• 55°

Buckeyes tough opener for Miami

The Associated Press

CORAL GABLES, Fla.

Friday, August 27, 1999

CORAL GABLES, Fla. – In the past three years, the Miami Hurricanes began the season with victories over Memphis, Baylor and East Tennessee State. Sunday, the Hurricanes are braced for a different kind of opener against Ohio State.

”East Tennessee State and Ohio State are night and day,” senior guard Richard Mercier admitted.

The challenge is daunting, but the Hurricanes are glad to be back on the national stage. No. 12 Miami opens its season against No. 9 Ohio State in the Kickoff Classic, and a victory could catapult the Hurricanes into the top 10 for the first time since 1996.

”This game motivated us all summer to work hard,” Mercier said. ”We’re going to be the only college game on TV that day, so it’s like, ‘Hey, everybody is watching us.”’

Such showdowns were once commonplace for the Hurricanes, who won four national championships from 1983 to 1991. But NCAA probation ended the dynasty, and Miami is still recovering from three years of probation that cost the program 32 scholarships.

This year’s team should be the best in Davis’ five seasons at Coral Gables.

”People think this is the fifth year, but in some respects this is actually only the second year of trying to rebuild the program,” he said. ”The first three years were somewhat just trying to keep your head above water. More players were leaving and graduating and going out early in the draft than we were able to recruit.”

A turnaround came when the Hurricanes improved from 5-6 in 1997 to 9-3 last season, with victories over UCLA and North Carolina State in the final two games.

”You knew Miami wasn’t going to be down very long, because of the high school talent and the kind of program and the coaching staff they have down there,” Ohio State coach John Cooper said. ”It was a matter of time until they got back to where they should be in college football.”

Miami’s fast finish last year prompted an invitation in January from the Kickoff Classic. Some schools hesitate to add a difficult opening game, but Miami eagerly accepted.

”We’ll play anybody,” athletics director Paul Dee said. ”We like big games.”

Davis felt an extra game would benefit his younger players, such as sophomore quarterback Kenny Kelly. And Davis said the chance to play on national TV gives helps the program.

”It helped this year’s recruiting, and it will help next year’s recruiting,” he said.

Dee said last year’s UCLA game on ESPN drew an impressive audience of 3.5 million, and he expects twice as many viewers for the game Sunday on ABC.

”This should be the biggest TV audience we’ve had in a while,” Dee said.

Another reason to accept the invitation was the payoff of at least $650,000 to each school, although Dee said the Hurricanes expect to make only a small profit after expenses.

While in New York, the team will attend a banquet and tour Manhattan. But Davis said he doesn’t consider this a bowl game.

”The fans and alumni are going to New York to start their Christmas shopping early,” he said. ”But for the players, it’s a business trip.”

Miami may find it tough to do business. The Buckeyes are 11-0 in season openers under Cooper.

Ohio State is the Hurricanes’ highest-ranked opening opponent since 1988, when they beat No. 1 Florida State 31-0. Davis’ players have never been in – much less won – such a game as that, but he expects them to handle the spotlight well Sunday.

”Their hearts are going to be beating like crazy, and if they weren’t, I’d be disappointed,” Davis said. ”They’re going to go out there, and somebody is going to knock the snot out of somebody, and then we’re going to start playing the game.”