Sport Imitates Life

September 18, 2009 8:09 AM

A Hurricane Warning Has Been Issued

I'll preface this post by admitting I'm a lifelong Miami Hurricane fan, and for those who aren't, the Canes, the U, Miami (Fla.) is back. They might not be back where they used to be, but they are indeed back as far as college football is concerned, and college football is a better place (and product) because of it.

The brash, braggadocios, ultra talented, unbeatable, unapologetic Miami teams of the 1980's and 90's helped make college football what it is (and is not) today, and whether you love them or hate them, the sport itself needs the Canes. If you love them like I do, then you need that anti-establishment, dark-side-of-the-force, indomitable athletic powerhouse to pull for every weekend throughout the fall. The modern college football game has become bogged down by a suppressive, stifling, unimaginative, politically correct rulebook and its subsequent status-quo officiating. The modern college football culture is mired in BCS corruption and plantation hypocrisy left over from the good ol' boy networks of the deep south.

If you hate the Miami Hurricanes, then chances are you still cling to every institution I just trashed, and you need that villainous anti-christ to root against every Saturday. I became a Miami fan growing up in Kansas in the 1980's. How the hell does a midwestern boy become a Miami Hurricane fan? Simple: I loved football from an early age, and our football in Kansas sucked at the time. Kansas State was still a decade away from Bill Snyder's rapturous resurrection, and with Wichita State cancelling its entire football program after the 1986 season, one of the only college programs worse than K-State at the time was KU. I grew ill watching Oklahoma and Nebraska obliterate KU and K-State week after week, season after season, but I found my salvation on New Year's night, 1984.

Suddenly the top-ranked and seemingly invincible Nebraska Cornhuskers were losing 31-17 in the fourth quarter of the Orange Bowl, at the Orange Bowl, to the hometown Hurricanes. Everyone remembers Nebraska's frantic comeback and Tom Osborne's fateful decision: a two-point conversion in the final minute that would've given the Huskers a one-point win and a national championship. I was four years old at the time, and the pending call on TV was one of my earliest memories of life: "This is for the national championship for Nebraska...".

With the ball on the 3 at the open end of the Orange Bowl, Nebraska quarterback and current Buffalo University head coach Turner Gill rolled right and flicked a pass toward an open receiver in the end zone. Miami safety Ken Calhoun got their first, deflecting the ball off the Nebraska receiver's facemask and onto the ground for an upset that changed college football forever.

Beginning with that night, Miami has won (and lost) more national championship games than any other college program in the last quarter century. The Canes beat Oklahoma in the regular season in 1985 and '86 before tricking another national title on Vinny Testaverde's late interception against Penn State in the '86 Fiesta Bowl. That was the game when Vinny and the Canes got off the plane in Phoenix wearing Army camouflage fatigues, and that was a microcosm of the Miami mystique. They knew they were going to beat you and you knew they were going to let you know about it afterwards. If you beat them, you just happened to catch them on a lucky night, and they'd get you back next season.

Throughout the 1980's and early 90's, Miami Hurricane football players were the kings of a city that was becoming the east coast's version of Hollywood. Future first-round draft picks and NFL hall-of-famers were regulars onstage at 2 Live Crew concerts and VIP's at South Beach nightclubs. They danced in the end zone after touchdowns, they took their helmets off and smiled for the cameras after interceptions, they stood celebrating over pulverized enemies after quarterback sacks, they taunted the Texas players, coaches and fans leading 46-3 on national TV in the 1990 Cotton Bowl.

The Hurricanes did all the things that draw 15-yard penalty flags now days, and in fact, the Miami football program is the very reason those acts draw 15-yard penalty flags now days. Me personally, I loved every minute of it, and I long for it all over again. Miami had me hooked after their 31-30 defeat of Nebraska in the 1984 Orange Bowl, and the adoration only grew as I did. I loved everything about the U ... the unique orange & green colors, the Ibis mascot, the smokescreen through which they entered the field before kickoff, the contrast of players having skin so dark their faces were indiscernible beneath their bright white facemasks and helmets. And all this unfolding in their fabled homefield inside the Orange Bowl, where some of the greatest college and pro football games of all-time were played, and the east end of the stadium opened up to palm trees and Little Havana with downtown Miami off in the background.

