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The weight of history at Miami

At other football programs, alumni come back. At Miami, they never leave.

Imagine you’re a University of Miami football fan. For nearly two decades you’ve either heard about, or longed for the memory of a chaotic Orange Bowl and a huge Saturday night battle between your Hurricanes and a marquee name — a Florida State, a Notre Dame, a Michigan. Through coaching changes, through NCAA investigations, through disappointments and underachieving, you’ve waited.

Now imagine you’re in the front row, right behind the home team’s sideline, at Miami’s Hard Rock Stadium on the night of November 11, 2017. Your Canes are unbeaten and ranked seventh in the country. Third-ranked Notre Dame is in town. So is ESPN’s College GameDay. The whole day has been a party. Hard Rock feels like the Orange Bowl. And now Trajan Bandy has just picked off a pass and taken it to the house to make the score 27-0 in the second quarter. All-out chaos. Limbs flying in every direction. Fans dog-piling each other. You lose yourself completely.

Now imagine realizing that the fan losing his mind next to you is Ed Reed.

Every football program calls itself a family, and every program will trot out its former greats from time to time to get a standing ovation during a timeout or halftime. But with its more immediate history and a base of former players nearby who act like fans, mentors, boosters, and everything in between, the University of Miami is a FAMILY, in all caps and italicized.

This can be both a blessing and a curse. It can mean your heroes are guiding you from just a few feet away. It can also mean that you are constantly getting measured by the standard of the greats who came before you.

History isn’t in the past at The University of Miami. It’s right there on the sidelines.

NCAA Football: Notre Dame at Miami, Trajan Bandy interception
Freshman defensive back (and Miami native) Trajan Bandy makes the first interception of his career and returns it 65 yards for a touchdown against Notre Dame.
Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

For all a college football player can’t get — namely, compensation beyond tuition, room, and board — if he did anything particularly noteworthy in college, he can always get a nice round of applause and maybe a free drink or two when he comes back to town.

“Coming back” is the operative phrase there.

The way that it was put to me when I visited The U this summer is simple: Alabama greats come back to Tuscaloosa. Oklahoma greats come back to Norman. Miami greats don’t come back — they’re already there. And if somehow they’re not, all they need is the slightest of reasons to drop everything and return. As cornerbacks coach and former Miami star CB Mike Rumph puts it, “They come back quickly because we’re literally living in paradise.”

A healthy percentage of them are from nearby, too. Rumph himself was a blue-chipper from Delray Beach, and basically every school in the area has produced at least one Hurricanes star. And third-year head coach — also a former Miami quarterback — Mark Richt wants them to know The U’s doors are open.

“One of the first things I wanted to do was make sure [former players] knew they were welcome and make sure they knew we cared about them,” he says. “We want ‘em to come back on our campus and talk to our team, we want ‘em to even talk to our coaches about technique.”

He also doesn’t mind having different players he can show off when Miami has camps throughout south Florida. There is a connection to local talent here that’s hard to top, even when things aren’t going as well for Miami as they should be.

“When I came to Miami, it was coming off of probation,” Rumph says. Butch Davis was entering his fourth season at the time and had a decent but unspectacular 22-12 record to show for it. The fall before Rumph signed, the Canes went just 5-6. But nothing swayed him.

“I would do anything to be a Hurricane. When I was a kid, watching them come out the smoke, with the jerseys up and the abs showin’, the visors, the colors of that orange and green and the uniform looked so good, and the cleats they had — I used to draw pictures of Ray Lewis, like, to the T, with his Nike cleats on. I knew what type of socks he had.

“So I wanted that badly.”

Mike Rumph FSU v Miami
As a starting cornerback with Miami, Mike Rumph was an integral member of the 2001 national championship team.

Having such a connection with your alumni can be a great thing for any number of obvious reasons. “D.J. Williams and Jon Vilma ... they’d come back and say, ‘This is how we do things in the linebacker room ... this is how we make those things happen,’” says Cam Underwood of SB Nation’s State of the U. “It’s awesome because you get that peer-level instruction — it has to be more than just the coaches.”

