As the Hurricanes’ prepare to begin a new and promising season, I look at a disturbing change in fortune in the way that the team has been finishing seasons.
With 2:46 left in the 1995 Orange Bowl, Nebraska’s Corey Schlesinger went up the middle and into the end zone to deliver legendary Nebraska Head Coach Tom Osborne his first national title. The vanquished that day, the University of Miami, was about to enter a transitional period that saw the team emerge from probation under Butch Davis and become the most dominant team in NCAA history. And yet this loss to Nebraska, which closed an incredible era in Hurricanes’ football history, was the last bowl loss the Hurricanes would suffer for nearly 8 years.
Through the trials and tribulations of scholarship limitations, there was one thing that Butch Davis teams did consistently: win bowl games. And not just win them, but win them emphatically. A look at the Hurricanes’ bowl dominance under Davis is startling:
- 1996 Car Quest Bowl – Miami 31, Virginia 21
- 1998 Micron PC Bowl – Miami 46, North Carolina State 23
- 2000 Gator Bowl – Miami 28, Georgia Tech 13
- 2001 Sugar Bowl – Miami 37, Florida 20
4 wins, by an average of over 16 points per game. And this trend continued under Larry Coker:
- 2002 Rose Bowl – Miami 37, Nebraska 14
- 2003 Fiesta Bowl – Ohio State 31, Miami 24***
- 2004 Orange Bowl – Miami 16, Florida State 14
- 2005 Peach Bowl – Miami 27, Florida 10
This ended an 8 year run by the Hurricanes, where they won 7 of 8 bowl games (with the one loss being the asterisk-inducing, Terry Porter absurdity). And these weren’t also ran bowl games, with the Hurricanes becoming the first team in the nation to play in every single BCS bowl game in the current BCS Era (inaugurated in 1998 when the Rose Bowl was included).
Into the Abyss
As stunning as that run was, the fall off the cliff has been just as dramatic:
- 2005 Peach Bowl – Louisiana State 40, Miami 3
- 2006 MPC Computers Bowl – Miami 21, Nevada 20
- 2008 Emerald Bowl – California 24, Miami 17
- 2009 Champs Sports Bowl – Wisconsin 20, Miami 14
The Hurricanes’ bowl win percentage dropped from 87.5% to 25%. The margin of difference between the Hurricanes’ score and their opponents’ score went from +12.5 to -12.25.
Coral Gables, we have a problem
What happened? Several explanations are possible, although I feel we can dismiss some of them:
1) Youth: Recently, the Hurricanes have fielded young teams. There is no debating that. But, the teams at the beginning of the Butch Davis Era were just as young, and they won bowl games. So this explanation does not really have any merit in terms of why the Hurricanes were such a bowl force under Davis but can’t seem to get out of their own way now.
2) The talent drain: The talent at the University of Miami certainly does not rival the talent that the school had at the beginning of the decade. But, once again, that fact would not really harm the bowl record. Why? Because the more talented teams at the beginning of the decade played in better bowls against better opponents. The Hurricanes haven’t played in a New Year’s Bowl since the 2004 Orange Bowl. While there is a talent discrepancy, the opponents have a similar talent discrepancy.
3) Butch Davis’ teams underachieved. There is certainly some merit to this. One could argue that the only time a Butch Davis team played in a bowl game that the talent merited was the 2000 Gator Bowl (where a clearly superior Virginia Tech team won the Big East and played for the national championship). But, Larry Coker’s teams (at least at the beginning of the decade) did not underachieve. 2 trips to the National Championship game, a trip to a BCS Bowl (despite having a QB with a 12-17 TD-INT ratio) and 1 trip to the Peach Bowl (with a team defense ranked 28th). And yet those teams continued to perform well in bowl games.
So, why the drop off in performance? My theory (and it is just that, given that if there was a factual solution, the team would just do it) is that the answer lies with the coordinators. And this is where the Hurricanes’ hopes lie for the future as well. Butch Davis hired excellent coordinators in Larry Coker and Greg Schiano. Coker was with Davis for Davis’ entire 5 year run as head coach, and Greg Schiano joined on for the final 2 years (memory and research failed me here, but I believe Butch Davis was the defensive coordinator for the first 3 years of his head coaching tenure). Consistency and quality at those positions can lead to bowl success. Quality coordinators with several weeks to prepare for an opponent hold a distinct advantage.
This run of quality coordinators continued into the Coker Era, with Rob Chudzinski and Randy Shannon. Again, the Hurricanes’ had 2 of the best coordinators in college football, and again, they had consistency at the positions.
And that’s when the revolving door at both positions started (right in line with the bowl dropoff). After having 2 OCs and DCs for much of a decade, the Hurricanes have since had 4 OCs (Dan Werner, Rich Olson, Patrick Nix, and Mark Whipple) and 3 DCs (Tim Walton, Bill Young and John Lovett) in 6 year period. In a stunning statistic, the 2010 Hurricanes will be the first version of the team since the 2005 Hurricanes to enter a season without at least one new coordinator:
- 2004 Hurricanes – Dan Werner replaces Rob Chudzinski as OC.
- 2005 Hurricanes – No changes.
- 2006 Hurricanes – Rich Olson replaces Dan Werner as OC.
- 2007 Hurricanes – Patrick Nix replaces Rich Olson as OC, Tim Walton replaces Randy Shannon as DC.
- 2008 Hurricanes – Bill Young replaces Tim Walton as DC.
- 2009 Hurricanes – Mark Whipple replaces Patrick Nix as OC, John Lovett replaces Bill Young at DC.
- 2010 Hurricanes – No changes.
Not only have the Hurricanes’ lacked anything resembling consistency at those positions, but the quality of the coordinators has dropped off considerably. When Larry Coker (Head Coach at the University of Miami), Greg Schiano (Head Coach at Rutgers), Rob Chudzinski (TEs Coach for the San Diego Chargers, eventual Offensive Coordinator for the Cleveland Browns), and Randy Shannon (Head Coach at the University of Miami) left their coordinator positions, they did so for promotions (although, while it could be argued that Chudzinski was run out of town and took a slight downgrade, he certainly ended up at more prestigious position in Cleveland).
On the other hand, the coordinators let go in the recent purges were done so mostly for under performance (Bill Young being the exception):
- Dan Werner – fired after the 2005 Peach Bowl. Landed at Ole Miss, where he was subsequently terminated.
- Rich Olson – fired after the 2006 MPC Computers Bowl. Landed at Arizona State, where he was subsequently terminated.
- Tim Walton – fired after the 2007 season. Went to Memphis for a year as DC before joining the Detroit Lions staff as a secondary coach.
- Bill Young – left voluntarily to take the DC position at his Alma Mater, Oklahoma State.
- Patrick Nix – fired after the 2008 season. Currently the WRs coach at Charleston Southern.
Not only have the Hurricanes been cycling through coordinators at a highly unusual pace, but they have been cycling through poor coordinators. Fortunately, both trends appear to have stopped. Mark Whipple and John Lovett are both highly respected coordinators, entering their 2nd year at the University of Miami. With this consistency and quality, a return to past bowl glory might be on the horizon, and not a moment too soon, because the talent and experience of the player personnel has finally caught up with the elite of college football.