Over the past 20 years, the 2001 Miami football team has grown in stature, morphing from national champion into “greatest team ever” status. For a unique look into that star-studded squad, ESPN used previously unseen video from our archives and the memories of more than 20 players and coaches to create a 3D rendering of the on-campus locker room from 2001 and tell stories that bring the space back to life.
Let’s first look at how the locker room was laid out. It included more than 100 lockers, broken into eight open seating areas. For the 2001 season, players’ lockers were lined up in numerical order, which usually meant whole position groups were together.
Three couches formed a U shape in the middle of the room, pointing toward the TV. Several players remembered the TV was usually tuned to BET. This was the clear focal point of the room. Coaches spoke to the team here, and players would gather to play games, dance or just hang out. This was also where wrestling matches pitting freshmen against upperclassmen routinely took place.
The back corner housed a small laundry room, the only telephone in the space and a wall by the entrance featured bulletin board material to keep players motivated.
The 2001 team featured six All-Americans, plus a Heisman finalist in quarterback Ken Dorsey. In all, 17 players from the team became first-round NFL draft picks, and overall 38 players were drafted. “We really had leaders on that team, and I don’t think that can be matched,” Pro and College Football Hall of Famer Ed Reed said. “I mean, football, no question, I don’t think anybody in college football could play with us.”
Of those 38 draft picks, 13 became Pro Bowlers, including 11 with multiple selections. For context, the Jaguars have only nine multiple Pro Bowlers in their entire 27-year history. Three of the four running backs on the 2001 depth chart received at least one Pro Bowl berth (Frank Gore, Clinton Portis and Willis McGahee).
Ed Reed, who was enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton in 2019, made his impact on the 2001 team both on and off the field. His leadership is universally hailed among teammates, best illustrated in his “I’m Hurt, Dawg” halftime speech at Florida State. “That was nothing unusual,” linebacker Jonathan Vilma said. “I remember we were playing Troy and we were playing like garbage, and he would come back to the huddle every time and be like, ‘We suck right now. We’re playing like trash. Let’s go, man, we’re better than this.’ And then, he goes and gets the interception, returns it for a touchdown and it sparks a blowout. So we were used to that.”
The lockers back then did not have all the fancy bells and whistles players have now—most certainly not recliners built for napping like today. Lockers had small stools in front of them for players to sit. Inside the lockers, players had the necessities—helmets, shoulder pads, practice gear and shower essentials.
There were strict rules governing freshmen. Touching the CD player or television remote was prohibited. And they most definitely could never ever sit on the couches in the middle of the room. “Freshmen weren’t allowed to do nothing but go to their locker and don’t talk and sit on the little green stool,” Mike Rumph said. Rumph said sometimes as a prank, the upperclassmen would tell freshmen, “You can sit there, you’re good, and they would sit there and it was all hell to pay.”
It was not unusual to find different players dancing in the locker room, from defensive end Jerome McDougle to cornerback Markese Fitzgerald. In fact, Fitzgerald was known for doing the “Squirrel,” a dance move popularized in the Tampa area. Any time players started calling, “Keese!” Fitzgerald would start to do the dance. Fitzgerald explains it all started during the 2000 season, when two separate dance crews formed among the DBs and he became the leader among all the dancers. “I was almost infamous any time ‘Let Me See You Squirrel’ came on because I was from Tampa,” Fitzgerald said. “It was almost second nature for me to do the Squirrel so it became the thing I would do whenever I stepped into a room.”
Every player remembers the epic wrestling matches. Freshmen were assigned upperclassman sparring partners, and they would be required to wrestle between the couches any time they were called out. Rumph recalls current Miami head coach Mario Cristobal wrestling players, too, during his time as a graduate assistant at Miami from 1998 to 2000. “You take your shoes off, and step in the center,“ Rumph said. “It could go as far as it went and then they would break it up, and they would go to the next two, then the next two. I thought I was strong as a freshman, but that's when I learned these guys are lifting some serious weights.”
There was one section of the locker room with only one way in and one way out. It housed lockers for a mix of defensive backs and linebackers. Players called it “The Jungle,” mainly because those players in this area were territorial of their space—the DBs in particular. “You could never go into their part of the locker room, or you would have to fight all 15 of them,” linebacker DJ Williams said.
The running backs room was stacked with future NFL Pro Bowlers Clinton Portis, Willis McGahee and Frank Gore (a true freshman at the time), not to mention Jarrett Payton (son of legendary NFL Hall of Famer Walter Payton) and Najeh Davenport, who played fullback in 2001. “It was competitive; there was really no animosity,” Davenport said. “Everybody believed we were better than the next person. The only person who ever said it out loud was Portis. He would say, ‘I’m better than you. Nah, bro, you’re not better than me.’ Frank, on the other hand, he wasn’t going to say anything. He was going to let his work do what it needed to do. I think we all ended up in the NFL because of the way the room was set up. We all pushed each other hard, and we learned how to compete.”
The defensive backs called each other the “Badass DBs,” and controlled nearly everything inside the locker room. “We would be mad at them, how do you have so much energy after practice?” Walters recalled. “Maybe they were in the best shape, too.” The DBs were big fans of Master P’s No Limit Records and ran practice with a No Limit Soldiers mentality. “We gave out tickets in practice, like we controlled practice,” Rumph said. “Nobody breaks the law. The DBs are going to check you.”
