Several months following the University of Miami's heroic victory over Nebraska in the 1984 Orange Bowl -- called by many The Greatest Upset In College Football History -- someone watching the Hurricanes' quarterbacks work their arms against a make-do dummy defense eventually felt compelled to ask, "Which one's Bernie?"
As only a redshirt freshman in 1983, Bernie Kosar led the Hurricanes to a national championship. The following preseason, those who sat on the bleachers of the Miami practice field saw two gangly, curly-haired fellows let go passes of remarkable precision from behind an invisible offensive line. The two quarterbacks possessed a similar dropback and delivery. They could wing it sidearmed as well as overhand, on the run or from a dead, seven-step setup.
The one with the quicker feet and stronger arm, it turns out, spent most of his time on the bench. He was the second-teamer, a hanger-on from Elmont, N.Y. His name was Vinny Testaverde, and his coach would come to call him "the greatest player playing in college football today."
"The greatest," Jimmy Johnson said recently on the phone. "Vinny Testaverde is unbelievable."
Over the last few weeks, Johnson has called something else unbelievable, and it isn't even human. It alternately has confounded and excited Johnson since his team, ranked second in the Associated Press college football poll, pulled within a whisper of slipping off with its second national title in three years.
Johnson can't believe someone would vote Oklahoma No. 1 if the Sooners -- third in the AP poll -- beat top-ranked and undefeated Penn State in the Orange Bowl and the Hurricanes beat Tennessee in the Sugar. He can't believe that the community of experts who decide such things would overlook the Hurricanes' overwhelming 27-14 victory at Oklahoma on Oct. 19.
"In my mind," Johnson said, "if Penn State wins, Penn State deserves to be crowned the national champs, whether they're the best team or not. It's a lot like BYU last year. But if Oklahoma wins, Miami deserves it."
This time of year, most coaches find themselves trying to convince prized high school recruits that their university is the one with which to sign a national letter-of-intent. But some make another lobby their top priority, and that is convincing the nation's sportswriters that their school deserves a No. 1 ranking.
The coaches poll, conducted by United Press International, has Oklahoma in the No. 2 spot, Iowa third and Miami situated uncomfortably at fourth. If the Oklahoma wishbone kicks into high gear come New Year's Day and the Sooners beat Penn State, the UPI poll likely would rank them first and leave Miami lost in the muddle of also-rans.
"When I see people vote for Oklahoma over us, I immediately ask myself, 'What in the world?' " Johnson said. "They're the same people who cry for a one-game playoff to decide who's best. Do it again? Play 'em on the field again? We already did that. And we won. Don't they remember that? We won!"
Two years ago, when Howard Schnellenberger was coach at Miami and Johnson the boss at Oklahoma State, the Hurricanes leaped from No. 5 to No. 1 after defeating previously unbeaten Nebraska, 31-30, in the 1984 Orange Bowl. Kosar, now playing with the Cleveland Browns, emerged as a star of rare magnitude. Kosar turned pro with two years of college eligibility remaining, providing what Testaverde called an "opportunity to start and prove that I could do as good as anybody."
Testaverde, generally anything but confessional, predicted certain victory against Florida in the season opener. Instead, the Gators won, 35-23.
"We came into the year totally unknown," he said. "We were unranked in most preseason polls and everybody was saying we wouldn't be that good. Losing to Florida, it gave us a lot of anger and frustration to overcome. It was like something we had to get rid of and the only way to get rid of it was to win. We've worked hard. We're working for greatness now."
The Hurricanes have won 10 consecutive games since that loss to Florida, including victories against Florida State, Maryland, Colorado State and Notre Dame to end the season. Testaverde's offense, ranked fourth in the country, averaged 464 yards a game, and he finished fifth in the Heisman Trophy balloting. His 21 touchdown passes were four short of tying Kosar for the Miami single-season record. His coach describes his potential as unlimited, as he does his team's. And the coach reminds everyone that they are mere babies, that they'll improve.
"We've got 21 starters coming back," he says.
The Hurricanes' strongest case for No. 1 happened Oct. 19 before about 75,000 in Norman, Okla., and a national television audience. The victory made Testaverde's name less difficult to pronounce for the nation of Miami supporters. After Oklahoma tied the score in the second period, the big quarterback called his own number and took a naked bootleg into the end zone for a touchdown. He made it look so easy, Johnson said, that late in the third quarter, leading 27-7, Johnson decided to "sit on the ball and ride the rest of the way home."
"We dominated," he said. "We controlled it the whole way through. At Oklahoma, with all their tradition, and the number of championship trophies they have in their trophy case, and the reputation, people automatically put them in the front of the class.
"It's not like that at Miami. At Miami, we have to go out and prove ourselves before we're given anything."