2001 Miami Hurricanes make case for college football's best ever

Miami's 2001 championship team has spent the last 20 years watching as others tried -- and failed -- to dethrone it as the best that ever was. AP Photo/Cal Sport Media

As the 2001 Miami Hurricanes celebrated a fifth national championship in the Rose Bowl locker room 20 years ago, not one person screamed, 'GOAT!' or thought they had just unlocked legendary status.

Truthfully, the players and coaches felt relief that they had reached the goal they set for themselves 12 months earlier. They were so dialed in on winning a national championship, so focused on leadership, accountability and -- as ridiculous as it sounds now -- proving themselves that it became impossible in the moment to assign this team a place in college football lore.

It is only now, with the perspective of history and time that those who suited up in 2001 understand -- and brag about -- what they accomplished in one magical season. It goes beyond the talent, which speaks for itself: 38 NFL draft picks, including 17 first-rounders and at least one Hall of Famer in Ed Reed. A stacked running back room, which featured Frank Gore as the No. 3 back. A stacked defensive backs room, with Sean Taylor and Antrel Rolle as backups. A stacked defensive line room, with Vince Wilfork as a backup, too.

"I'm willing to line our 2001 team up against any collegiate institution, anytime, anywhere," center Brett Romberg said. "I just think our mental toughness was just as impressive as our physical and athletic ability. We were mentally driven. When you've got guys that are doing workouts, even though it was hell on earth in July in 115 degrees, like you're breathing through a sock, and turn around and just do it again for a teammate because he needs help, that's remarkable. We look at each other, like how the hell did we do this? It's almost like that life doesn't exist. Like it was a fairy tale."

The debate over the greatest team in college football history will never end, and that is one of things we love so much about sports. Of course, Miami players are going to take up for their own team and scream from the rooftops that 2001 Miami is the GOAT. And I am a firm believer in that team, too.

I had a front-row seat as the Miami beat writer for the South Florida Sun-Sentinel in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, that season. I grew up in South Florida, and watched the previous four Miami national champions closely. I went to the University of Florida, where as a freshman in 1995, the Nebraska Cornhuskers staked their claim to the greatest-of-all-time throne after dismantling the Gators in the 1996 Fiesta Bowl. I still have visions of Tommie Frazier leaving Gator defenders in his wake.

I have covered more national champions since 2001 Miami that could make their own claim, too.

This past January, I sat in the press box at Hard Rock Stadium in the most bizarre setting for a national championship game, thanks to the coronavirus pandemic. On the field in front of me, Alabama beat down Ohio State to close a 13-0 season with three Heisman Trophy finalists on offense -- including winner DeVonta Smith. Given all the challenges associated with the 2020 season, the Crimson Tide could easily make their case.

So can 2016 Clemson, a team I covered throughout the season as an ACC reporter. I will never forget standing on the goal line at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Florida, when Deshaun Watson threw the winning 2-yard touchdown pass to Hunter Renfrow to beat Alabama 35-31 and finish 15-0.

How about 2013 Florida State, a team so loaded with talent all 22 of its offensive and defensive starters that year ended up on an NFL roster? I helped cover that team, too.

But I remain partial to 2001 Miami, and I will let former Miami linebacker Jon Vilma explain why. Vilma got into a debate several years ago with former USC running back Reggie Bush when the two played for the New Orleans Saints.

Vilma played for the 2001 Hurricanes; Bush played for the 2004 Trojans, widely regarded as two of the most talented teams ever assembled.

"They were really good, but I told Reggie, 'Yeah, you guys were fast and athletic, and we were equally fast and athletic," Vilma recalled recently. "I said, 'Our difference is, we were gonna try to outhit you.' We weren't trying to sit here and showcase how fast and athletic we were. We were trying to showcase how tough we were.

"We had that mentality of, 'You may get a run, but I promise you for the next 60 minutes, we're gonna kick your ass. You may win one, but we're gonna win 20 of them, and it's not gonna stop.'"

That drive starts with where this team started: in 1997, when Miami was at its lowest point as a football program, in the midst of NCAA sanctions that reduced its scholarship total to 15 in that signing class.

"We felt like we couldn't miss on anyone in recruiting," said Andreu Swasey, who was the strength and conditioning coach at Miami in 2001. "Because you're trying to recruit the foundation of what's to come for the next four years. We were really dialed in on character, on personality traits, do they love football? We knew a kid could run and be athletic and we had the blueprint for that. It was the other intangibles we were looking for."

