Saturday, November 11, 2006

It’s been a difficult and challenging year for a once great college football

To suggest the 2006 football season for the University of Miami’s football team has been challenging would be an understatement. On every level a program that has won five national championships in the last 22 years is tittering on the brink of a total collapse. Dubbed “NFL U” there are more football players who currently play in the National Football League who once wore the University of Miami football uniform, than any other NCAA Division I-A football program, but at what price to the morals and values of the institution?

In the simplest terms in the last twenty-five years the most successful college football program on the field has been the University of Miami’s football team. Off the field, the football program has generated hundreds of millions of dollars in football related revenues. However, it’s away from the football field where the football program has brought a litany of embarrassment to its students, the school’s reputation and the City of Miami.

The University of Miami football program is a program run amok, it may indeed be time for University to consider taking a step back and evaluating the rewards the football program offers versus the risks the program represents. There comes a time in any business where the overall image of one component of that business must be considered against the greater good of the entire business operation. That day has arrived on the doorstep of the University of Miami in terms of their football program.

The issue: how soiled is the University of Miami football program and will its future hinder the overall economics of the University of Miami? Is the reputation of the football program hurting the image of the University of Miami to the degree it could hamper the school’s ability to generate other important revenues?

This afternoon the Hurricanes will face the Maryland University four days after senior Hurricanes defensive lineman Bryan Pata was murdered hours after the Hurricanes Tuesday night practice. Tuesday’s night tragic shooting of another Miami player destined for an NFL career is the latest incident in a series of events that have taken place in the last few months that have the football program on the brink.

A month ago the University of Miami met the Florida International University (FIU) Golden Panthers at the Orange Bowl, on October 14. Geographically the two schools are located within eight miles of each other. The demographics of the two schools are as different as night is to day. U of Miami is a private university, located in trendy Coral Gables. FIU is a classic ‘inner city University’. The FIU student body is largely made up of students from the local Miami area, whereas over 75% of the students at UM are from outside of Miami-Dade and Broward counties. FIU costs $4,000 to attend, the U of Miami close to $30,000. The Orange Bowl encounter was the first time the two schools met on the football field.

FIU’s football program is nothing more that cannon fodder for school’s like the U of Miami. Accept a guarantee and give the team you’re playing against a guaranteed win. When you need a minimum of six wins against a Division I program and after the NCAA approved a 12th game, match-ups like the U of Miami and FIU where inevitable. Heading into their home game tonight against Louisiana-Monroe the Golden Panthers are 0-8 in 2006. The Golden Eagles play in the putrid Sun Belt football conference, and are currently ranked 167th in the latest Sagarin's College Football Ratings, dead last in Sagarin's College Football Ratings for Division I-A football programs.

Soon after the Hurricanes took an early 14-0 lead on route to a 35-0 win, all hell broke loose. Police dressed in riot gear where forced to break-up the melee.

In a classic example of damage control University of Miami President Donna Shalala took to the airwaves addressing the media, the sports media during the football team's weekly news conference. Shalala took it one step further appearing on ESPN radio’s national morning drive show “Mike and Mike”.

"I want to start by saying that the buck stops here. I have already apologized but I want to apologize again to our community, both our University community and our alums, our trustees, as well as all of those who care and love Miami football, for the behavior of some of our students and our football players. I also want to apologize to Florida International University. I have done that to their President, but I want their community to also hear my apology."

"We have disciplined our student-athletes and given them serious warnings. We have set new standards. That standard being that we will eliminate from our team students that get into fights. That is a new standard from the University. That means we have zero tolerance for this kind of behavior. The sad part is for the men and women that have spent most of the last decade recruiting young men and women of character to the University to play on our sports teams and restoring our image in this community. I believe that the young men that we have recruited to the football team are young men of great character, but they did a very bad thing."

"We know that we are recruiting a different kind of student-athlete and it's time for me to say publicly that I believe in them, that I believe they did something awful; but that I want them to continue at the University of Miami. It's time for me to say to the community and to those who have been sending me e-mails that this University will be firm and punish people that do bad things, but we will not throw any student under the bus for instant restoration of our image or our reputation. I will not hang them in a public square. I will not eliminate their participation at the University. I will not take away their scholarships. We will discipline them appropriately. We will set a high standard for them and we will make it clear what our expectations are for them. We will do the same thing for our coaches, for our athletic director, and for any student on this campus whether or not they participate in a sport."