It can also backfire, Underwood says. “If you’re dropping passes all the time, and you’ve got Michael Irvin there on the sideline, or if you blow a coverage ... then you’re like, Ohh, I’ve gotta to back to the bench, and Ed Reed is over there, or Philip Buchanan, who is very vociferous with his displeasure at times, he’s right there as well. It can be a daunting thing.”

If you don’t measure up to the greats that preceded you, you’re reminded of it pretty constantly.

If nothing else, your response to not only wearing the jerseys of your idols but having your idols stand nearby can set a pretty clear bar.

“If it has a negative effect on any player that puts the U on, then they didn’t belong here in the first place,” says former Miami All-American defensive end (and eventual defensive line coach) Greg Mark.

“There’s a lot of eyes on you, and those eyes are on you to help you, too! There’s not one former player that wouldn’t make a phone call, wouldn’t get on a flight, wouldn’t drive if they’re close, if called upon. Those guys that are currently playing should know that, yes, we look maybe with some different-lensed glasses being former players — especially at reunions, when we start to tell stories — but there’s a lot of love and a lot of caring and a lot of guys out there that have got their back and would do anything to help.

“I think that’s a special thing.”

Mark Richt isn’t going to admit to any pressure of course. He can’t.

“It’s not a burden for us,” Richt says. “Our guys, our football alumni, love this program maybe more than any place I can think of. People are jealous at how much our guys love this place and how badly they want us to win. I wanna win, too, and when they’re mad, I’m probably mad, too.”

It’s only fair that these former greats would have high expectations of the coaches, too.

“The first scrimmage I had here [as DBs coach], we missed some tackles,” Rumph says. “And Tolbert Bain, I hadn’t even gotten off the field yet, and he came pointing his finger right in my face, like, ‘You better get those boys to tackle,’ — you know he’s got that deep voice — ‘RUMPH, you better get them boys to tighten up and tackle,’ and I’m like, ‘Jesus, the first scrimmage!’”

In order to understand the fraternity of the U, you need to understand the history of this program.

Howard Schnellenberger, the head coach from 1979 to 1983, famously recruited the “State of Miami,” locking down most of the star athletes nearby and, in the desegregated climate of the 1970s and 1980s, showing what a team made up of mostly Florida athletes could do at a national level.

“He had a unique thought about how to recruit the area down there,” says current coach (and former Schnellenberger quarterback) Richt. “He knew the tri-county area — Dade, Broward, and Palm Beach County — was so full of great players. He recruited it as if it was a state unto itself. And that was a very successful campaign.” To say the least.

The Hurricanes won a surprise national title in 1983, and then, under Jimmy Johnson, Dennis Erickson, and Larry Coker, they won far less surprising titles in 1987, 1989, 1991, and 2001. They came up basically a game or so short in 1985, 1986, 1988, 1990, 1992, 2000, and 2002, as well. In the 21 seasons between 1983-2003, they finished in the AP Top 5 12 times.

The Miami of the 1980s was, shall we say, fraught. If you heard about the city for reasons other than football, it was probably for the Liberty City riot, or for Scarface, or for Miami Vice and the culture it was intended to reflect. The Hurricanes provided an outlet for people of all walks of life to feel good about their city. Beyond that, though, The U’s burgeoning reputation outside of Miami helped to solidify its internal support.

“You get a guy like Jimmy Johnson coming in,” Mark says, “and he created this us-against-the-world scenario. We would go out as players, and we’re brash and celebrating each other and confident and we had that swagger, and we were creating this buzz about ourselves that people had an opinion on. And then we would turn that opinion into fuel! We’d circle the wagons, and it would be us against the world.”

Indeed, everyone had an opinion about Johnson’s Canes, and certain words — “class,” “thugs,” “act like champs instead of chumps,” etc. — came up pretty frequently.

“Coach Johnson really knew how to cultivate that,” Mark continues. “I think that carried over to the city as well. Having all these people here who cared about the community, cared about the city, cared about the sports teams here, that gave them something to grab onto. ‘They’re talkin’ about us! It’s us against the world! We’re with you!’”