They signed players such as two-star safety Ed Reed, out of Louisiana, and Joaquin Gonzalez, an under-the-radar offensive lineman from Miami, and overlooked junior college transfers such as Jeremy Shockey and Bryant McKinnie. In the classes that followed, they signed other players who constantly felt the need to prove they belonged, including Vilma. Soon, that entire mentality took hold across the entire team.

Ask Reed about that 2001 team, and he starts not with the championship but with the leadership that drive created.

"We really had leaders on that team, and I don't think that can be matched," Reed said. "I mean, football, no question, I don't think anybody in college football could play with us. No team past that's been here [at Miami]. And I've debated that, and it's like, 'Yeah, whatever, you can talk.' But we were fruits of what they'd done. We watched that, perfected that. Truly perfected that."

As much as the 2001 team has been glorified in the years since it won the national title, the Hurricanes opened the year ranked No. 2 behind Florida -- the team they dismantled in the Sugar Bowl to close out the 2000 season. That served as motivation. As did what happened in October, when Miami -- ranked No. 1 in both polls -- was sitting at No. 4 in the Bowl Championship Series standings. The same standings that kept Miami out of the 2000 national championship game.

In an article I wrote in the South Florida Sun-Sentinel that October, quarterback Ken Dorsey said, "People around the country don't really respect our talent or our capabilities as a team. It seems like that every year. It's nothing new to us. It's something we're used to playing with is that lack of respect. It gives us extra incentive to go out and perform well every week."

Imagine that, a team with 38 future NFL picks feeling disrespected. But that goes to the larger point: The focus was not on their talent, but on gaining the respect those players felt had been denied to them going back to high school.

There are vivid moments that stand out to me that season. The players and coaches, first and foremost, were accessible. The leaders on that team were their best representatives -- doing all interviews asked of them. Back then, we had availabilities three times a week with players, an open locker room after games and access to practice, too.

That openness allowed us to truly get to know the players and coaches, and develop a rapport with them, so we could tell their stories in a deeper way -- and share a fair narrative as the season unfolded. Nobody was too "big time" for anything. We could see with our own eyes what made that team go.

Though Miami dominated nearly every team it played, it had to survive a close one at Boston College in November. It was cold. The offense was terrible. Dorsey threw four interceptions. Miami had zero touchdowns. All I could think as I looked on from the press box was, "I can't believe they're about to blow this," knowing full well a trip to the national championship and the Rose Bowl was on the line.

But the defense came through, as Mike Rumph, Matt Walters and Reed combined to save the day with one of the most iconic plays in Miami history -- a Walters interception, deflected off Rumph's knee, that ended up in Reed's hands for the defensive score. People always say the great teams have to overcome a scare along the way. That was it for Miami.

What I remember most, though, is the sheer dominance. The way Miami broke the will of Syracuse and Washington in back-to-back games, outscoring them by a combined 124-7. Syracuse and Washington were not exactly nobodies. Both teams were ranked in the top 15 at the time they played. Washington had beaten Miami the year before, but in 2001, it looked as if the Huskies wanted to be anywhere but playing in prime time in the Orange Bowl as the Hurricanes gleefully kept their foot on the gas to prove a point.

"Those guys were not just NFL players. They were All-Pro NFL players," said Rick Neuheisel, who was Washington coach at the time. "This was happening in the BCS era, so no one really had an edge from a College Football Playoff perspective that all the great talent is going to go to those participants, which is kind of what's going on with Alabama, Clemson and Ohio State right now. Miami didn't have that edge. They just accumulated so many good players that everybody was looking at them as like, 'How have they done this?'"

Added former Syracuse coach Paul Pasqualoni: "That team was so talented, so explosive, so good on defense. They beat us 59-0 and we finished that season with 10 wins. So I think that describes how good they were."

Then there was the first half against Nebraska in the BCS national championship game, in which Miami made the Cornhuskers look like a slow backyard team with no business being on the big stage. The Hurricanes led 34-0 at halftime and could have easily won 59-0 had they decided to play their starters the majority of the second half. Instead, they played their backups and won 37-14, a score that does not reflect the sheer dominance of that game.

Or that team.

So I continue to stick with Miami as the greatest team of all time. But in the moment, as I wrote my recap of that game in January 2002, I was very much like the players.

In my game story, headlined "UM-BELIEVABLE!" there was no mention of GOATs or legacies, just one line at the bottom that noted: "This UM team has joined elite company."

Little did I know that one line would take on a far more powerful meaning in the years to come.