Six NFL quarterbacks, five All-Americans, four first-rounders, three Pro-Bowlers, two Heisman Trophy winners, and one Hall-of-Famer. The University of Miami from 1980 to 1992 was home to what is undoubtedly the best stretch of quarterback play in college football history, and it serves as a stark contrast to the lackluster product they manufacture today.
TWO things to start off with here.
One, I think we can agree that The U was the best film in the lauded 30 for 30 documentary series. ESPN’s produced several gems since it started in 2009, namely The Best That Never Was, Pony Excess, and Youngstown Boys, but The U was its first two-hour special and really put it on the map as premier television.
And two, while there have been tons of schools that have been labeled “QB U” over the last fifty years — Michigan, Purdue, Stanford, USC, even BYU — none experienced the run that Miami did in consecutive top notch signal-callers in the span of nearly a decade-and-half.
So that’s the school I’m choosing to bestow with that moniker, and that four-year-old film is what inspired me to look back on a truly remarkable chronology of quarterbacks — one that we will likely never witness again in the history of collegiate football.
IF you’re anything like me — Casper white and forcefully introspective, ranging somewhere in the middle class but still rooted in suburbia — then you may have had some conflicting emotions that first time absorbing The U in the winter of 2009. Through the green-and-orange graphics and the ‘80s hi-fi of Uncle Luke’s cheesy beats, Miami was introduced as one of the most talented ensembles of athletic talent in the sport’s history, an oasis for local five-stars that had bizarrely gone unharvested for decades until Howard Schnellenberger descended from the coaching heavens. The players were dirty, the coaches were arrogant, the fans were bandwagoners and the faculty was elitist. Recruiting violations were as common as seventy-degree weather and the rap sheets on the roster read like a CSI bingo card — arson, assault, battery, burglary, drugs, you name it.
Being completely honest, I probably would have hated those teams if I lived to watch them. Those who did sure seemed to. But after seeing the personalities, the domination, the confidence, and the bourgeoisie’s objection to a bunch of black kids essentially having fun, dammit, those Canes were cool. The soldier fatigues (pictured top), the over-the-top celebrations, the pre-orchestrated physical and mental humiliation of Texas — these 21, 20, and even 19-year-old men possessed a level of cultural awareness that was nothing short of remarkable. They knew they were the best, they knew they were pissing people off, and they knew they were re-writing history in whatever image they deemed fit. These were the survivors who scratched and clawed their way out of the Dade County ghettos, here to shit-talk you into a straightjacket before blowing your team out by forty.
They won. They won a lot. Nothing in sports stood more palpably defiant against Reagan’s America than the night Jimmy Johnson’s merry band of hoodlums ran up the score on Notre Dame. The Team of the 1980s could not have clashed more with the decade politically.
But in the driver’s seat of this dynasty — the face of those teams that were bigger, better, and, well, blacker than just about any other roster in the country — was always a goofy-ass white guy who looked more like the part of team mascot than stud gunslinger.
Pause. This piece isn’t a racial commentary on one of college football’s most controversial teams, even if it sorta started out like one. Re-watching The U just got me all sentimental on the subject, and it amuses me greatly that swagger sultans like Randall Hill, Michael Irvin, and Lamar Thomas had goobers like this (and this, and fucking this) throwing them the ball.
But for as dorky as they looked, those quarterbacks — a string of six in a row, specifically — were some of the best in the nation on a yearly basis, and sometimes they were the very best. Their accumulated resumes are outstanding.
- Four of them were starters on national championship winning teams.
- Four of them had seasons that ranked top-ten nationally in passing efficiency.
- Five of them were All-Americans.
- Two of them won the Heisman Trophy, and another two finished top-four in voting.
- Four of them were taken in the first round of the NFL Draft.
- All six started at least one game in the pros.
- Three of them were selected to at least one Pro Bowl.
- Two of them were named to at least one All-Pro team.
- One of them was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame — in his first year of eligibility.
Not all of the six were great NFL quarterbacks, to be sure, but all of them sans the statue-legged and pop gun-armed Gino Torretta were at one point highly coveted by professional scouts. The pressure for each to become both an NCAA champion and franchise-level prospect mounted throughout the ‘80s.
Jim Kelly (1980-1982) is the patriarch of this club, boasting by far the least amount of college success while oddly being Miami’s best professional player. He played on Schnellenberger’s first teams that were years away from morphing into the homegrown juggernauts that his counterparts would eventually thrive with, and a separated shoulder in the third game of the 1982 season cost him a Heisman campaign when the Canes were finally ready to do some damage.* He still went fourteenth overall in the legendary draft of ‘83.
Bernie Kosar (1983-1984) was the school’s first superstar at the position since George Mira in the ‘60s. He won a title as a redshirt freshman nine years before Jameis Winston was born, and his brilliant academic record allowed him to graduate in three years with degrees in economics and finance to leave for the NFL as a mere sophomore, the first of his kind to attempt to do so. What followed was a bizarrely complicated (albeit fascinating) process in which duplicitous dealings by several teams eventually culminated in Kosar circumventing the normal procedure to be taken by his home-state Browns in the supplemental draft. The rules were amended a few seasons later after Oklahoma’s Brian Bosworth pulled a similar stunt, but by this time Bernie’s brains were probably already scrambled behind those shitty Cleveland O-Lines.
