It's Hurricane season in Southern Florida. Not the torrential wind and rainstorms that threaten havoc on the Miami area every autumn, but the University of Miami Hurricanes who have surprised college football observers by winning their first four games -- two against 1979 bowl teams -- and blowing into South Bend, Ind., this week threatening to ruin Notre Dame's undefeated season Saturday.
After having lost the support of the university and 35 of 54 football games the last five years under four different coaches, the Miami team now is enjoying its most successful season since 1966, when the Hurricanes won the Liberty Bowl.
Miami, under the leadership of second-year Coach Howard Schnellenberger -- a successful pro assistant but a flop as an NFL head coach -- is ranked 13th nationally. It has gotten there by limiting opponents to an astonishing 15.7 yards per game rushing -- No. 1 nationally, of course. The Hurricanes have the third best defense overall, allowing 178 yards per game.
They opened the season with a win over Louisvile, walloped small-college neighbor Florida A&M, 49-0, then beat Cotton Bowl champ Houston and Orange Bowl participant Florida State.
Players call the 10-9 victory over the rival Seminoles their sweetest. The interstate contest was played in the Orange Bowl in front of more people (50,008) than watched the NFL's Miami Dolphins in the same stadium the next day.
"This Notre Dame contest is the biggest football game in the history of the University of Miami -- including the bowl games of the mid-'60s," said Schnellenberger. "A win now would do marvelous things for this program. Even if we were not up to the task I don't think it (a loss) would be a death blow."
An upset over the fifth-ranked Irish in South Bend could fill the Orange Bowl to its 76,000-seat brim the following week when the Hurricanes return home to face Mississippi State.
"People have wanted to support this program all along," said Schnellenberger, "but they've been skeptical the last few years with the instability. They're sort of standing by the side of the pool, ready to take the plunge but at the same time waiting to make sure it's not a mirage. But a win Saturday will make everyone believers if they aren't already."
The normally placid, palm-tree lined Miami campus is feverishly anticipating Saturday's confrontation. Seniors, who were embarrassed to wear their jerseys on campus four years ago, now sport their orange, green-and-white knits everywhere.
"This is the wildest it's been on this campus in 15 years," said George Gallet, sports information director and a spry sage who, having been at the university 44 years, qualifies as the expert on such matters.
"I can't understand why Miami isn't ranked higher then 13th," said Notre Dame Coach Dan Devine. "But our boys are smart enough to know that Miami knows that if they beat Notre Dame, they'll get recognition," said Devine.
"We're going to beat Notre Dame," Miami Athletic Director Harry Mallios confidently declared. Mallios was a standout fullback on the Hurricanes' only regular season undefeated football team, in 1950. "This team very much reminds me of that team (which lost to Clemson in the Orange Bowl) because both had strong defenses, superior player attitudes and support from all channels of the university."
Mallios took over as athletic director last year at the same time Schnellenberger was named. He vowed to bring stability to a program that had seven head coaches in eight years and seven athletic directors in 10 during the football program is again paying for itself.
But Mallios, who has grade-A rapport with the school's alumni, booster clubs and trustees (all of whom donate money to the football program), refuses to take any of the credit for the program's turnaround.
"Schnellenberger deserves the credit -- every bit of it," Mallios said. "He came in here a year and a half ago and rolled up his shirt sleeves and the fruits of that labor are finally paying off. In my 30 years here I've never seen a coach take over a program the way he has. But he won't take the credit either. Too modest. He'll always give the credit to the youngsters (players)."
"If you're successful, there's always enough credit to go around," says Schnellenberger, a handsome Barney Miller look-alike, whose well-chosen words come between puffs of a pipe that adds a distinguished air to his presence.
Schnellenberger is a strong disciplinarian, which is in direct opposition to his predecessor, Lou Saban, "who used to let things ride," according to middle guard Jim Burt, a powerhouse who can bench press Fort Lauderdale and will undoubtedly attain all-America honors if he remains healthy. "Schnellenberger is a lot more strict. Every detail is precise down to the T. He's so organized," Burt added.
Schnellenberger instituted a 5-2 defense (five down lineman, two linebackers) and an offensive system very similar to that of the Miami Dolphins where he coached as an offensive coordinator for seven years. "My coaching philosophy," he said, "is a combination of the three coaches I worked for -- Donald Shula, George Allen and Paul Bryant."
It's almost impossible not to win using a collective philosophy of that threesome.
Yet, after five years as Bear Bryant's assistant and chief recruiter at Alabama (he recruited Ken Stabler), three years under Allen at Los Angeles and three as Shula's right-hand man in Miami, Schnellenberger was a disaster in a little over a season as head coach of the Baltimore Colts. He compiled a 4-10 record in 1973 and was fired early in the next season that the Colts finished 2-12.
But he went back to Miami to work for Shula ("He did a great job for the Dolphins," the Miami coach has said) until taking the Hurricane job in 1979. d
"I studied this situation in depth when it (the coaching position) was presented to me," he said, in his office. "And I decided that the University of Miami had enough resources to make this program one of the most prominent in the nation. Our goal when I signed the five-year contract was to be the No. 1 college football team in the nation.
"We have everything Southern California and UCLA have; the climate, migration, intrasectional scheduling and an international flavor that they don't have which is becoming more important. Though we've made gains we have more to accomplish here.
"But I must admit it's a coach's dream to take an undefeated team into South Bend against the Irish. This is what Saturdays are made for."