That bond made the Canes a city’s team, not just a university’s. That is unique for college football. When I informally polled people in the area about which Miami team would have the most positive impact on the community if it were to win a title — the Canes, the Heat, the Dolphins, the Marlins, or the Panthers — everyone, associated or unassociated with the university, said The U. Unscientific and statistically insignificant? Absolutely. But you can’t find that for any other major city in the country. Even USC, with its celebrated history, would take second place to the Lakers in LA.

“Our fan base is very much city-oriented,” Richt says. “We’re a very small private institution.” [Enrollment is now in the 16,000 range.] “When Hard Rock is sold out and rockin’ and rollin’, half of the fan base is the people from the city who love the program.”

Back to last November. Back to Notre Dame. Back to Ed Reed.

Underwood is sharing the story. He took a friend to their first Miami game, the one against Notre Dame, and sure enough, when Bandy took the ball to the house late in the first half, Reed jumped from the sideline into the stands, high-fiving with the rest of the Miami fans. It was maybe the most The U moment in 15 years. It reminded everyone of what the Canes could be.

There was something new this time around, though, that Bandy got to don when he came back to the sideline, a new visual representation for The U: the turnover chain.

The Miami turnover chain
The turnover chain was created to motivate the Miami defense.
Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

Defensive coordinator Manny Diaz laughs, reflecting about both how the turnover chain came into existence and how it was almost a bomb right out of the gates. “The first game last year, we’re playing Bethune-Cookman, we show them the chain that morning, and of course the guys all go crazy. We go out against Bethune-Cookman, and we play terribly. Full credit to Bethune-Cookman.

“It’s three quarters into the game, and we don’t have a turnover yet. ... I’m like, this thing’s not even going to see the light of day against Bethune-Cookman! We finally got two in I think the last seven minutes of the game.”

Once the chain gained notoriety, it became almost a self-fulfilling prophecy. The Canes generated four takeaways in four straight games, then nabbed three from Notre Dame and at least one in each remaining game.

“I think it hurt the other team more than it even helped us,” Diaz says. “Once it became a thing, and you knew that it was something that the other team was talking about during the course of the week. ‘We’re not gonna let ‘em get the chain out.’ ... Virginia, Pitt, Clemson, and Wisconsin all fumbled the ball in the first five minutes of the game. Fumbled it!

“Now obviously all four of those teams made a big deal that week not to turn the ball over against Miami. I feel like sometimes it created a negative coaching element for our opposition — don’t, don’t, don’t. They say, ‘Don’t focus on the don’ts.’ And in some ways, we benefited from that.”

Mark loved it. “The turnover chain! Brilliant. Unbelievable. I haven’t met a former player that I either played with or coached that didn’t love it. They just hit themselves in the head and go, ‘Why didn’t we have that?’

“The brashness, the ‘swagger’ that everybody likes to label it, is what makes the University of Miami special. People used to line up against us, and they were already 14 points behind before the ball was even kicked off.”

Of course, that Notre Dame moment was also fleeting. Miami would ease by Virginia the next week to move to No. 2 in the CFP rankings, then lose three in a row to end the season. Like Tiger Woods coming up just short in the 2018 British Open and PGA Championship, the Canes realized they still had a little bit more of a comeback to go.

Miami’s 2017 season was an exhilarating run with a frustrating, familiar ending. And there’s no guarantee that Richt will get the Hurricanes any closer than he just did. But there’s reason for optimism, even if you’ve got higher expectations than anyone else.

“We’ve gotta have that offseason where it’s just like, ‘Wow, I barely made it through that offseason, it was so tough,’” says Rumph. “I remember [when I was a player] in the summer, there were no coaches allowed out there, and it was only the team. I’d never seen a team full of players work that hard without a coach being out there. Like, guys being accountable, guys calling people out, guys throwin’ up, guys about to fight because they won’t do it right.”

“Teams that have won in the past can win again,” Richt says. “If you do things the right way, you’ll have the success that you need, and hopefully we’ll do it in such a way that everyone will take pride in it.

“So far, so good.”

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