The Miami Hurricanes Have Been Putting In The Work To Address Racism... And That's Why I Went There
Updated: Oct 8, 2020
I remember being at the end of my high school days utterly overwhelmed and exhausted by the whole process of figuring out where to go to college.
But when I watched "The U," I knew that's where I wanted to be. Billy Corben's thrilling 30 for 30 documentary about the rise of the Miami Hurricanes football team was originally released in 2009, but I probably saw it a year or so later. Maybe it was reairing on ESPN.
My dream school growing up was the University of Notre Dame, which if you know anything about college sports, you know is the heated rival of the University of Miami.
So what made me switch so fervently to the "dark side?"
I've formulated several reasons in my head throughout the years. I remember being captivated by the Hurricanes' rebel spirit, going against the grain of what college football was expected to be up until that time. I was mesmerized that it was the first school to run out of the tunnel in a cloud of smoke. I was inspired by the players' camaraderie and pride in their hometown team that they turned into a true brotherhood.
But when I rewatched "The U" the other day and found a new one: Resilience.
We are a few weeks removed from George Floyd's death at the hands of Minneapolis police officers. One of them stuck his knee on Big Floyd's neck, pinning him to the concrete pavement for 8 minutes and 46 seconds, draining his life away. We are a few months removed from Breonna Taylor's death at the hands of Louisville police officers. Her apartment was raided in the middle of the night with a no-knock warrant for a completely different person. Eight bullets struck her body and left her lifeless.
Protests have broken out across the country as thousands of people demand justice for these victims and so many others. It feels eerily similar to just a few years ago when Mike Brown, Trayvon Martin, Alton Sterling and Philando Castile were some of the names that were marched for as the call increased to acknowledge that Black lives matter.
Those of us in Los Angeles are reminded of the Rodney King Riots in 1992, which demanded justice for the man who was beaten by cops and left for dead. King survived, but all of the cops walked free.
I sit here shaking my head asking why haven't we learned anything? Why do we have to do this over and over and over and over? In my short 26 years of life, I'm already exhausted. And I'm not even Black.
Watching "The U" again, I was reminded of the very real way Miami is another city that has been plagued by racism, drugs, violence, corruption and police brutality.
In 1979, Arthur McDuffie was beaten by four white police officers after running a red light on his motorcycle. He died from his injuries and all of the cops were acquitted and walked free. A few years later, Neville Johnson was shot and killed by a police officer at an arcade. The city, especially Black communities like Overtown and Liberty City, erupted with protests and riots as people demanded justice and acknowledgement that Black lives matter. In the documentary, UM running back Melvin Bratton speaks on living in the middle of the mayhem where 18 people died and defensive back Duane Starks recalls knowing Johnson as a neighbor.
This is the context that the Miami Hurricanes legacy began in. New head coach Howard Schnellenberger arrived in the pleasant suburban city of Coral Gables in 1979. He established "The State of Miami," a recruiting tactic to draw local kids to the program. In the inner cities of South Florida, football was already seen as one of the only ways out of poverty. The old white man boldly went with his signature pipe to some of the roughest parts of the city to show kids that they had a future and a home not so far from home. Players like Bratton and fellow running back Alonzo Highsmith were some of the first to buy into the program. They were able to play football together with some of their best friends that they grew up with instead of being separated from everything they knew and loved to try to make a name for themselves elsewhere.
Schnellenberger led UM to a historic victory over the Nebraska Cornhuskers to win the 1983 National Championship, the Hurricanes' first title. The entire city of Miami was elated at the success of their college football team. It united Cubans, whites and Blacks under a flag of orange, white and green and changed headlines from fires and fury to unity and celebration. The victory parade was fit for the kings that these young men were.
The magic was threatened as Schnellenberger left suddenly to catch the USFL train. It's a decision he clearly has remorse for. The Hurricanes head coaching job was given to a scrappy Jimmy Johnson, who — despite his bright blue eyes and perfectly coiffed hair — was well-suited to carry the torch because he embraced the culture that these predominantly Black players brought to the team. These young men had a chip on their shoulder for not being considered a proper college football player and Johnson was a father figure to many of them. They shimmied, flipped and trash-talked their way to an undefeated season in 1987, when they captured another National Championship. The U invented swagger.
Under Johnson, the Hurricanes beat the Notre Dame Fighting Irish 58-7, humiliating legendary coach Gerry Faust in his final game. The media flipped out, wondering how a team could be so disrespectful to the Golden Dome, the Four Horsemen, the darling child of college football. A quick skim of Notre Dame's history would show they were only getting a taste of their own medicine. Miami was here to win, not to kiss up to anyone.
Before their second title, UM had a strong 1986 season and showed up to the 1987 Fiesta Bowl against blue collar Penn State wearing army fatigues. They left the pre-game dinner early when the Nittany Lions players made racially suggestive comments. The Hurricanes weren't there to be condescended. They were there for war. They lost the game, but their statement remained.
The general public considered the Hurricanes "thugs" (Notre Dame's "Catholics vs. Convicts" saying is an entire 30 for 30 on its own). When the antics were getting too much for university president Tad Foote, he challenged Johnson to calm the team down. Johnson shouldered much of this weight for the team. After winning his lone title, he became head coach of the Dallas Cowboys where he was reunited with Hurricanes wide receiver Michael Irvin and won two Super Bowls.
From there, Dennis Erickson took over. The Hurricanes beat Notre Dame yet again and marched all the way to their third National Championship in Erickson's first year. After losing the 1990 season opener to no-name BYU, Miami quickly got their swagger back and, with leaders like wide receivers Randal Hill and Lamar Thomas, danced all the way to a shellacking of Texas in the Cotton Bowl and then were back on top of the world when the team captured the 1991 National Championship all while mainstream America grimaced at everything prim and proper being flipped on its head.
Midway through "The U," Miami Herald columnist Dan LeBatard declares that Randy Shannon, who took the helm of the program in 2007, wasn't Miami's first Black coach, but that Johnson was. You have to take this statement with a grain of salt because there is inherently no way for a white man to experience life as that of a Black man. Johnson's ability to relate to his Black players does not take away from the accomplishment that Shannon alone can hold. And it is sad that Miami, like so many schools, took so long to put a Black man in such a position of power. However, what we can — and should — celebrate is Johnson, as well as Schnellenberger and Erickson and their role as allies. The Miami Hurricanes, under their leadership, challenged stereotypes and fought institutional racism in a way that hadn't been done before.
We can not forget the importance of Luther "Uncle Luke" Campbell and how he helped The U transform from another college team to a national media phenomenon. As a Black artist and entrepreneur, he aligned his personal brand and that of 2 Live Crew with the Miami Hurricanes so that both stood for disrupting the system and winning in the midst of it. While his alleged financial contributions to the team were controversial, he understood what these players needed to survive despite what the NCAA ruled they deserved. To this day, he champions "The State of Miami" and football as a way for local youth to create opportunities to live above the poverty and systemic injustices of their communities.
Yes, college football has a long, long, long, long way to go to become an institution free from racism. The University of Miami itself wasn't magically healed by winning National Championships with a proud Black team. The documentary does address the fact that none of these players were paid while raking in millions of dollars for the school. But looking back on "The U" in the current climate, I am reminded of the power of sports, education and community to champion those who are often forgotten by society.
So looking back on a young Victoria who so desperately wanted to be a good girl and go to Notre Dame, I am proud of her for seeing value in going against what everyone thinks you should do and placing yourself where you know real change is happening.