Sunday, October 29, 2006

A Perfect Storm: Hurricane Football, FIU and the Media Frenzy of 2006

October fourteenths are not supposed to be memorable for college football contests, what with a worsening war in Iraq, the World Series, the NBA, NFL, NHL, WMD.

But perfect storms sneak up on you. My first inkling was when this game was being called the next USC-UCLA cross town “rivalry.” Not a neighborhood war, brawl, fight for pride. Like any fan outside of Miami (or those not in the small crowd inside the OB) if you wanted to see the game you went to a sports bar. I noticed early on that the “kid announcers” were obviously pro Miami, nothing different than any home team crew but obviously inexperienced and not supervised by that mysterious “truck”.

I had been to a lot of big games with the Canes; I was in that pond of green in the sea of Red at the Rose Bowl for the 2001National Championship. Surrounded by Corn Cob hats, suspenders and Go Big Red, we bravely (and briefly) lifted our Hurricane Flag when the UM scored. The Husker fans, whose view was momentarily obscured, grumbled so we agreed that we would raise the banner for Miami touchdowns only, not field goals. Still a lot of lifts.

The next Surrounded by Red moment was in the NC game at the Fiesta Bowl where referee Terry Porter made the Hall of Shame with a bogus pass interference call after the fireworks had started.

Fast forward to October 14 and my beginning to wonder why the fans in this Cocoa Beach sports bar were so bitter about a football fight where nobody got hurt, even the out of uniform, crutch-swinging FIU player. Fast forward to today, this is my essay about why UM football inspired that over the top national media frenzy.

By way of background Miami is a boutique campus football program (FT enrollment 10,132) in a sport normally dominated by big boxes like Tennessee, Michigan, Florida, Alabama, Ohio State, USC, Penn State, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Notre Dame, Texas.

The University of Miami is a major research university set in a tropical garden. As one of only 26 private research universities to operate both a law and medical school, the University of Miami is located in one of the most beautiful and exciting cities in the country. Currently celebrating its seventh decade of achievement, the University comprises 14 schools and colleges devoted to various fields of study from architecture to international studies. For rivals they still won’t admit that the UM academic rep is outstanding. The Canes match the publicly funded schools doctor for doctor, lawyer for lawyer and then go out and beat you in football.

In athletics this relative NCAA newcomer has won NCAA championships in baseball (1982, 1985, 1999, 2001), golf (1970, 1972, 1977-78, 1984) swimming and diving (1975-76) but it is those five national championships in football (1983, 1987, 1989, 1991, 2001) that brought out the green-eyed monster of jealousy from those big boxes. More fuel to the fire came when some years ago the University athletic logo makers came up with the idea of calling their teams “The U” as if they were the “one and only.” The slogan and the trademark ticked folks off then and still does now.
Enough of the background, what happened on that balmy night in the “antiquated” Orange Bowl? (Some observers by the way suggest that the national media has a grudge against Miami for making them work out of sub-par facilities where even if that color announcer wanted to go down and fight no way he could have caught the elevator in 30 minutes). Now the facts on film, there was a FIU player who is caught on tape running through the Miami warm-up area. Nobody retaliated. Once the game began the referees were virtually invisible. Had they disqualified anybody early on, perhaps the pair that jumped the defenseless Miami extra point holder Mr. Perrilli, it might have stopped there. If the flagrant foulers were immediately thrown out of the game this would have stopped all the nonsense. They weren’t, FIU was “emboldened” and Miami was “enraged”, the cameras were rolling and nothing in Northern Ireland, South Iraq or any other hot spot could stop the soon to come media frenzy feeding on the Miami rep.

No doubt the FIU pre-game bumps were followed by lots of mutual trash talk. During the early parts of the game was close (don’t all games start out 0-0?) but to the FIU defenders the second touchdown seemed to signal the beginning of what had been a too familiar end for the Panthers, winless all year and losers in a record seven over times the week prior. Dismissing the two FIUs that jumped the most helpless player on the field--an extra point holder on his knees--was likely not a difficult decision for Coach Stock, they were hardly marquee talents to begin with. Properly however their university, like Miami, did not throw these kids away, instead immediately assured one and all that their scholarships would be honored and the FIU would offer a package of student services sans athletic participation. Miami suspended 13, 12 one gamers and a who knows how long, and similar student services.

This action however wasn’t enough to stem the media madness (although the Dartmouth Holy Cross fight, not filmed and not by famous football teams saw no one punished). Forget that Miami has one of the best graduation rates around for a major program. (and If it wasn't for the early NFL departures (84 players many of them juniors went in the first three rounds of the NFL draft from 1984-2006) it would be even higher.) One insider said that “over the past decade, Miami has had fewer player arrests or NCAA-related incidents than almost any other major program in the country. Miami has not had 20-plus incidents involving shoplifting, assault, gun charges and failed drug tests over the past two years, as Tennessee has. Miami has not had to dismiss a star player for earning money through a phony job, as Oklahoma has. Miami has not had a star linebacker accused of sexual assault on the eve of its bowl game as Florida State did last year and Miami's most recent Academic Progress Rate (956) placed it in the top 20 to 30 percent of all Division I football programs.”

That’s nice but remembers this is a small box program with much success, plus they use a lot of inner city kids who have a “freewheeling style…annoying and offending college football's more buttoned-down establishment.” Okay you say but what about the recent news items. The Chick Fillet-Peach bowl post game scuffle came after a LSU player mugged a Miami student manager to get a souvenir football with the U logo. LSU, after a thorough on the field whipping it was not a good time to pull that stunt.

The Louisville logo. Hardly anything that the Cardinal faithful didn’t expect and in fact in pre-game chat rooms fans openly hoped that it would happen because historically it got their team mad. The Canes did it and the Cards worked it.

All of that aside, ESPN and the copy cat commentators and columnists from around the country went to the clip file for 20-year-old stories about the Hurricanes--Hurricanes wore Army fatigues to the Fiesta Bowl; humiliated Texas in the Cotton Bowl 46-3 in 1991 while getting 202 yards in penalties; playing a series with Notre Dame that the media christened “the Convicts vs. the Catholics”. Despite the generally agreed notion that since Dennis Erickson left UM’s current program has been clean and almost low key. Added irony, if you are a big time NFL pro fighting is funny and acceptable; Bill Romanowski is intense but UM players are thugs?
Popularity polls aside, between 1983 and 1991 Miami won exactly half of the national championships! Adding insult to injury, this was a school founded in 1925 of only 11,000 very diverse student body and a much smaller sports budget, smaller fan base, smaller alumni base, very little history and inferior facilities.
Looking forward. No bouquets yet for Miami’s commitment for the new 'zero tolerance' policy, a player ejected from a game for fighting faces at least a season's suspension. And coaches will go immediately to a hot seat. Pretty impressive but not something I hear the old major big-box programs copying.

Finally I would like to pass the pen to former coach and player Bill Curry who wrote on his web site. “Our kids play video games that make the FIU-Miami brawl look like a Sunday school picnic. We pack huge arenas to watch grotesque actors impersonate competitive athletes while bashing each other with metal folding chairs and throwing referees out of the rings.”

So we end this explanation of why this perfect storm unleashed an unprecedented media feeding frenzy with an invitation to a good old fashioned Hurricane Party. The guest list is open, even Lee and Kirk and the out of town writers can come. Our pal Ron White will mix up the drink of the day. "If life gives you lemons, make lemonade ... and go out and find someone whose life has given them vodka…”. --DR. DAN

A Personal Reflection by Dr. Dan Barber, Miami ’68 and ‘70


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