#BuildingChampions Wednesday: 1987 Football
By David Villavicencio
A week after highlighting the award-winning #BuildingChampions campaign, this week’s edition of #BuildingChampions Wednesday looks at the 1987 National Championship team.
The University of Miami has won five National Championships in football and each title-winning team was unique from the others.
From 1983-2002, the Hurricanes won five of a possible 20 championships, the most of any school in that two-decade span. Five different head coaches guided the program over those 20 years, building one of the greatest dynasties in college football history.
The 1987 National Championship team, which celebrated its 25th anniversary during the 2012 football season, helped cement the Hurricanes as the team of the 80s.
While the 1987 Canes won the school’s second football championship, they were the first team to go undefeated in school history. Miami capped a 13-0 season with a 20-14 win over Oklahoma in the 1988 Orange Bowl to secure Jimmy Johnson’s first National Championship.
Like all of Miami’s title-winning teams, the ’87 Canes had several characteristics that helped make them champions.
The Canes were not supposed to be a contender in 1987. They had just lost several key players, including starting quarterback, 1986 Heisman Trophy winner and NFL Draft No. 1 pick Vinny Testaverde.
Miami fell just short of winning championships in 1985 and 1986 with Testaverde, running back Alonzo Highsmith and receiver Brett Perriman leading a potent offense and Jerome Brown, Winston Moss and Kevin Fagan anchoring a stout defense.
Testaverde, Highsmith and Brown were all selected within the first nine picks of the 1987 NFL Draft and all six aforementioned players were essential contributors on Miami’s 1985 and 1986 teams. Few expected the ’87 Hurricanes to compete for a championship after replacing so many standouts. But Miami did more than just compete, they reloaded.
Several new starters emerged with breakout seasons, including quarterback Steve Walsh, running backs Melvin Bratton and Warren Williams and receiver Michael Irvin.
The defense had two consensus All-Americans in end Danny Stubbs and Thorpe Award-winning safety Bennie Blades. It also featured key contributors Bill Hawkins, Greg Mark, Randy Shannon and Tolbert Bain.
While the ’87 team had so many players step up to fill voids left by departed talents, the depth of the 1987 team was personified by linebacker Bernard “Tiger” Clark.
The sophomore filled in for suspended senior linebacker George Mira, Jr., in the 1988 Orange Bowl against Oklahoma and helped the defense force the Sooners to punt on their first five possessions. Clark, who collected 14 tackles, broke up a pass and recovered a fumble, finished as the Orange Bowl MVP thanks to his stellar play.
Beyond showing resilience by bouncing back after two seasons that ended short of their goal of winning a championship, the ’87 Canes were resilient on the field to rise from their No. 10 preseason rankings to the pinnacle of college football.
The dedication and determination to win was never more evident than on Oct. 3 in Tallahassee. Miami, then ranked No. 3, faced No. 4 Florida State in a nationally-televised rivalry game that will never be forgotten in Hurricane history. The match-up featured two of the most talented teams in the history of college football, as 56 players who participated in the contest that day went on to play in the NFL.
Miami walked into Doak Campbell Stadium ready for a battle against the rival Seminoles. But the Canes fell behind late in the third quarter, 19-3, leading most Florida State fans to think their team would knock off their bitter rivals.
The resilient Hurricanes overcame the 16-point deficit thanks to three Walsh touchdown passes and a pair of two-point conversions that gave the Canes a 26-19 lead with 2:22 left to play.
The Noles did not go away easily, scoring a touchdown to bring them within one, 26-25. But FSU head coach Bobby Bowden elected to go for two and the win instead of kick the extra point and settle for a tie. Miami defensive back Bubba McDowell knocked down the FSU two-point conversion attempt to preserve a 26-25 Hurricanes victory.
The ’87 Canes were dominant for the majority of their championship season. Miami ripped rival Florida in the season opener, 31-4, and then embarrassed Arkansas on the Razorbacks’ home ﬁeld, 51-7.
Week 3 featured the intense rivalry match-up against Florida State, but the Hurricanes returned to their dominant ways, scoring over 40 points in their next four games. Miami beat Maryland (46-16), Cincinnati (48-10), East Carolina (41-3) and Miami University (54-3) in convincing fashion.
The Canes then knocked off Virginia Tech (27-13) and Toldeo (24-14) to head into a highly anticipated matchup against No. 10 Notre Dame. Miami blanked the Irish, 24-0, and survived a scare from eighth-ranked South Carolina (20-16) to set up a matchup with top-ranked Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl Classic on New Year’s Day.
The Hurricanes bottled up OU’s wishbone attack, holding the Sooners to just 179 yards on the ground (OU came in averaging 428.8). Elation for Miami was frustration for OU – the Sooners only three losses over the last three seasons had come to the Hurricanes.
“We played our way to this championship,” head coach Jimmy Johnson said. “We have the best record versus anybody in the country . . . We beat Oklahoma three in a row, Florida State and Notre Dame three in a row, Florida a couple.”
By year’s end, the Hurricanes had allowed a mere 125 points. Miami took down six ranked opponents that fall – including No. 20 Florida, No. 4 FSU, No. 10 Notre Dame and No. 1 Oklahoma. The Canes earned victories by an average of 23.9 points, scoring over 40 points on five different games. This was more than just the program’s second National Championship – this was history in the making.
“What is sweetest is that we did it as a team,” Johnson said. “We lost starters and had other guys come in and played magniﬁcently.