A Questionable Call That Ended a Dynasty: Miami vs. Ohio State, 2003 Fiesta Bowl

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A Questionable Call That Ended a Dynasty: Miami vs. Ohio State, 2003 Fiesta Bowl
Jamie Squire/Getty Images

The controversial interference ruling that took the 2002-03 BCS title game into a second overtime period not only changed which team’s name went on the championship trophy, it also had a long-term effect on the program that was arguably duped out of the crystal football.

The call came during the first OT period of the 2003 Fiesta Bowl between heavily favored 12-0 Miami (Fla.) and 13-0 Ohio State, a contest which also served as the BCS national championship game that season.

The Hurricanes had scored a TD on their first OT possession—making the score 24-17—and with a 4th-and-3 situation from Miami's five-yard line, it was do-or-die for the Buckeyes.

Ohio State QB Craig Krenzel attempted a short pass into the end zone to receiver Chris Gamble which bounced around and was ruled incomplete by the side judge.

Several seconds after the call, a flag flew in from the corner of the end zone. Miami’s premature celebrations were cut short as the officiating crew quickly huddled up, leading to a pass interference call on Hurricane defender Glenn Sharpe. Sharpe had covered Gamble on the incompletion.

After the replays rolled, it was fairly clear that the call was questionable at best.

Nevertheless, the Buckeyes got a fresh set of downs from their own one-yard line. Krenzel eventually reached the end zone via a short run on third down, tying up the game and sending it into a second OT.

Ohio State scored on its next possession, taking the score to 31-24 and setting up what became Miami’s final drive of the game.

This series climaxed with a 1st-and-goal situation from OSU's two-yard line.

From here the Buckeye’s D managed an epic goal-line stand, managing to repel Miami’s attack four times to capture the win and the BCS title.

Elsa/Getty Images

Though it’s hard to deny the Buckeyes the full credit and respect due for their defensive prowess in the second OT, it would be remiss not to point out that the extra period would not have been necessary without the dubious interference call at the end of the first OT.

Yes, the entire game, and therefore the championship itself, hinged on the interference call.

If you don’t remember the call specifically, are unsure where you stand or haven’t ever seen the play, check out the video clips included below and make your own assessment.

I’ve included two separate snippets of the same controversial play because the first has commentary and analysis with a decidedly Buckeye slant, while the second argues Miami’s point of view.

This clip argues that the officials got the call right.
This clip makes a strong case for the call being absolutely wrong.

However interesting “The Call” is to argue and contemplate in terms of the impact on the specific game and immediate championship implications, looking back now that a decade has passed, it’s even more intriguing to discuss its long-term influence.

Consider this: Ohio State won the title and has gone to a 103-24 record since that night, including six Big Ten titles. Miami, on the other hand, walked away empty-handed and has gone 77-48, including only one Big East crown (in 2003).

So, the big question looms, was the dubious interference ruling at the end of the second OT in the 2003 Fiesta Bowl the call that ended a dynasty?

Well, first let’s put the whole “dynasty” tag into perspective.

Before the 2002-03 season, Miami enjoyed two dynastic runs separated by five seasons of relative mediocrity we’ll refer to simply as “83 percent of the Butch Davis era.”

First, from 1983 (Howard Schnellenberger’s final year) through 1994 (which includes all of Jimmy Johnson and Dennis Erickson’s tenures), the Hurricanes went 126-19, including four national championships.

The second fruitful period came from 2000 (Butch Davis’ final season) through 2003 (Larry Coker’s third year at the helm), when Miami went 46-4 and captured the 2001 national championship.

Brian Bahr/Getty Images
The Hurricanes celebrate their 2001-02 national championship win over Nebraska in the Rose Bowl

So, the first run was definitely a dynasty and the second was looking good until the disputed call at the end of the first OT of the 2003 Fiesta Bowl.

Since we’ve determined that yes, there was a dynasty and OK, it did fizzle after the questionable call, next it’s prudent to investigate what caused it to end.

For the sake of simplicity, we’ll split the analysis into three major underlying causes: recruiting, coaching and conference alignment.

 

Recruiting

The key to how Howard Schnellenberger took what had been a “rough” program in south Florida and turn it into a glittering “diamond” was his ability to convince local talent—which had flocked to other programs in the past—to stay home and play at Miami.

And this local success led to bigger and better recruiting wins further afield as the Hurricanes built their football dynasty.

Though earlier team recruiting rankings are difficult to uncover, back in 2002 SI.com published a list of top 10 recruiting programs from the years 1992 through 2001.