"It's time for the feeding frenzy to stop. These students made a stupid, terrible, horrible mistake and they are being punished. They are students and we are an educational institution and we will act like an educational institution, not like a P.R. organization that's trying to spin and to restore an image that we worked so hard to put in place. I'll continue to support our athletic program and I will continue to be firm and fair with the young people that come to the University, whether they are in our laboratories or our classrooms or in our libraries or on our playing fields. I would be happy to answer any questions you may have."

The school announced a five point plan on October 27 further addressing how it hopes to address the damage the football program has done to the image of the University of Miami:

The development of a sportsmanship program with the 30 high schools in the Greater Miami Athletic Conference.

"Meaningful, on-going" work with a charity of each player's choosing.

After-school visits with South Florida youth to both tutor and discuss values such as sportsmanship and behavior.

Added work with the Miami-Dade County police's "Join a Team, Not a Gang" program, including players visiting youngsters.

Involvement in other outreach programs, including ones with the homeless.

While the tragic death of Bryan Pata has little to do with the behavior of the football program, when combined with the Hurricanes terrible off the field history, the football program has traveled from travesty to tragedy in a mere four weeks.

"I think that everybody has strung together all of the bad events of the past. This is not the same program. This is not the old Miami. This is the new Miami and we had a terrible incident. We'll just have to work hard in the way we did before in terms of our behavior and the standards that we set for the University and for our athletes. We've always known that we couldn't make mistakes. This is not new for the University of Miami. We don't get a break. I knew that before I came to Miami. I like that standard. It's tougher and we are tougher on ourselves than other people are."

"What we won't do is to take it out on these young people. What we will do is constantly remember that we are educators. We're not going to end their lives or end their careers or end their educational experiences here at the University. I am prepared to take all of that flack on myself by saying that,” commented U of Miami president Donna Shalala.

That may or may not be correct, but it’s clear the U of Miami hasn’t learnt anything for their past transgressions. A partial list of the issues school officials have had to deal with in direct relationship to the football program and the behavior of the players according to a USA Today report include:

•December 1986-January 1987: Following its first-ever undefeated regular season in 1986, Miami is selected to face Penn State in the 1987 Fiesta Bowl at Tempe, Ariz. In contrast to the Nittany Lions, who attended team functions in jackets and ties, Miami players spent most of the week wearing camouflage fatigues and walked out of a midweek function attended by both teams. This was probably the first time Miami began to be perceived as a "renegade" program.

•October 1988: In the first of three meetings with Notre Dame, later billed as "Catholics vs. Convicts," Miami and Notre Dame players engage in a pregame shoving match in the tunnel outside the teams' locker rooms at Notre Dame Stadium.

•December 1995: The NCAA places Miami on three years' probation, issues a postseason ban for 1995 and cuts scholarships for the next two years for violations that include an academic adviser helping 57 football players improperly receive federal grants.

•December 2000: Players from Miami and Florida — police reports say 10 to 15; eyewitnesses say closer to 40 — clash on the streets of New Orleans in the days leading to their meeting in the Sugar Bowl. No charges were filed by police.

•February 2004: Linebacker Willie Williams was one of the nation's most-prized recruits at Carol City High in Miami. The same day he signed his letter of intent with the Hurricanes, the Alachua County (Fla.) State Attorney announced Williams was being investigated for three criminal complaints stemming from a recruiting visit to the University of Florida in January. Also, a record showing 10 arrests as a juvenile, including on felony burglary charges, came to light. After months of deliberations, Miami decided to admit Williams — with conditions. He suffered an injury in practice in August 2004 and was redshirted as a freshman. He played in 10 games in 2005 but left the program this summer.

•July 11, 2004: Cornerback Antrel Rolle is arrested and charged with a felony, battery on a police officer, in connection with an early-morning incident in Coconut Grove, Fla. Rolle is suspended indefinitely. Prosecutors later decide not to pursue the case, citing problems with evidence. Rolle is reinstated.

•November 2005: A rap song with sexually explicit lyrics, performed by a group called Seventh Floor Crew, surfaces on the Internet. Coach Larry Coker confirms that Miami football players are members of the group, which recorded the song two years earlier. Athletics director Paul Dee, saying the matter would be handled internally, noted that the song was performed in private and never was intended for distribution.

