Crothers: Missing U

Surfing the channels the other night, I wiped out on “The U,” the ESPN documentary about the g(l)ory days of football at the University of Miami. My favorite moment was the footage of Randal “Thrill” Hill scoring a touchdown during the 1991 Cotton Bowl, running halfway up the tunnel, then drawing mock six-shooters and gunning down the Texas players as the Hurricanes strutted, preened, high-stepped and crotch-grabbed their way to a 46-3 pantsing of the Longhorns.

I know I should condemn that kind of behavior. I know. But I can’t. That’ll be me at the next meeting of Trashtalkers Anonymous admitting that I have a problem. “I miss The U.” There, I said it.

As a sportswriter I miss the color, the nerve, the soap opera script created by the Hurricanes of that era. The U was a rap video on grass with Luther Campbell of 2 Live Crew, the team’s most ubiquitous celebrity fan, at the mike. Those Canes were a collection of self-proclaimed thugs from the toughest ‘hoods in Miami. They gathered as one at a school nicknamed Suntan U. in bucolic Coral Gables, lured by some dude named Howard Schnellenberger, who sported a cartoon mustache and a pipe. Once there, they took a third-world football program that had nearly been euthanized and transformed it into a dynasty. As a writer, most of my work was done for me.

Miami had more personalities than an American Idol audition. Michael Irvin and Jerome Brown and Jesse Armstead and Thrill Hill, whose six-shooter routine wasn’t even his most famous shtick. (He was best known for strutting around like George Jefferson.) It was a team with so many celebrities that a defensive tackle named Dwayne Johnson, who would come to be known as the pro wrestler “The Rock,” was totally overlooked.
They were a team of outlaws who treated opponents like in-laws.

They were the Convicts to Notre Dame’s Catholics. Hell, they wore fatigues to the Fiesta Bowl. What a delicious paradox. Wearing camouflage to stick out.

But The U became The U because of the almighty W. Miami won four national titles in nine seasons between 1983 and 1991 under three different coaches. Schnellenberger won one and then handed the whip and chair to Jimmy Johnson. He won another and then fled after five seasons at least in part because he wanted to The U to stay The U while his own administration wanted the circus to leave town instead. Then Dennis Erickson coached the Canes to two more national titles, but to hear his players talk about it, he might as well have been a cardboard cutout on the sideline. The documentary compares Miami players to the Deltas in Animal House and Miami’s school president at the time, Edward Thaddeus Foote II, to Dean Wormer. Who wouldn’t root for Bluto over Wormer?

Why is this relevant? Well, one of the few things I despise about college football in 2009 is when some receiver catches a 93-yard touchdown pass, cracks a smile and the next thing you know his team is kicking off from its own 15-yard line. That type of football sharia can change a game. (See: Georgia v. LSU.) It has happened enough this fall that there’s a good chance that the result of one of this season’s bowl games—hopefully not the only one that actually matters—will be influenced by a celebration penalty.

Today’s touchdown police trace directly back to The U’s glory days, when the NCAA actually rewrote the rulebook and designated exactly what would no longer be tolerated after a score by more of less screening Miami highlight videos.

The NCAA wreaked its revenge on The U by condemning the program to probation in 1995, concluding that the university had lost institutional control over the football program. Duh. Not long after that Sports Illustrated was telling us Why the University of Miami Should Drop Football. By the time Kellen Winslow, Jr. channeled his inner Michael Irvin in 2003, we’d crossed the rubicon of political correctness and Winslow, “the f—-ing soldier,” was all but dishonorably discharged.

Under Randy Shannon in recent seasons there is a hint of The U back at Miami. Maybe a u. But the current face of the Canes, Jacory Harris, is just too humble, so damn sportsmanlike that he makes his ancestors like Kosar and Testaverde and Walsh look like badasses.

Sure, there are parts of The U that crossed the line. Luther Campbell strongly suggesting that he paid “bounties” to the Miami players for slobberknocking hits probably set off some radar detectors at the NCAA office. It would have been interesting to hear from Shannon, who played at Miami in the heyday of The U, began his coaching career there as a grad assistant in 1991 and no doubt knows where all the skeletons are hidden, but he was conspicuously and shrewdly absent from ESPN’s film. Shannon surely didn’t want to have to answer the same questions Luther Campbell was fielding.

Alas, the NCAA’s ass gets tighter with every passing season as The U fades farther into the ether of history, but the current players still embrace Miami’s traditional sign of defiance. They still put the tips of their thumbs together and form the U shape with their other fingers. They just don’t wiggle those fingers and stick their tongues out anymore.

2 bad.