These go a long way in explaining the tail end of the first dynasty at Miami and then the short drought before the second winning streak got underway. According to this chart, the Hurricanes scored top-10 recruiting classes from 1992 through 1994 and then basically fell off the map until the classes of 2000 and 2001.

This is no small coincidence, to be sure.

Picking back up with the team rankings from Rivals.com which begin from 2002 onwards, we see that in the years after “The Call,” Miami managed to recruit in the top 10 until 2006.

It’s the somewhat harmless No. 14 ranking in 2006 where the wheels start to come off the cart, leading to a slow decline that ended with a modern-day low No. 36 ranking in 2011.

Doug Benc/Getty Images
The 2006 Hurricanes with Larry Coker

Think about it this way: Since going 12-1 in 2002—or since “The Call”—the Hurricanes have only hit double-digit wins again once, and that came immediately afterwards in 2003 when they went 11-3.

Since then, in nine seasons, Miami has never gone over the nine-win mark. As far as recruiting goes, it’s hard to say whether the downward spiral in recruiting caused the win totals to drop or vice versa.

Either way, it’s impossible not to link the end of the recruiting dominance with the end of the dynasty, which ended with the dubious call that night in Tempe, Ariz.

 

Coaching

When you’ve got the facilities, recruits and cold hard cash, sometimes it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that you need the right guy to manage the entire project to get it successfully to the finish line ahead of your competitors.

Though this is true in all businesses, in the business of sport it is even more true.

To put a finer point on it, you can have all the recruits, money, etc. but without the right coach you aren’t going to win championships.

In the case of the decline of Miami football after the 2003 Fiesta Bowl, it would be careless not to mention coaching as a factor.

Though Larry Coker went 35-2 over his first three seasons at Miami (2001-03), it’s difficult to understand how he managed to drop to 18-6 from 2004 to 2005 and then 7-6 in 2006.

Of course, this needs to be seen through the perspective of the move into the ACC, which we’ll discuss in our final point. But with the recruiting numbers staying fairly steady through ’06, the regression still seems curious.

After Coker left at the end of the 2007 season, Randy Shannon was brought in. Despite rising to a 9-4 record in 2009, he left Miami with a 28-22 prior to the 2010 bowl game.

Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images
Randy Shannon went 28-22 from 2007 through 2010 at Miami.

At the helm presently is Al Golden, whose 13-11 mark over two seasons needs to be seen in light of the Shapiro scandal, which he was unaware of when he initially took the job over in 2011.

Regardless of how you slice it, and even if Golden turns out to be the right guy, the next Jimmy Johnson, Dennis Erickson, Howard Schnellenberger or early-era Larry Coker has yet to take over the sidelines at Miami.

And this is something that has been sorely missed since that questionable call at the end of the first OT of the 2003 Fiesta Bowl.

 

Conference Alignment

After successfully ramping up its second dynastic period, Miami was approached by the ACC, which was looking to expand its conference to 12 members and split its football offering into two divisions.

While this was obviously a financially driven move, the other side of the equation was that the basketball-dominant ACC was looking to strengthen its football resume beyond being the league that was Florida State’s launch pad to national greatness.

So, the Hurricanes get duped by the bad call at the end of the second OT of the 2003 Fiesta Bowl—or BCS national title game—and at the apex of their reign over the Big East and college football they decide to cash in all their chips and join the ACC.

The timing was perfect. Remember it was July of 2003, only seven months after the arguably blown call, when, as per a New York Times article, Miami president Donna Shalala told James Barker (then the President of both Clemson and the ACC), “Ready or not, here we come.”

But, ironically, other than capturing a final Big East title in 2003 and being blasted by the NCAA over the Shapiro inquest recently, isn’t it interesting that Hurricane football hasn’t been heard from since?

And when I say they haven’t been heard from since, look at the numbers.

Since Miami joined the ACC in 2004—a move that, again, came just months after “The Call”—it has posted a 66-46 record, hasn’t captured a championship of any kind (divisional or otherwise), is 2-4 in bowl play and has only posted win totals over seven once in seven tries.

Jamie Squire/Getty Images

So, what looked like a late flag zipping through the air from the corner of end zone one January evening in 2003 may have spelled far more than a supreme lucky break for the Buckeyes and/or the ultimate screwing over for the Hurricanes.

Yes, the questionable call in the 2003 Fiesta Bowl may have done far more than possibly taint Ohio State’s 2002-03 BCS title; it may have signaled the end of the dynastic period of Miami Hurricanes football.

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