•Dec. 30, 2005: Several Miami players fight with LSU players following the Tigers' 40-3 win at the Peach Bowl in Atlanta, a brawl that quickly escalated into a melee in the tunnel leading from the field and had Georgia State Patrol officers intervening.

•July 21, 2006: Miami player Willie Cooper suffers superficial wounds to his buttocks after he is shot outside his residence near campus in what players contend was a robbery attempt. Safety Brandon Meriweather, one of those suspended for Saturday's brawl, returns fire at the alleged assailants. Police say he acted legally, noting Meriweather had a permit for the weapon. Three days later, coach Larry Coker says he would discourage players from having guns. "I don't really want our players to have firearms. I'd rather they would dial 911 to come and handle those types of problems," he said.

•Aug. 27, 2006: Wide receiver Ryan Moore, sent home from the Peach Bowl for violating team rules, is suspended for the first two games of 2006 for other violations. The Miami-Dade County State Attorney's Office says it expects to charge Moore this week with misdemeanors stemming from an Aug. 26 fight with a woman. Moore hasn't played this season.

•Sept. 16, 2006: Shortly before the game at Louisville, virtually the entire Hurricanes' roster jumps on the Cardinals logo at midfield — an act widely viewed as a taunting gesture. Miami loses 31-7. Afterward, several Miami players chide teammates for their involvement in that incident.

•Oct. 14, 2006: A bench-clearing brawl breaks out among players on the field during the third quarter of a game against Florida International at the Orange Bowl. A total of 13 players are ejected after police and stadium security help break up the five-minute melee. TV cameras catch one Miami player wielding his helmet as a weapon and an injured FIU player swinging his crutches.

The U of Miami football program rose overnight to national prominence after defeating Nebraska 31-30 in the 50th anniversary Orange Bowl game to win the mythical national championship. Miami joined the Big East Conference in 1991 (the school played as an Independent from 1940 until 1991) and then joined the ACC in 2004 after paying the Big East a $1 million penalty.

Try as she may, U of Miami president Donna Shalala hasn’t been able to avoid the media’s constant questioning about the football teams’ image and how that image impacts on the school as a whole.

"At this moment, someone at the University is doing something absolutely stupid that I'm going to have to work to straighten out. If you want to work at a University, you're not in complete control because you have 10,000 teenagers and a limited number of adults and all you can do is set a standard and hold people to those standards. Is it a step back for us? Yes, but the one thing we've always had the University of Miami is speed on and off the field,” Shalala commented.

"We have to keep working at it. We are good people and we have to keep working at it. We can't give up and we particularly can't give up on the young people of our community and the wider community that come here. So we just keep working at it because we believe in them and we believe in what we're doing at this educational institution, so we've got to keep working at it,” Shalala concluded.

On November 18, 2004, then South Carolina Gamecocks coach Lou Holtz announced that he would retire a second time, at the end of the 2004 season. His retirement was marred by a brawl between South Carolina and Clemson players during a game on November 21, 2004, resulting in the two universities announcing they would decline any post-season bowl game invitations.

The Gamecocks finished 6-5 in 2004, losing Holtz’s last game as a coach to Clemson. Bowl eligible, an SEC school, Lou Holtz set to retire, the Gamecocks certainty would have been invited to a bowl game but choose to send a message about their football program – we’ll turn down a revenue generating opportunity to let our students, our football program and our community understand we’re about a greater purpose, we see the bigger picture.

With three games left in their 2006 schedule, the Hurricanes are 5-4 with three games left to get the additional win the football program needs to become bowl eligible, today’s game at Maryland, a home game against Virginia the following Saturday and a Thanksgiving match-up at the Orange Bowl against Boston College. Today’s game and the Boston College game are going to be real challenges; the Virginia game is what is commonly refereed to as a winnable game.

If the Canes finish their season with six or seven (or even eight) wins against at four or more losses should the school follow the example Lou Holtz and South Carolina set two years ago – turn away from the lure of a bowl game and the revenues attached to a bowl appearance in favor of the ‘greater good’ and the image the football program has generated this year? Canes football coach Larry Cocker is certain to be fired once the season ends, Holtz retired. The final decision belongs to University of Miami President Donna Shalala. Shalala has that rare opportunity to send a message to her football program, students and the community about where the priorities and values of the U of Miami truly are.

For Sports Business News this is Howard Bloom. Sources cited in this Insider Report: the USA Today and Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.

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