The Hurricanes won an NCAA record 58 consecutive home games between 1985 and 1994, and they continued to capitalize on their homefield advantage in the postseason. Miami beat Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl for the 1987 national title, and the Canes overcame regular-season loss to Florida State to win it all again in 1989. Miami mauled Nebraska again on their homefield in the 1988 and 1991 Orange Bowls, with the latter bringing the U its fourth national championship in less than a decade. The Hurricanes were closing in on back-to-back titles in 1992 before being upset by Alabama in the Sugar Bowl, a game I still believe to this day Miami tanked intentionally.

Nebraska finally conquered the Canes for a national title in the 1994 Orange Bowl, but after enduring a brief probation in the late 1990's, Miami got its revenge by embarrassing the Huskers for their fifth national title in the 2001 Rose Bowl. The Hurricanes again had a shot at back-to-back titles before the worst pass interference call in NCAA history helped Ohio State steal the Sears Trophy at the 2002 Fiesta Bowl.

Miami slowly faded from the football forefront again in the last couple seasons, but now there's a storm steaming towards the south Florida shores once more. As a lifelong Hurricane fan, I didn't used to get excited about beating Georgia Tech at home on a Thursday night. It used to take a 27-10 rout of top-ranked Notre Dame, or a missed kick at Florida State, or a four-touchdown comeback over Florida to get me excited, but after going without my beloved Canes for a few years, I can tell when they boys are back in town. I know Miami football when I see it, and I saw it last night when they beat G-Tech 33-17 in a game that wasn't that close.

The Hurricanes had lost four straight games to the Yellow Jackets, including an embarrassing 41-23 beating last year in Atlanta that was as much indicative of Miami's loss of conference control as anything else. The Canes' defense -- once the most feared in college football year in and year out -- had been undisciplined in recent years, with poor tackling and blown assignments a regular occurrence. Their offense -- once the most dynamic and futuristic in the college game -- was even worse than the defense, with talent and play-calling a major issue over the last couple recruiting classes and offensive coordinators. The same program that once had a record six first-round picks in one NFL draft couldn't keep its good local high school talent to itself anymore.

But it's now 2009, and Miami has always fared well in odd-numbered years. Offensive coordinator Mark Whipple and sophomore quarterback Jacory Harris have the Orange & Green daydreaming about the past and the future in one swell vision. Meanwhile, Miami's defense -- which won five national titles because it could disintegrate an option play with its defensive line alone -- suffocated the Ramblin' Rec's trendy option offense Thursday night like a banana in a tailpipe. Now the '09 Hurricanes are 2-0 and halfway through their four-game murderer's row schedule to start the season. If the Canes can beat Virginia Tech on the road next week and take Oklahoma down in Miami Oct. 3, then it's time once again to start talking about Miami as a national championship contender (whether you like it or not). If Miami loses these next two games, or wins just one of the two, then the young Canes are still a year away, but the weak ACC is still winnable this season.

My Miami has almost returned to the promiseland of prominence it left behind earlier this decade, but there's one element that sadly will never return: the Orange Bowl. Miami once played before 75,000+ just a few miles from its campus in a one-of-a-kind, landmark venue. Now they play before an unpacked house at the stadium formerly known as Joe Robbie, which is about 93 million miles north of downtown Miami and the Canes' Coral Gables campus. The U might as well play their home games in Havana, and I know because I've been seen the set-up first-hand.

In September of 2004, I made a pilgrimage to Miami with my girlfriend, Nancy. She lives there now, and she's married to an Italian alien, but that's neither here nor there. At the time, Nancy and I had just graduated college, and I scored tickets to the Miami-Florida State season opener in the Orange Bowl on Labor Day night. That was the year Hurricane Francis trashed Miami the week of the game and killed Bobby Bowden's son-in-law and nephew. Nancy and I stayed with my aunt and uncle in Georgia for a few extra days and then drove through the remnants of Francis to get to Miami for the game, which was moved to the following Friday.