It was crucial to stay on the linemen’s good sides, because they were the primary pranksters. Unsuspecting players—usually freshmen—would routinely walk into the room to find their lockers taped over or their helmets hidden in the ceiling tiles. Walters remembered one time his freshman year when he found a lobster carcass in his helmet after a team dinner. “It didn’t matter what you did in the 10 minutes before practice to try to get that smell out,” Walters said.
“Brett Romberg was the biggest clown and the co-conspirator of any s--- that was going down because he just he had a knack for it,” offensive lineman Joaquin Gonzalez said. Despite his penchant for messing with other people’s stuff, Gonzalez said Romberg’s locker was among the cleanest and best-smelling in the room because he stored potpourri balls and a wealth of hair products for his flowing golden locks.
In the contest for smelliest locker, there is no doubt there are many challengers for the title. We go to the linemen, once again. “Who was the smelliest?” Joaquin Gonzalez asked with a laugh. “I had the fortune of being No. 73 and Ed Wilkins was 72 and Sherko (Haji-Rasouli) was 74, so I had a sandwich of smells for most of the time.” Gonzalez did give props to the equipment crew for keeping the locker room fairly orderly and smelling decent. “Other than during training camp when we were doing two-a-days, it really didn't smell that bad,” Gonzalez said. “There were just certain guys’ particular space that smelled that bad because they had s--- there that they hadn’t washed in forever.”
Gonzalez and Martin Bibla, both senior offensive linemen, invented a game early in their careers that everyone was playing by 2001. The football locker room on campus was right next to the tennis courts, so tennis balls were always around. One day, Gonzalez and Bibla covered one in athletic tape and began batting it back and forth to each other across the carpeted benches in the locker room. Eventually, official rules were implemented and challenges began. “It was funny. I mean, we would have lists of people who said, ‘I got next, I got next,’ and before you knew it, we went from being made fun of for playing that game to it being our locker room game that everybody was playing, and it overtook playing dominoes,” Gonzalez said.
There are plenty of superlatives to go around. Gonzalez, Rumph, Scott and Romberg point to DJ Williams as one of the funniest players on the team. “DJ is a phenomenal storyteller,” Romberg said. Defensive end Jerome McDougle was always good for a laugh. Want an impression of Larry Coker or anybody else on the team? Backup quarterback Derrick Crudup is your man.
The coaches’ locker room was adjacent to the players, and while they would walk through often, they did not hang out in the players’ locker room for prolonged periods. It was a coaching staff filled with future head coaches: From the 2001 staff alone, OC Rob Chudzinski (Browns), receivers coach Curtis Johnson (Tulane), DC Randy Shannon (Miami) and defensive backs coach Mark Stoops (Kentucky) all ended up leading their own teams. The one coach players universally point to as the key to their championship? “The heart and soul of that team was our strength coach, Andreu Swasey,” DJ Williams said. “He was the guy that really knew how to push our buttons, that knew how to challenge us. He was that father figure we were all afraid to disappoint.”
After Butch Davis left for the Cleveland Browns following the 2000 season, players lobbied hard for offensive coordinator Larry Coker to take over as head coach. “What Coach Coker did the best? He let us be us,” Rumph said. “It takes a real man to do that, especially with the egos in college football.” And yes, when players asked Coker to dance for them, he would dance.
In a world without social media spreading sound bites, the staff would print out press clippings from each week's opponent, especially those with any perceived slight or trash talk. Washington, which beat Miami in 2000 to keep the Hurricanes out of the national championship game, caught particular ire in 2001. The teams were supposed to play Sept. 15, but the game was rescheduled for November after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Washington coach Rick Neuheisel wanted his athletic director to cancel the game, but that was not an option. “I don't think they understood how, how upset we were about what had happened in the previous year,” Rumph said. “A lot of us came back just for this game.”
There were motivational signs above three doors in the room, each with a different message. Whether they read them or not, the players walked past these signs each time they entered or left the locker room in 2001.
In 2001, landlines were still a thing, so it was not out of the ordinary to see players using the phone in the locker room to make calls. But good luck finding any type of privacy, unless you were in there at an off hour. First of all, the locker room was small, especially this area. Secondly, at any given moment during a busy time, someone could cut the lights and start throwing shoes or begin a wrestling contest in the dark.
“I’m willing to line our 2001 team up against any collegiate institution, anytime, anywhere. 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.”Brett Romberg Center, on the bond the 2001 team shared
“We [were] truly a team. The individual’s put on the back burner for your brothers. I tried to display that my senior year, ’cause I could have left my junior year. I would have got drafted higher and everything. I knew this. But I wasn’t leaving these guys. I wanted to win the national championship—we wanted to win the national championship. And I felt like I was a chess piece to that.”Ed Reed Safety, on his role on the 2001 team
“I look back on my time at the U, and I would have given my life for any of you. And if anybody f----- with you, they were f------ with me. But for real, not for likes, not for cool posts, it was real. The best part was that love for each other was forged in a real tough working environment. ... We never faltered, and we were relentless with each other. And for that I am forever indebted to each of you. We all made each other men.”Joaquin Gonzalez Tackle, in a text message to teammates