How Miami and Alabama Met in the 1990 Sugar Bowl
The hottest story in the off-season of 1989 was the continuing saga of the University of Miami, college football’s program of the decade with two national championships and 88 victories.
Coach Jimmy Johnson abruptly left the Hurricanes in March to coach the Dallas Cowboys and a relative newcomer from Washington State, Dennis Erickson, replaced him.
Two weeks after Erickson’s hiring, Steve Walsh, expected to be the premier college quarterback in ’89, made himself available for the NFL supplemental draft, putting an apparent – and severe – crimp in the Hurricanes’ offense. Junior Craig Erickson, no relation to the coach, was shoved up on the Miami depth chart.
The top games on an otherwise not-overly-demanding Hurricanes schedule were Florida State, a top-three finisher the last three seasons, and defending national champion Notre Dame. The Irish had benefited mightily from an erroneous fumble possession call at the goal line against Miami in 1988, thus aiding in securing a national title.
At the same time, at the University of Alabama, the 1989 season was a continuation of a fine and often unappreciated coaching job. Bill Curry had turned in an excellent 16-6 record with a modicum of talent in his first two years at Bama. But bricks were thrown through his office window after one defeat, and Curry was constantly under attack from Crimson Tide fans with tunnel vision – and a nostalgic yearning to return Alabama football to its years under Bear Bryant. Curry, to some in Alabama, was a pariah because he had no previous Crimson Tide or Bryant ties, and because of his connection to Georgia Tech as a player and coach. The fact that he twice beat Bryant’s Tide with short-handed Yellow Jacket teams always seemed overlooked. Or maybe too vividly remembered.
Miami, meanwhile, was operating just as efficiently as ever. Even in a new offense, the one-back, and with a new quarterback, the ‘Canes scored 120 points in their first three games. Only when Erickson broke a finger and missed several games did Miami slow down. Four interceptions by Erickson’s replacement, freshman Gino Torretta, and a failure to score on three possessions inside the Florida State 1, sealed a 24-10 defeat to the Seminoles.
But the Hurricanes, like all great teams, were not founded on offense. Miami led the nation in scoring defense (9.3 points per game) and total defense (216.5 yards per game) were No. 2 in rushing defense (69.1 ypg) and fourth in passing defense (147.4 ypg).
“Miami’s defense arrives in the stadium in an angry mood,” California coach Bruce Snyder said after losing to the ‘Canes 31-3. “All coaches coach their defense to be that way. It’s a physical game. It’s a game for men. The more physical you can be, the more aggressive you can be, the better off you are.
“Not everybody accomplished that. Miami does.”
Try as it might, and it tried mightily, the Sugar Bowl couldn’t lure the No. 1-ranked Irish to New Orleans.
Bowl bids were extended at 6 p.m., Nov. 25, approximately an hour before Notre Dame and the Hurricanes would kick off in Miami.
So Miami, ranked seventh then, was invited and accepted.
Fourth-ranked Alabama was the likely opponent, making for a match of a pair of 10-1 squads.
The Sugar Bowl felt it was securely back in the national championship picture because if the right combination of wins and losses fell together, the No. 1 team would emerge from New Orleans for the first time since Penn State defeated Georgia in 1983.
All that had to happen was for Miami to beat Notre Dame, then for the Irish to defeat Colorado in the Orange Bowl, and for Southern Cal to whip third-ranked Michigan in the Rose.
“A victory tonight puts us back in the national championship picture,” Hurricanes’ athletic director Sam Janovich said a half-hour before the Miami-Notre Dame kickoff.
That night the ‘Canes won a merciless 27-10 victory, moving the first block of the push to No. 1 into place.
“The Notre Dame game was a game that was really kind of fun,” Dennis Erickson said, “regardless of the outcome, because of the intensity level of the game. I came here for a reason and the reason was that kind of game. To me, that game was what football is all about, even more than any game I’ve ever seen or experienced…It’s an acceptance thing. Winning that football game meant instant credibility, made the community realize we could coach.”
The Hurricanes’ victory propelled Colorado to No. 1, Miami to No. 2, while Notre Dame dropped to No. 3.
Alabama fell from the hunt for No. 1, sliding to No. 7, when Auburn, playing its archival for the first time at home, beat the Tide 30-20, giving Auburn and Tennessee shares of the SEC title, the first tri-championship in the 57-year history of the league.
Recap excerpted from the book “Sugar Bowl Classic: A History” by Marty Mulé, who covered the game and the organization for decades for the New Orleans Times-Picayune.