MIAMI, JAN. 3 -- hese should be the best of times for the University of Miami. The Hurricanes, the college football team that dominated the 1980s with three national championships, finished the 1990 season ranked third in the nation. There are many who believe they are even better than that, that on New Year's Day they were the best team in the nation when they dominated then third-ranked Texas, 46-3, in the Cotton Bowl in Dallas.

But none of that seems to matter now. Coach Dennis Erickson, the man who has led the Hurricanes to a 21-3 record in his two years, told Miami Herald sports editor Edwin Pope: "This has been the worst year of my life. . . . I'm sure not proud of some of this stuff."

University President Edward T. Foote II, searching for an athletic director to replace Sam Jankovich, has said, "I want an athletic director at this university who takes those responsibilities off the field as seriously as those on the field, and who cares as much about winning right as he does winning, period."

Pope, the learned voice of Miami sports over three decades, said today: "What happened has a terrible, terrible impact. The team had gone out and made a lot of progress this year, and out in Dallas there even was a cartoon in one of the papers showing the players with halos. Now, they are well on their way to erasing the whole thing and going back to where they started."

What happened was this: The Hurricanes taunted, danced and intimidated their way to a school-record 16 penalties for a Cotton Bowl and school record 202 yards, 132 in the first half. Nine of those penalties were 15-yarders for unsportsmanlike conduct or personal fouls. Three of those were called on Miami players fighting Texas tackle Stan Thomas at various times. Thomas called Miami players "arrogant" and "typical gangsters" during the week and questioned how they were smart enough to graduate.

"That had a great deal of an effect on the game," Erickson said at a postgame news conference.

On their first drive, the Hurricanes began with first down and 40 yards to go after a personal foul and unsportsmanlike conduct penalty. For the game, there were three illegal celebrations -- on two touchdowns and a Texas fumble.

There also was a stunning scene at the start of the game, when the Hurricanes ran up to the Longhorns at midfield and wiggled their hips and fingers. Erickson said that incident "terribly surprised" him.

Two days later, as stories filled the newspapers here and almost everyone debated the Hurricanes' behavior, there were no apologies from the players involved.

"It might be embarrassing to the university and the coaches, but it's not to the players," senior center Darren Handy told the Herald. "We enjoy it. It's like a show. People from Texas came to see Miami's swarming defense, high-scoring offense and what new dances we had come up with. We gave them their money's worth."

Erickson, who has repeatedly pledged to change the image of the Hurricanes, declined to be interviewed today. He did release a statement saying he was disappointed and embarrassed by actions that "took away from what was a great win otherwise." Erickson said he'll meet with his players to discuss their behavior.

"We have made a lot of progress in those areas and I am certain we will continue to improve," he said in the statement. "Those things don't change overnight."

It appears as if the Miami players openly defied Erickson. The Hurricanes have been the bad boys of college football since they arrived for the Fiesta Bowl after the 1986 season against Penn State wearing battle fatigues. Under former coach Jimmy Johnson, there were numerous incidents of taunting and dancing.

Erickson replaced Johnson at the start of the 1989 season. After what Pope called "the pelvic-thrust act" in the 1990 season's second game, at California, things quieted down and Miami played the rest of the season without incident.

Apparently, some of the players decided they didn't like playing that way.

"He's been trying to do that all year," senior cornerback Robert Bailey said after the game of Erickson's clamp-down on the dancing and taunting. "We were very, very upset after that. He screamed at us and told us the next person who dances won't play. And we really got low-key after that. This game? We figured this is the last game and there's not much he can do after this. So you can't blame him, you have to blame us."

Bailey got things started early, knocking down Texas's Chris Samuels with a hard hit on the opening kickoff. Bailey went over to the Miami section of the stands and dropped backward to imitate a dead faint.

"I just ran over him," Bailey said. "I was a little concerned because he tried to get up and he fell again, and I was saying, I was screaming across the field, 'We're here now, we're here, you know we're here.' "

Bailey said Erickson told his team before the Cotton Bowl to "have fun." Then the coach left the room.

"When Coach Erickson left, we told each other, 'We're really going to have fun. We're going to show this nation that we're back,' " Bailey said.