Sunday, August 28, 2011

In the Eye of the Storm

They were ahead of their time - a team built on speed, while others plodded.

The University of Miami Hurricanes of the 1980’s helped reinvent the sport of college football. Before Miami unleashed its aerial attack and defeated previously unbeaten and overwhelming favorite Nebraska for the national championship on January 2, 1984, the college gridiron was dominated by running games. Dominant teams like Oklahoma, Alabama and Georgia followed a simple formula for success: build offenses around big, wide country boys on the lines to open gaping holes for sure-handed running backs. The ball was only aired when absolutely necessary. Even Joe Namath, whose aerial heroics in the AFL and NFL would later earn him a spot in the pro football hall of fame, took a back seat to the running game with Coach Bear Bryant’s Crimson Tide.

The Hurricanes, under coaches Howard Schnellenberger and Jimmy Johnson, took a different approach to the top. They developed a pro-style offense, throwing the ball frequently and sacrificing girth for agility. One by one, the traditional powerhouses fell to Miami’s inventive strategy. It soon became clear that the only way that others would successfully compete against the Hurricanes would be to emulate their approach. This forever changed the sport of college football.

Yet there was more to the evolution of the Hurricanes than a creative offense. The teams that Schnellenberger and Johnson put on the field, the teams that consistently defeated all others, were unlike any previously seen in the sport. The players were arrogant, unabashed, and decidedly urban, many emerging from inner city high schools (which often scared away recruiters) with apparent chips on their shoulders, a sense that they had something to prove.

The Hurricanes’ rise to the top was far from universally embraced. There was a sense of outrage that these players, so unlike anything previously seen in the sport, could so successfully thumb their noses at the establishment. Their antics were criticized, their accomplishments besmirched to such an extent that games against the University of Notre Dame were dubbed “Catholics vs. Convicts.” In the mid-1990’s Sports Illustrated columnist Rick Reilly, never a fan of the Hurricanes, went so far as to suggest that the University of Miami football program should be disbanded.

Recent revelations about problems with the university’s athletic program have unleashed a new bout of anti-Hurricane sentiment.’s story about booster (and incarcerated ponzi schemer) Nevin Shapiro’s ties to the football team have reawakened university critics, with Sports Illustrated once more calling for the disbanding of the football program.

The story is decidedly not pretty, replete with allegations of millions of dollars spent by Shapiro over a decade on gifts for athletes while administration and coaches looked the other way, content to focus their attention on the thousands of dollars (reportedly ponzi funds) that Shapiro donated to the university. There are stories of South Beach parties, luxury yachts, big screen televisions, strippers, and even an abortion, paid by Shapiro for Hurricane players.

When questioned about these allegations, former Hurricanes now in the NFL did not issue the expected denials. Their attitude was not “that did not happen,” but rather “I don’t have time to deal with this.” The reality is that, if the money flowed as freely and openly as the story suggests, denials would be useless. Thus, the former Hurricanes’ “candor” is as smart as it is refreshing in a sport where hypocrisy rules.

In January of this year, the college football national championship game was played between Auburn and Oregon, two schools under investigation for major NCAA violations. It was alleged, for example, that, before he settled on Auburn, the father of star quarterback and Heisman Trophy winner Cam Newton (the first pick in this year’s NFL draft), tried to sell his son’s services to other schools. While conducting its investigation (an investigation that is still ongoing) the NCAA cleared Newton to play in the championship game, thus ensuring big television ratings and big paydays for both schools, their conferences, and the NCAA.

The NCAA acts only when compelled. Its stripping USC of a national title was effectively forced upon it by a story (with an eerie similarity to that of the Hurricanes) about the lavish lifestyle of star running back and Heisman Trophy winner Reggie Bush funded by a generous booster. The NCAA (like the universities themselves) looks the other way until it no longer can, and then acts belatedly, after all (athletes and coaches) involved in the scandal of the month are no longer with the universities. When the NCAA brings down its enforcement hammer, it is usually on athletes and coaches who were not around when the infractions occurred.

That is what is happening at the University of Miami today. There is a new athletic director and a new football coach, neither of whom was reportedly alerted of the NCAA’s pending investigation and its possible consequences when they were offered their jobs. There is talk of the “death penalty,” the enforced closing of the university’s football program, which will effectively put the new coach out of a job, and leave many student-athletes, who may or may not have been involved in the sanctioned conduct, in a state of limbo.

The reality is that the NCAA is unlikely to impose the “death penalty” on UM, much to the chagrin of its critics. University President Donna Shalala is too politically well-connected, and the NCAA’s prior limited experience with the “death penalty” has not been favorable. Thus, if the allegations are proven, the University of Miami will likely be fined, stripped of scholarships and TV appearances, and forced to endure a decade of futility on the football field.

Like many other penalized schools, UM will survive its moment in the NCAA spotlight. There is little new about the Hurricanes’ story. The major difference between this and prior scandals, such as Ohio State’s “tattoos for memorabilia” allegations that cost coach Jim Tressel his job, is the apparent openness with which UM athletes thwarted the system.

The University of Miami is, once again, a groundbreaker in the sport of college football. Rather than hide their transgressions, Hurricanes past and present appear to be embracing their renewed “outlaw” image. And perhaps the public should, as well. After all, the Hurricane name is now universally associated with money, parties and strippers – and isn’t that what college football is all about?

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