Kenny Calhoun was trying to catch his breath. He’d just failed on the biggest play of his life.
With 57 seconds left in the 1984 Orange Bowl, Nebraska had fourth-and-8 at the Miami 24-yard line, trailing 31-24. One stop and Calhoun’s Hurricanes could celebrate an epic upset.
Turner Gill took the snap, pumped his arm toward Irving Fryar and dashed right on an option play. When a Miami defender met him at the 23, Gill flipped the ball to I-back Jeff Smith, who raced down the sideline to the end zone.
Calhoun’s assignment was outside containment. He bit on the fake on Fryar, giving Smith the alley he needed. He blew it. 31-30.
Then Calhoun noticed that Nebraska’s kicker was still on the sideline. Tom Osborne was going for two. He had another chance.
“I was really feeling bad at that point,” Calhoun said this week. “I said a prayer and asked God to be with me, bless me and put me in a position where I could make a play.”
* * *
From Bob Devaney’s arrival in 1962 to Eric Crouch’s departure in 2001, every college football program in America lost 110 games or more.
Except Nebraska. The Huskers lost 78, fewer than two per season.
This stunning record of excellence, however, did not shield the Cornhuskers from heartbreak. In fact, the infrequency of defeats only made the 78 more painful.
In four decades, the worst gut punch — the lowest moment of all — happened just after midnight at the ’84 Orange Bowl, when Gill rolled right one more time.
Who could’ve envisioned the scenario when Calhoun and Wilber Marshall were teammates at Astronaut High School near Cape Canaveral? The saying in the late ’70s was Florida gets the blue chips and Miami gets the cow chips. Marshall signed with the Gators; Calhoun headed south.
Miami had six head coaches from 1970-78, going 31-56. Rumor had it, the university might drop football altogether. Then Howard Schnellenberger left Don Shula’s Dolphins staff and moved across town.
He looked like Captain Kangaroo, but he talked a better game. He wore $300 lizard-skin boots on the sideline and he had a 7-foot sailfish mounted behind his office desk. He smoked a pipe, the eternal symbol of maturity, patience and tolerance, Schnellenberger told Sports Illustrated.
“Did you ever meet a pipe smoker you couldn’t trust?”
Miami went 5-6, 9-3, 9-2 and 7-4 his first four seasons. Good, not great. In ’83, the Hurricanes opened at Marshall’s place, Florida.
Unranked Miami played like cow chips, committing seven turnovers in a 28-3 loss. Imagine the odds of a national championship run after that performance.
But the ’Canes won 10 straight behind freshman quarterback Bernie Kosar and a rugged defense. When they beat Florida State, 17-16, on Nov. 12, they earned a spot in the Orange Bowl. Pundits likened them to the Washington Generals.
“Nebraska is so much better than any other team ... it’s a joke,” Bryant Gumbel told his “Today Show” audience.
Comments like that one, Calhoun said, “fired us up pretty good.”
Nebraska was the talk of college football in 1983. The Huskers averaged 52 points per game during an era when even the best offenses were averaging less than 28. But Calhoun hadn’t watched NU much until bowl preparation.
“I remember seeing them on film and they looked absolutely awesome,” Calhoun said. “I would see Dean Steinkuhler pull on a toss sweep, I’d see a safety or a corner come up. Then the next play, I wouldn’t see that number on the field anymore because Steinkuhler smashed ’em and de-cleated ’em and they had to bring in another corner or safety. I was like, ‘Wow, these guys are baaaaaad.’ ”
But not unbeatable, Schnellenberger preached.
He told his team that Nebraska hadn’t seen a defense like Miami’s. Hadn’t seen a passing game like Miami’s. When Osborne tried to confuse Kosar by switching the jerseys of monster back Mike McCashland and cornerback Dave Burke in pregame warmups, Schnellenberger pounced.
“They’re afraid of you,” he said in the locker room. “They’re scared to death.”
* * *
For 59 minutes, Nebraska and Miami engaged in one of the greatest college football games of all time. Then, somehow, the Orange Bowl got better.
Smith crossed the goal line with 48 seconds left and Osborne never hesitated. He called a play that, Calhoun said, “would’ve worked 100 percent of the time.”
But in 50 days of preparation for the Orange Bowl, Miami’s defensive coaches discovered a Husker tendency.
In critical situations, Osborne liked to roll Gill out of the pocket and throw to a running back. He called it “51 Halfback Flat.” When NU scored, defensive coordinator Tom Olivadotti called his special defense.
Nebraska lined up on the left hash, trips to the right. The outside receiver was Scott Kimball, irrelevant to the play. The middle receiver, the All-American Fryar, ran a slant to the middle of the end zone. The third receiver, Smith, was the primary option. His route would go behind Fryar into the flat. He should’ve been wide open.
But Olivadotti’s adjustment gave Calhoun freedom to drop his man-to-man responsibility. Instead of sticking with Fryar, he switched to Smith.
Gill took five quick steps and threw off his right foot. The ball was slightly behind Smith. Calhoun, wearing No. 2, dove into the path and got his right hand on the ball. Actually, that’s not right.
“Two fingers,” he said. “The forefinger and the middle finger.”
The ball changed direction, deflecting off Smith’s shoulder pad. Calhoun heard the crowd erupt. He jumped up, pumped his fist, took off his helmet and walked to the sideline, experiencing the oddest emotion.
Relief. Without the two-point conversion play, Calhoun said, he would’ve been the goat.
“(People would say) Ken Calhoun allowed them to score and they went on to beat the University of Miami. What a dope.”
Instead he was the hero, the man who capped the biggest win in school history, the man who put Miami on the college football map. If Calhoun doesn’t get two fingers on the ball, maybe the ’Canes don’t become the juggernaut of the 1980s.
Calhoun didn’t sleep that night. Too much adrenaline. The next day, Miami received the cherry: the No. 1 ranking.
* * *
That night was probably the last time you ever saw Kenny Calhoun. When you heard his name over the past 32 years, you probably thought of No. 2 deflecting the pass and stopping the best offense in college football history. You felt the Husker gut punch all over again.
But that wasn’t the end of Calhoun’s story.
He had one more season at Miami. It was a stormy one. Schnellenberger left for the USFL. Jimmy Johnson’s Hurricanes, ranked No. 1 in September, went 8-5. At Notre Dame, Calhoun suffered a blowout fracture to the bone around his eye and missed four games.
Then came senior day against Boston College. Leading 45-41 with six seconds left, Doug Flutie heaved the ball 65 yards over Calhoun’s head and into Gerard Phelan’s arms.
It was Calhoun’s last game at the Orange Bowl. In ’85, he tried out with the Buccaneers, but they waived him before he played an NFL game. He returned to Miami and served as a graduate assistant for Johnson. The past 28 years, he’s worked in law enforcement.
He’s a captain at the Polk County Jail in central Florida. Inmates remember the ’84 Orange Bowl, which makes Calhoun a little cooler than the typical cop.
“We get some of the same customers coming in and out, you know?” Calhoun said. “They know the history.”
Occasionally Calhoun will meet an older Husker fan who recalls his name. He doesn’t mind reminiscing. Framed in his home office, he keeps a newspaper photo of the two-point play. He attended Orange Bowls against Nebraska in the late ’80s and early ’90s, but he’s never been on the field face to face with the Huskers.
That’s about to change.
Miami named Calhoun an honorary captain for Saturday’s game. Along with two other Hurricane legends who beat NU in bowl games, Calhoun will walk to the 50-yard line and participate in the coin toss. The memories will come rushing back, he’s sure of it.
“I’m just looking for the result to be the same.”
Contact the writer: