There are puzzling occurrences at Miami, where it is said the flamboyant Michael Irvin recently donned a coat and tie and the loquacious Benny Blades actually refrained from comment. What is happening in the seasonless land of palm groves and pastel-colored fountains is that the Hurricanes are trying to become sedate.
Coach Jimmy Johnson has distributed a 42-page code of conduct book, and among the newly instituted rules are that the Hurricanes look presentable, that they avoid making malicious remarks in public and that they abide by the law. All of this for the specific purpose of remaking a flashy reputation that Johnson acknowledges has become a problem.
"People identify us by association with 'Miami Vice' and crime in south Florida," Johnson said. "That's what we're trying to correct, and we're going overboard to make sure there are absolutely no incidents."
But trying to subdue the Hurricanes is like trying to turn off the Miami sun. With 18 starters returning from last year's team that lost to Penn State in the Fiesta Bowl, they are not decidedly different from the group labeled wanton outlaws. While they have acquiesced to Johnson's rules, the Hurricanes (3-0) remain frequently outrageous, highly amusing and yet again a national championship contender going into Saturday's game against Maryland.
"Under the coats and ties," Johnson said, "they're the same people."
Over the course of last season, there was a rash of off-the-field allegations ranging from fighting with a police officer to gas siphoning to weapons possession. When defensive lineman Jerome Brown led them through the Phoenix airport in battle fatigues en route to the Fiesta Bowl, they became symbols of anarchy in college football.
This season, the Hurricanes are not so sedate that running back Melvin Bratton could resist waving some Arkansas cheerleaders into the huddle a couple of weeks ago. Trailing Florida State by 19-3 in the third period last week, the Hurricanes brazenly held four fingers in the air signaling they would come back in the fourth quarter. They did.
They mock when they're up, laugh when they're down and win amidst a stream of smart-aleck chatter. "Coats and ties? No problem," Irvin said. "We like to dress up." They are a close fraternity that congregates every evening for card games. Sometimes, all-America defensive back Blades confesses, they actually watch game films.
"It's not really to study," Blades said. "We laugh at who gets their head knocked in."
Overall, this ruthlessly confident team has won 24 straight regular season games, the longest active streak in the nation, and played for the national championship twice in the past two seasons. Florida State Coach Bobby Bowden says the Hurricanes are "so good they ought to be on strike," a reference to their pro-style ability. Of their personalities, Penn State linebacker Trey Bauer says, "They act like jerks."
But Penn State Coach Joe Paterno may have the best perception. "Underneath all the talk they're like everybody else," he said. "Just kids."
If there is a substantial change from last season, it is that the Hurricanes' antics are less ugly. They are a less arrogant, slightly wiser team that has recognized a need for Johnson's new rules. Miami lost both national championship games, to Tennessee in the 1985 Sugar Bowl and to Penn State last season, and it is tired of being disliked.
"We set out this year saying, why talk before the game is even played," Blades said. "We decided to just do it in action . . . The main reason for the change is, we thought that if you looked in the heart of everyone here, there was more good stuff inside than anyone knew."
The Fiesta Bowl loss was particularly hard to bear, for the Hurricanes were heavy favorites. When Penn State won, it was perceived as a victory for the righteous over the scandalous, and the Hurricanes were mortified.
There was also the realization that a little reorganization might help the Hurricanes play for the national championship again this season. So far, they have beaten Arkansas by 51-7 and Florida State by 26-25 last week with three touchdowns in the last 18 minutes. Of their remaining eight games, they'll face meek teams like Miami of Ohio and Toledo until finishing with Notre Dame and South Carolina. Should they remain unbeaten, this time they want to play for the national title as a team to be admired.
"I don't know if it's a conscious effort to tone it down or what, but we needed this," Irvin said. "What we don't need is people cutting us. I think we realized in the long run it could hurt us, the school and our image."
Images aside, it is difficult to judge whether the Hurricanes are the hard cases they have been made out to be in the last couple of seasons or merely suffer from stereotyping. Johnson claims it's a little bit of both: there have been some isolated problems, but few people have bothered to look beyond the reputation.
"When the allegations were proved false, you never heard about it," Johnson said. "But I would also say that, realistically, anytime you have 95 young men at that age, you're not going to have 95 angels."
Those who look closer will discover Miami has much to recommend it. Johnson has raised the graduation rate from a dismal 9 percent in 1983 to 73 percent currently. He has instituted accelerated studies so seniors enter their final season close to their degrees and are not as likely to abandon them while waiting for the NFL draft. Defensive back Selwyn Brown already has his degree, Bratton is just three credits short and cornerback Tolbert Bain is six shy.
The team's new personality is perhaps more defined by quarterback Steve Walsh, a quiet redshirt sophomore who has been accurate and efficient, and who also happened to be a national honor society student in high school in St. Paul, Minn.
"You follow your quarterback and Steve is our white collar leader," Irvin said. "That's the attitude we follow. Vinny was rowdy and Jerome was going to speak his mind. Now, we're just taking on a new role."
At first, Walsh slipped unobstrusively into the offense, but in three games he has completed 50 passes in 84 attempts for 793 yards and five touchdowns. He lends the offense a consistent quality, averaging 369 yards a game, with Irvin the big-play maker with 12 catches for 309 yards and three touchdowns. On defense, all-America Blades is the chief returning leader to a squad that allows 285 yards a game.
Because of his retiring nature, it has been said Walsh lacks the big-play, quick-strike ability of Heisman Trophy-winner Vinny Testaverde or his predecessors, Bernie Kosar and Jim Kelly. But any doubt that Walsh lacks charisma faded against Florida State. In the last 18 minutes, he completed seven of 12 passes for 186 yards and three touchdowns.
"I always talk about how intelligent he is," Johnson said. "But the first thing people say is, 'Well, if he's intelligent he must not be talented.' So now I just don't say anything."
Walsh's reputation for humble intelligence helps immeasurably for a team trying to social-climb. But Johnson said he has no intention of instituting marshal law just to conform to an image.
"I want them to keep their individuality," he said. "It's a fine line. Some purists would prefer they not have so much to say. But I want them to have fun, and they have to say what they think."
And they do.