It would take a hell of a player to be as coveted by NFL GMs, scouts, and fans alike as the guy who encouraged several teams to stab each other in the back in their mad dash to trade for his draft rights, but Vinny Testaverde (1985-1986) was the most physically talented of any quarterback of Miami heritage. Six-five, 235, and flashing the laser rocket arm that Peyton Manning brags about in those Sprint commercials made Vinny the no-doubt number-one pick and Heisman Trophy recipient during his spectacular senior season; he still went first overall to Tampa Bay after he threw an eye-popping five picks against Penn State in one of the biggest chokes in bowl history. Testaverde became one of the few first-round quarterbacks in NFL lore to completely suck ass in his first destination before redeeming himself as a pretty good player elsewhere in the league.
Steve Walsh (1987-1988) had none of his predecessor’s height or arm talent, but his football acumen was considered by scouts to be unrivaled among amateur players. He was Chad Pennington’s prototype, really. The Hurricanes won another title in his first year as the starter and Walsh left early for the draft after his offensive coordinator wasn’t named Jimmy Johnson’s successor, only to hook back up with his old coach in Dallas in one of the all-time head-scratching moments in football history — Johnson spending the first selection in the 1989 supplemental draft (AKA the soon-to-be first-fucking-pick in the 1990 NFL Draft once the Cowboys went 1-15) on Walsh when they had just taken Troy Aikman first overall in April. It didn’t end up coming back to bite the eventual Dallas dynasty, but goddamn, Jimmy sure tried to make it happen.
Craig Erickson (1989-1990) became a two-year starter once Walsh decided to forego his senior season. Like Walsh, Miami won the national championship in his first year at the helm, and Erickson was projected to be a first-round pick in the 1991 draft until he tore three of four ligaments in his knee while practicing for the Hula Bowl in January. The toll included his medial collateral ligament — the one he needed to plant and throw. Erickson fell to the fifth round and started two seasons for the Buccaneers, his only years as a first-stringer in the pros.
Last and most certainly least in the talent department was Torretta (1991-1992), the guy who went in the seventh round of the 1993 NFL Draft but won the Heisman as a senior, something that first-overall picks Kosar, Testaverde, and Walsh could never say. He’s now part of a three-pronged punch line with Eric Crouch and Tim Tebow that proves winning the award means jack shit for NFL success, but Torretta was good enough to bring home Miami’s fourth national title and be the last competent quarterback the school would have for a decade.**
NO school has since come close to matching this sextet’s combined success in college and the pros. USC has gotten several fantastic seasons out of Carson Palmer, Matt Leinart, John David Booty, Mark Sanchez, and Matt Barkley, but only Palmer amounted to anything in the NFL. Michigan’s had tons of NFL draft picks since Jim Kelly first became a Cane — Jim Harbaugh, Elvis Grbac, Todd Collins, Brian Griese, Tom Brady, Drew Henson, John Navarre, and Chad Henne — but their collective NCAA accomplishments pale in comparison to the Miami Six. BYU had a brilliant stretch with Jim McMahon, Steve Young, Robbie Bosco, and Ty Detmer as one of college football’s first pass-happy identities, but c’mon, six. Six great quarterbacks, all in a row.
(The first person to suggest Texas Tech is getting mean-mugged.)
So yeah, I guess the point of this article was to say that Jim Kelly was good at football, and that Bernie Kosar was good at football, and that Vinny Testaverde was good at football, etc. So… you’re welcome? This probably wasn’t anything groundbreaking, but it is worthy to note that outside of three seasons of Ken Dorsey amidst The U’s millennium revival, Miami hasn’t really had a quarterback worth a damn in the last twenty-some years. Zero have been drafted since 2003.
To put it into perspective just how much the mindset has changed in Hurricane country, 2014 recruit Brad Kaaya (No. 141 overall on 247 and No. 189 on Rivals) is considered by one Miami writer to be “very much the future of the program”. Kaaya’s a nice prospect, but the Canes were once swimming in five-star talent at that position. Kosar and Testaverde were both blue-chip players in the same recruiting class that fought tooth-and-nail for the starting job, pushing each other to be better quarterbacks in the process, and Walsh, Erickson, and Torretta were subsequently offered by any college that could afford to send them mail back when they were prep stars. There was always a next-man-in philosophy that allowed Miami to groom these stars for years before plugging them into the system for a few seasons of excellent play, but quarterback development in Coral Gables has seemingly gone to shit ever since mega-bust Kyle Wright stepped foot on campus.
As a neutral bystander, though, the Hurricanes’ struggle with signal-callers only helps to illuminate just how good the school had it from 1980 through 1992. There was no coincidence in its execution, and luck played little of a factor; excellent coaching, ace recruiting, and the players’ willingness to sit and learn created this historical anomaly, and as someone who appreciates elite quarterback play more than anything else in sports, I would love to live through a similar streak at another powerhouse program.
I just wouldn’t bet on that ever happening.
* Kelly’s backup that year? Georgia head coach Mark Richt.
** Torretta was Dorsey and Dorsey was Torretta. The only differences were their jersey numbers and an 11-year age gap.
Brandon Magner (@BrandonMagner) is a recent graduate of the University of Kentucky and will begin attending the Gatton College of Business and Economics in June.