From 'Cane Mutiny by Bruce Feldman. Reprinted by arrangement with New American Library, a member of Penguin Group (USA), Inc. Copyright (c) Bruce Feldman, 2004.
The team motto for the 2005 season is No Excuses. That came from strength coach Andreu Swasey. "It just fits," Swasey says. "And it's something I don't ever wanna hear -- Aw, my toe hurts or I'm not ready right now. No. These guys are taking responsibility as a whole and taking ownership, because they are embarrassed. Everybody's embarrassed, but they're not sitting back and making excuses and talking because they know the only thing they can control now is the future."
One online service, Sportsline.com, even had UM ranked 18th in the preseason despite having 10 starters back on defense. "Do you believe that?" cornerback/returnman Devin Hester huffed. "Eighteenth?!? That's a big slap in the face for us. Man, Miami, Eight-teeeeenth?"
No one around UM is more fired up than [assistant head coach Art] Kehoe. Just mention USC and his nostrils flare. "We're 57-7 and have produced 20 first-rounders in five years," he says, as his voice rises. "We've won seven of our last eight bowl games and the only loss was in double overtime for a national title. Is this program on a down? I hope everybody thinks we're on a downhill slide. I don't think so. I like where we're heading.
"USC has done a great job, but their Virginia Tech game [a 24-13 Trojan come-from-behind win] turned on one of the worst calls I've ever seen. And they beat UCLA [by five points] and were they a good team last year? Stanford had them down 11 points. But USC is winning. We lost three games we should've won, and we didn't. But if people think Miami is going downhill, bring it on. That's all I got to say, bring it on! Go ahead, doubt us. Think you can whip our ass, because it ain't happening."
Swasey doesn't think so either. He says he'd be "shocked" if the Canes weren't playing for a national title again in 2005. Can't fathom it, he says. "I'm basing that on the past and what I see here now, how they're disciplined and how they carry themselves."
Ironically, one of the leaders who has emerged is none other than Willie Williams, the former controversial linebacker recruit. He is a redshirt freshman now and coming off a tumultuous 2004. Even his admission to UM was big news since Miami president Donna Shalala made an unprecedented move, sending a letter to the entire university community, alums and all, explaining the stipulations Williams would have to follow, which included extra academic and off-campus monitoring. Williams roomed with offensive lineman Adam Bates, one of the program's top students. Then, Williams tore a right knee ligament early in fall practice, underwent surgery, only to break his thumb later in the season. On his way to the Peach Bowl, he had a car accident in which he lost control of his Chevrolet Tahoe on uneven pavement, flipped and slid for almost 100 yards. He and his two passengers walked away sore, but unhurt.
Still, the talk of bowl practice was how Willie flew around sideline-to-sideline. Following UM's second spring practice Williams was allowed to speak with the media for the first time in his career at Miami, where he discussed his past and his gratitude toward UM for sticking by him. "I'm going to make sure they made the right decision because everything I did wrong, I'm working to make it right," he said. "I know I did some things in the past, made some mistakes, but everybody makes mistakes. I can't fault anybody but myself."
Williams says the toughest part may have been when he was in limbo for about six months after his celebrated Signing Day decision choosing Miami over FSU, when he was waiting to see if the UM administration would admit him. "Man, that was so stressful," he said of the waiting time to see if UM would take him. "I can't even say what that meant and how it did me. I made mistakes in the past and everything. That was so stressful. I felt it was all over at some points. But UM gave me a chance, so now I've got to prove myself."
In truth, he already has, according to Swasey. "He's the one kid who actually is underneath the radar," says Swasey. "And what I mean is that people have no idea what kind of leadership ability this guy has. He's a great leader, very charismatic. He has influenced a lot of people. But I'm not surprised, and if people spoke to this kid and got to know him maybe they wouldn't be surprised either. They'd be very, very impressed. He has proven day-in and day-out to me that his character is second to none. He is so driven and he is going to be a great leader for us.
"Willie has the ability to motivate and to support. He's not a kid who is bitter. He is going to shine."
[Offensive lineman Eric] Winston likes what he's seen too. Although he's still a little skeptical until Williams shows it in real games. There's a lot to measure up to at UM as a linebacker, Winston says.
Then again, they all have a lot to measure up to.
Bruce Feldman is a senior writer at ESPN The Magazine. He also writes a regular weblog for ESPN.com.