MIAMI -- Before Allen Iverson and Ron Artest, before Terrell Owens and OchoCinco, before Trick Daddy and Lil Wayne -- before America was quite ready, in other words -- there was championship University of Miami football. It was fun, violent, flourescent, reckless and wonderful, but the street getting so close to the library was also pretty new then, and that particular kind of new can scare people the way black heavyweight champion Jack Johnson scared them by dating white women once upon a time.
So Miami wide receiver Horace Copeland celebrated a touchdown by doing a backflip in the end zone. And, before a game against Florida State, defensive tackle Cortez Kennedy had to be restrained because he thought it would be funny to punch Renegade, the Seminole horse. And Miami safety Charles Pharms -- who wore all black on game days because he was in mourning for the opponent, his T-shirt reading, "Shut up, b
-!" -- was so unintimidated by the caged tiger placed outside the Miami locker room at a drunk and roaring Louisiana State that he stuck his arm inside the bars and sang "Coochie-coo!" before trampling that tiger's team by a score of 44-3.
"The antics," Miami coach Randy Shannon calls them now, and that word has about the right weight. Not "crimes," "blasphemy," "sacrilege," or "desecration." Well, actually, there were some actual crimes against people but what seemed to bother sports fans, academia and the country more were the crimes against sports. The antics. Dancing and singing and having fun, if you viewed it from Miami's huddle. Trampling sportsmanship, if you viewed it from anywhere else.
The Hurricanes were equal parts hip-hop and pro wrestling, breaking the rules of the game over their knee while playing to their young constituency in the colorful, crazy cities that surrounded that manicured Coral Gables campus. They received two football fields worth of penalty yardage in setting a bowl record with 202 penalty yards and still beat third-ranked Texas in that game, 46-3. So when that recklessness spilled over the sidelines, into occasional crimes that actually involved the law, it became a rationalized way for the indignant to get louder about how undignified this representation for amateurism had become within the sidelines. Pioneers are always met with this kind of resistance, as Elvis and hip-hop and UFC can attest. Real leaders, Abraham Lincoln said, always risk being unpopular.
Notre Dame's Tim Brown admits now, all these years later, that the only time he was ever terrified playing football was against Miami -- not because of the Orange Bowl noise or even the Hurricane talent but because of what he feared Miami's players might do to him in the parking lot after the game. South Florida loved the so-very-Miami aura around those teams. America hated it. And Sports Illustrated called for the termination of the program.
Truth is, though, Miami's single greatest crime was being the first, not the worst. Urban Meyer has had 27 players arrested for real crimes in his brief time at the University of Florida, and it isn't even any kind of unusual because we're numb to it now. Twenty-seven is an enormous number. It is more than were ever arrested at Miami under Jimmy Johnson during the most rebellious years. Heck, that's more than Johnson had arrested with his crazed Cowboys. And it's obviously a lot more than the single one arrested during Randy Shannon's tenure now.
MANY CHANGES NOW
But not many people know that, and fewer care. So much has changed. Rap star Luther Campbell being associated with Miami was a dangerous and reckless sign once. But Snoop Dogg being on USC's sideline just makes both a little more hip now.
ESPN is doing a two-hour documentary on Miami's renegade years this week. It is done by Miami alums and will mostly embrace that fascinating time, but the current administration didn't want anything to do with the film and even advised former players not to participate. Miami has a bit of post-traumatic stress disorder about its past, understandably. You might, too, if the nation's largest magazine in your field called for your eradication because it had, in its grandfatherly senility, confused you being edgy with you being evil.
Sports Illustrated was only giving voice to a lot of what the mainstream media was yelling about. And it haunts Miami still, a few decades later, every time the smallest thing happens. Can you have a persecution complex and actually be persecuted? Miami's past and reputation ensures that a few players making a naughty rap song a few years ago somehow got national headlines. It isn't the crime being punished that way. It is the school. Miami fans overreact to any national slight; but the nation also seems to overreact to any Miami indiscretion.
But here's the thing: This UM hasn't been that UM in a really long time. I remember being floored while talking to Andre Johnson and Ed Reed during the 2001 championship run. This was nearly a full decade ago, mind you. I figured they'd embrace Miami's taunting, swaggering past as a reason for coming to Miami, as so many players did. But they rejected it. Said they didn't like anything about it all, except maybe the winning. Being excellent was enough for them. They didn't have to go and tell you about it, and still don't, even with eight Pro Bowls and nary a single bad public moment between them.
There were a lot of Johnsons and Reeds and Jonathan Vilmas in that locker room, more than there were Kellen Winslows. But Winslow went on a locker-room rant about the "U" one time, channeling past ghosts angrily, and you could hear the angry echoes: Same ol' Canes.
A CLEAN PROGRAM
But Miami has been clean for a long time now. Johnson and Reed, not Michael Irvin, are the role models for today's Hurricanes. Miami wide receiver LaRon Byrd might wear Irvin's number 47, but he never even saw Irvin play. He was born the year after Irvin left Miami. No, Byrd came to Miami because he liked Johnson's quiet style.
"Wearing fatigues and dancing after plays and trash-talking, that was all allowed back then," Shannon says now. "It was just a fad. But then all the rules changed."
Shannon was a stoic linebacker on those teams, about as quiet a guy as there was on a gyrating defense that howled before unleashing its menace and danced after doing so. That's funny, looking back, that one of those teams would produce not only a Miami head coach but maybe the biggest disciplinarian Miami has ever had. Jimmy Johnson calls Shannon and tells him to let up on his players a little bit. Johnson says Shannon is a lot harder on Hurricanes than he ever was.
"No matter what we do, we're always in Shannon's eye view," says Byrd, who has a 3.7 GPA. "If I'm two minutes late to class, he'll find out. He's a very strict father figure."
And here are some of the results: Miami had eight seniors who received their degrees prior to the season. Five more will do so this month. That means 13 of Miami's 18 seniors will graduate before the bowl game. The American Football Coaches Association has lauded Miami for exceeding the national graduation rate in 15 of the past 17 years.
Miami ranked seventh nationally in the NCAA Academic Progress Rate with a score of 976 -- higher than Notre Dame and highest among Florida schools. Without boring you with the point system, just know that Miami is within 10 points of No.1 Stanford and No.3 Duke. Closer to Stanford and Duke, academically, in other words, than the point system puts Miami to Florida and Florida State.
And then there's this: In July, the team did 27 community events in Dade, Broward and Palm Beach. Twenty-seven. In one month. Talking to kids. Signing autographs. Teaching camps. Not just a few players. The whole team. It is one of the largest community outreach programs a major college-football team has ever done.
"I'm very proud of that," Shannon says.
That's not the kind of stuff that makes it on magazine covers.
It isn't what gets documentaries made, either.
And it doesn't have much of anything to do with winning, which is all people used to care about back before the Hurricanes trampled their idea of what sportsmanship should look like.
But it has at least one thing in common with those fun, crazy Miami teams from two decades ago:
It is pretty damn cool.