The two main football halls of fame announce their new classes in the 24 hours before their respective championship finales. The 2019 College Football Hall of Fame class was revealed on the morning of the 2019 College Football Playoff National Championship Game between the Clemson Tigers and Alabama Crimson Tide.
For the Florida State Seminoles and Miami Hurricanes, their new inductees offer very powerful reminders of what used to define the college football world.
Yes, once upon a time, Florida State — had there been a four-team playoff — would have been in the semifinals basically every year, and very probably in the championship game most seasons. The Seminoles would have been what Clemson is today. Miami, the team which usually got the better of FSU, might have occupied the place currently inhabited by Alabama. (Florida State fans could debate the point, and they would have reason to do so, but if FSU was 1-B to Miami’s 1-A, it is definitely a first-world problem. What is happening today in Tallahassee is something far worse.)
What makes Monday’s new College Football Hall of Fame class so significant and symbolically potent for both FSU and Miami is that the new Seminole and the new Hurricane in the College Football Hall both represent cornerstones of these Clemson- and Alabama-style dynasties in Tallahassee and Coral Gables.
Let’s start with Terrell Buckley, a Florida State legend whose single-season interception record (12 in 1991) and school interception record (21) still stand today, over 25 years after the end of his collegiate career. Buckley — who picked off 71 passes in college and the pros combined, in 17 highly productive seasons — was one of the anchors of the front end of one of the most remarkable streaks in sports history: Florida State’s 14 straight seasons in the top five of the final Associated Press poll, from 1987-2000. After the 1987 and 1988 teams got that streak off the ground, Buckley’s excellence from 1989 through 1991 helped Florida State remain a towering presence on the college football scene.
The slippage which very easily and understandably happens at various programs after one or two special seasons — and great players leave the program — was prevented in Tallahassee thanks to Buckley and the other members of the program who carried Florida State into the early 1990s and handed the baton to Charlie Ward and Warrick Dunn, who carried the program into the mid-1990s, and kept the line of succession flowing.
Buckley is a representative example of how Florida State entrenched itself as a college football superpower in a way Clemson and Alabama fans very clearly realize.
Then turn to The U. Whereas Buckley was a builder of a dynastic run on its front end (Years 3-5 of a supreme 14-year reign — only now is Alabama exceeding what Bobby Bowden accomplished at the end of the 20th century), Dennis Erickson represented the back end of Miami’s national championship gold rush.
Howard Schnellenberger got the Miami program off the ground. Jimmy Johnson was the perfect coach to continue a rising program’s display of Hurricane-force excellence.
However, programs sometimes run out of steam when coaching turnover continues to emerge.
Notre Dame had Ara Parseghian followed by Dan Devine. The two men crushed it at Notre Dame from the mid-1960s through the 1981 Sugar Bowl, Devine’s last game as the leader in South Bend. Then, however, Notre Dame had to find yet another head coach, and when Gerry Faust was selected, the program as we had known it ceased to matter for several years. Lou Holtz had to step in and revive it in the latter half of the 1980s.
Florida had Steve Spurrier and — after the brief disaster known as Ron Zook — the Urban Meyer empire, but when Meyer’s career lasted only half as long as Spurrier’s 12-year reign in Gainesville, Florida had to look for yet another coach. Will Muschamp was the selection, and the Gators are still recovering from that mess, all these years later.
You get the point: Even the best programs often slip when they keep having to hire new coaches. Sure, the job is great and will attract elite talent, but more vacancies and transitions invite the possibility that the next hire — as wonderful as it might appear on paper — might fail.
This is where Erickson cemented himself as a college football giant and earned the lasting respect of Miami football fans.
Schnellenberger was the architect of the Miami juggernaut. Johnson was the developer, taking Schnellenberger’s initial blueprint and elevating it to a greater height. When Johnson went to the NFL to join Jerry Jones with the Dallas Cowboys, The U was under pressure to find yet another man who could handle the heat in The Old Horseshoe in Little Havana and maintain Miami’s place as The Team, THE PROGRAM, in college football.
Dennis Erickson, a native of the Pacific Northwest and a man who had spent his entire collegiate coaching career at off-the-radar Western programs, was Miami’s selection before the 1989 season.
Erickson had coached — as an assistant or as a head coach — at Montana State, Idaho, Fresno State, San Jose State, Wyoming, and Washington State. That’s not exactly a natural career track preceding a move to the most prominent college football program in the entire United States, but Erickson won the job.
He then won a ton of games and lost very few.
Erickson spent the next six years getting the better of Bowden and Florida State in a majority of instances (4-2). His Miami teams never lost more than two games in any regular season. In his first four seasons in Miami, Erickson won two national titles (1989 and 1991) and coached for a national title in a third season (1992). A fourth team had a chance to finish No. 2 in the season-ending poll, but lost to Tom Osborne’s first national championship team at Nebraska in the Orange Bowl.
It is true that Erickson’s tenure in Miami wasn’t smooth. The 1991 Cotton Bowl against Texas, a 46-3 win, was nevertheless marred by 202 penalty yards and repeated instances of appalling behavior. Off the field, a series of scandals and misdeeds led to the decline and reset of the program in the mid-1990s. After the 1994 season ended, Erickson got out of Dodge and snagged an NFL gig with the Seattle Seahawks, returning to the region of the country where he grew up and had learned how to coach. Nevertheless, Erickson had maintained the Miami brand and identity. He wasn’t hired to be a choirmaster. He was hired to win big. He did.
Terrell Buckley fueled the rise of Florida State’s remarkable 14-year reign at the end of the 20th century.
Dennis Erickson sustained Miami’s most fertile and formidable 12-year period (1983-1994) as a college football power before the school found its renaissance in the year 2000.
On the morning of another Clemson-Alabama national championship game, FSU and Miami have been reminded — by their new College Football Hall of Fame representatives — what their own shimmering dynasties used to look like.
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