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'Canes saying goodbye to Orange Bowl

| Thursday, Nov. 8, 2007

MIAMI - As pregame tradition dictates, a cannon will boom and white smoke will pour from a tunnel leading out of the locker room. The Miami Hurricanes will emerge and run east into the night, traipsing across ground where John F. Kennedy spoke, Joe Namath made good on his Super Bowl guarantee and the Miami Dolphins were perfect.

A rusty old building, nothing but steel and concrete and ghosts, will shake in delight.

And an era will end.

For 70 years, the Hurricanes called this place home. The Orange Bowl, now an exquisite eyesore, hosted everything from Super Bowls to the Rolling Stones and Bruce Springsteen, from Hollywood movies to hurricane evacuees.

And, by the way, some of the finest college football games were played there, including 11 that decided national championships.

On Saturday night, the Hurricanes will play there for the 468th time.

The final time.

"I guess the old girl had to be retired at some point, since we couldn't get enough money to get her built up the right way," said Oakland Raiders defensive tackle Warren Sapp, a 1994 All-American at Miami. "She goes out the greatest stadium in America, in my mind."

At the beginning, she was.

Billed at its opening as "the largest and most modern steel stadium in the nation," the Orange Bowl -- or Roddy Burdine Stadium, as it was originally known, a nod to the department store magnate who got it built -- was beyond compare.

"A beautiful structure without peer in beauty and adaptability," wrote Jack Bell in the Miami Daily News on Dec. 10, 1937, the night the place was dedicated.

Times change.

The Orange Bowl's best days were decades ago. More than a few seats are falling apart. The scoreboard is as modern as bellbottoms. It's not uncommon to see something fall off the structure during games. Some visitors make the sign of the cross as they enter the elevators. There's drips from the ceilings, rust on all corners, puddles in the concourses and evidence of decay almost everywhere.

"Not the prettiest place on earth," said former Miami quarterback Ken Dorsey, who led the Hurricanes to the 2001 national championship. "But it was our home."

A cherished home, too.

The Hurricanes won three national titles on their home field, all when the Orange Bowl game was played in the Orange Bowl stadium. They won a record 58 straight games there during one stretch, were victimized by plays forever known as the "Florida Flop" and "Hail Flutie," and put a historic 58-7 beating on Notre Dame there in 1985, the worst loss in Fighting Irish history.

Namath's Jets won the 1969 Super Bowl there over the Baltimore Colts, the one the quarterback guaranteed he'd win. Flipper, a dolphin that swam in a tank behind the east end zone during Dolphins games, was a star attraction for years. Dan Marino's Hall of Fame career started at the Orange Bowl in record-setting fashion.

But the night perhaps most fondly remembered by Miami football fans was Jan. 1, 1984.

Nebraska vs. Miami, Orange Bowl, national championship game. The Cornhuskers closed within 31-30 in the final minute and coach Tom Osborne simply didn't want the game to end in a tie, so he went for a 2-point conversion with the title on the line.

Ken Calhoun deflected Turner Gill's pass, and Miami prevailed.

After more than a half-century of often-mediocre football, the Hurricanes had won it all.

"I had suffered all those years with Miami since I came here in '56," said Edwin Pope, the longtime Miami Herald sports columnist. "I went home that night and my wife was all atwitter and I said, 'You know, I'm going to get a bottle of wine out of the refrigerator and sit here and think.' I sat there sipping on the wine for two or three hours, having a great time remembering all the bad times. And that was the arrival of the good times."

Sure enough, four more titles would follow, and Miami football was never the same.

But long before the night that Howard Schnellenberger coached that '83 team to a title and led Miami on its first trip to college football's mountaintop, the Hurricanes' future at the Orange Bowl was a hot topic.

In one meeting filled with powerful Miami officials, Mayor Jack Orr stood against saving the Orange Bowl.

"Decent place to play football," Orr said, "but the Orange Bowl is antiquated."

The significance of that statement?

Orr said those words Nov. 19, 1973.

Yes, the debate about the Orange Bowl has raged for that long in South Florida.

The Dolphins moved in 1986 to what was first known as Joe Robbie Stadium and is now called Dolphin Stadium. The Hurricanes will follow next fall, sharing the facility with the NFL club and enjoying luxuries the Orange Bowl cannot offer, including massive replay screens, luxury suites and high-end concessions.

"I can't believe there isn't going to be any more football in the Orange Bowl," said former Dolphins coach Don Shula, the mastermind behind Miami's perfect 17-0 season in 1972.

Actually, there's still some football left to be played.

Florida International is playing its home games at the Orange Bowl this season while its own on-campus stadium gets rebuilt. The Golden Panthers will open a season-ending three-game homestand at the Orange Bowl on Nov. 17, and won't be shy about aggressively marketing their Dec. 1 matchup with North Texas as the actual farewell event.

"What an honor that will be," said FIU coach and South Florida native Mario Cristobal, a former Miami player and assistant coach who still salutes the Orange Bowl whenever he drives by. "It's something I already know I'll never forget."

The building is slated for demolition; city officials stopped taking bids for that project Tuesday. But since FIU still has three games left, Miami administrators and coaches are imploring fans not to help tear the place apart quite yet.

More than 300 police officers, roughly double the usual security force, will be at the Orange Bowl for Saturday night's game against Virginia, ready to arrest anyone who storms the field or tries to take a souvenir from the stands. A few seats were unscrewed and smuggled out in recent weeks.

"I was thinking the other day that it'd be cool to go back someday and watch a game in the stands," said Miami quarterback Kyle Wright. "And then it hit me: It's going to be shut down."

Indeed, the final hours have arrived for this seven-decade-long chapter of Miami football.

With a 5-4 record this season, there's no time for this year's Hurricanes to be truly nostalgic. They need one more win to become bowl-eligible, and many are vowing not to let the Orange Bowl era end with a three-game slide on their watch.

They crave the perfect ending, the one Mike Sullivan got nearly two decades ago.

Sullivan was an offensive lineman at Miami from 1986-1991. He helped the Hurricanes win two national titles, and his teams never lost a game at the Orange Bowl.

In the week leading up to his farewell home game, Sullivan told a TV reporter he wanted to sneak a six-pack of beer into the Orange Bowl for a postgame celebration.

He wasn't entirely serious.

Problem was, devout Miami fans didn't know that.

"We were getting ready to come out of the locker room for that last game and the security guards came in with one of those huge plastic bags," Sullivan said. "People were bringing in six-packs and dropping them off at the gate for us. So we snuck our way back in that night, with our parents and sat right at the 50, a beer in everybody's hand, taking in that pretty good view of the city and enjoying the moon over Miami."

They toasted Miami football that night.

Now the Hurricanes will raise that proverbial glass to the Orange Bowl one final time.

"The crowd, the energy, the atmosphere, I've been part of a lot of things at the Orange Bowl," said Miami coach Randy Shannon, a star Hurricanes linebacker two decades ago. "You'll miss those things. But like I've told people, when this is over with, we have to start a new era. And I look forward to that."

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