a little loud, but, win or lose Friday night, isn't it about time we recognize them for their sheer excellence?

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