For at least one night, Miami is all the way back

MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. — In the hours before Miami played Notre Dame, music filled the parking lot surrounding Hard Rock Stadium — rap, Latin, reggaeton — turning pregame tailgates into a football party only South Florida could throw.

One eager tailgater grabbed a microphone, stood in the back of his flatbed truck and yelled, “Are you ready, Miami?” before busting out his own smoke machine and spraying the smoke into the crowd. An intrepid entrepreneur sold $10 knockoff Turnover Chain T-shirts nearby. One father and son played football, the son wearing a Miami helmet and matching uniform.

By the time the Miami buses arrived two hours before kickoff, fans had gotten themselves into such a frenzy, they shook all three team buses from side to side. Most wore homemade Turnover Chains and held up signs, including one with The Rock that said, “Can you smell what the U is cooking?”

Nights like this are generally reserved for Florida State games. But the feeling on Saturday night buzzed with more excitement, more anticipation, more hunger, more yearning. Because for the first time in more than a decade, a home game in Miami meant more than just state bragging rights against a natural rival. It meant an opportunity to feel something again, something that has been missing since Miami last won a national championship in 2001.

For so long, in the years between Larry Coker and Randy Shannon and Al Golden, folks down here stopped feeling much of anything. Antipathy? Maybe. Anger? Definitely. As the years mounted between championships, a quiet desperation took hold. Would Miami ever be back?

So the turnout on Saturday was more than just South Florida coming out to relive the glory days against Notre Dame. It was about trying to bridge the past to the present, to support the idea that Miami could absolutely, definitively win again here with fans screaming and creating a real, live home environment.

It might not be the old, creaky, intimidating Orange Bowl. But what happened against Notre Dame showed all that Miami could be once again. The football team dominated with authority, it looked like Warren Sapp and Ed Reed had put on their old jerseys and gone out there themselves.

They played with an aggressiveness and an anger, allowing pent-up frustrations to spill over after a week in which players heard over and over they were not good enough to be ranked as playoff contenders despite winning all their games.

The night before the game, the coaching staff showed the team comments ESPN’s Paul Finebaum made on his show this week: “They fell off the map and frankly I didn’t miss them that badly. Miami was known for all the wrong things. They won the titles and they probably could’ve had more but to me they were more of a black mark on college football.”

Miami won 41-8, a score so unexpected the calls declaring Miami back accelerated to warp speed.

As Reed celebrated on the field afterward, Joel Rodriguez ran up to him, hugged him and shouted, “How’s that for a black mark on college football!”

“You know what I’m saying, Joel!” Reed shouted back at his teammate on the 2001 national championship team. “That’s what we do. That’s how we represent. I saw it Tuesday. Coach Richt and his staff have done such a great job raising these young men. It’s all we came here for. When you come to Miami that’s what you come here for, that’s what we’re about.”

Sapp watched the game from the sideline, too. His feeling watching such a dramatic victory? “Long time coming!”

Cornerbacks coach Mike Rumph, who played with Rodriguez and Reed on the last team to win a national title here, said he sensed during practice during the week that something big was about to happen.

“Backs against the wall and we stood up and fought like men,” Rumph said. “I can’t be prouder of these guys. “We’re back! We’re back!”

Whether Miami is definitively back is still up in the air with two regular-season games left, and the ACC championship game against Clemson on Dec. 2. Linebacker Shaq Quarterman said the only way to make that declaration is to win a ring; receiver Braxton Berrios offered, “The U is back. I don’t think anybody can say we’re not. I don’t think we can get disrespected anymore.”

But what absolutely is not up for debate is the atmosphere inside the stadium on Saturday night, the vibe that pulsed from the first row all the way to the top row. Miami swaggered on the field and in the stands, and even when the team finally left the field to “Rock You Like a Hurricane,” a large swath of fans remained for high fives and cheers.

Defensive coordinator Manny Diaz celebrated with his players, a triumph not only because his players held Notre Dame to eight points and 261 total yards. His father was Miami mayor; he grew up in South Florida, during the Hurricanes’ heyday, when the only standard meant not competing for championships, but winning them.

“This is to me natural order restored,” Diaz said. “This is the way a Saturday night in Miami should be. It should be a big time game with two great teams with an amazing atmosphere.”

Miami plays Virginia next Saturday at noon, and the fan base will be tested to show up again, as loud and as proud as they were against Notre Dame. But for at least one Saturday night, it sure felt like Miami had traveled in time 30 years, allowing us to remember what used to be, but also giving us a glimpse at what is to come.

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