I remember the feeling that came over me on gamenight as the Orange Bowl came into sight. I felt like a Muslim in Mecca, and we got to the stadium an hour before kickoff so I could tour the site. We ran into another couple visiting from Las Vegas, and each of us took pictures of each other to mark the occasion.

Our seats were on the very front row of the upper deck, just off the corner of the end zone in the open end of the stadium along the Miami sideline. The Miami-Florida State rivalry is one of the fiercest in all of sports, and you have to see it for yourself to understand the underlying tensions. There were no fewer than nine fights that night in the Orange Bowl before, during and after the game, and no fewer than 33 people arrested or escorted from the stadium (I counted).

Our seats happened to be amongst a group of middle-aged men who had been coming to Hurricane games since the glory days of the early 80's. I remember two of them in particular: a tall, raspy-voiced, Dutch-South African-lookin' dude and a heavy-set Hispanic fellow who claimed to have been a center on Miami's 1987 national title team. They told stories all night long about Wide Right II and III against Florida State, and the Notre Dame game in 1985 when they spilled a full beer all over the Fighting Irish fan in front of them. I remember watching that game on TV as a little boy: Notre Dame entered with eventual Heisman Trophy winner Tim Brown, but Miami shut them both out 24-0.

Back to 2004, where these guys showed us how Miami gets down. They shared some travel-sized bottles of Skyy vodka with us throughout the game, and whenever they came back from the concession stand with one too many hot dogs, they gave us the surplus. The tall, raspy-voiced, Dutch-South African-lookin' guy had a thing for my Nancy ... he would check her out every so often when she stood up to cheer or go to the restroom, and he even gave her an orange & green, Mardi Gras-style necklace with footballs on it. She gave it to me after the game.

As for that game, it was another classic between Miami and FSU. Sophomore Devin Hester blocked a field goal that would've put the game out of reach late in the fourth quarter, and Miami drove the other direction and forced overtime when Sinorice Moss took a flanker screen 33-yards for a touchdown to tie the game at 10 in the closing seconds. I remember sailing out of my seat and nearly falling to my death over the front edge of the Orange Bowl's upper deck as Santana's little brother crossed the goal line. That would've been a fine way to go as far as I'm concerned.

The Hurricanes held Florida State scoreless on the first overtime possession, and senior Frank Gore scored untouched from 25 yards out on the first play of Miami's OT possession to win the game, 16-10. I used an old-school disposable camera to snap a picture of the Canes' sideline as it emptied onto the field in celebration.

That was an unforgettable night in one of America's irreplaceable modern coliseums, and Miami Hurricane football needs a new home to call its own as it enters a new era of dominance in the 21st century. I was sad when I heard the Orange Bowl would be closing, and even sadder when the Canes ended the Orange Bowl era with an unceremonious and uncharacteristic 48-0 loss to Virginia in 2007. Now The U shares a homefield with the Miami Dolphins, just as they did before the 'Phins abandoned the Orange Bowl for Joe Robbie in the mid-80's. While I was in Miami in 2004, I took a busride out past the swampy suburbs to catch a Marlins game in Joe Robbie (now known as LandShark Stadium!?), and while it is a grand structure, it's no place for Miami Hurricane football.

The Florida Marlins also call LandShark home, but not for long. They finally got the city of Miami to help facilitate a new baseball stadium downtown, and the University needs to do the same for its famed football program. Now days, Hurricane home games are a 30 to 45-minute drive for the college students, and the joint is barely half full for the average ACC conference clash. That's unacceptable by anyone's standards, let alone Hurricane heritage. The U needs a football facility overhaul from top to bottom, but they need to start with a stadium to call their own. The city of Miami -- long smothered and subsidized by organized crime and Caribbean cartels -- should also spend a little of its laundered money to help bring one of its most indelible institutions back inside the city limits.

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