It’s huge. It’s flashy. It’s in-your-face. It’s five-and-a-half pounds of 10K gold “Cuban Link” bling that screams Miami. And, it’s all the rage in college football this season.
The University of Miami turnover chain, a gaudy motivational prop that is the brainchild of defensive coordinator Manny Diaz II (son of the former Miami mayor), has become the emblem of the seventh-ranked Hurricanes heading into Saturday’s highly anticipated showdown with No. 3 Notre Dame. The chain harkens back to the 1980s era of fun-loving, end zone-dancing Hurricanes.
It surely will go down as an iconic image in UM football history, as the symbol of when the Hurricanes got their swagger back.
“Miami football is fun again,” said former NFL and Hurricanes star Clinton Portis, who got a replica chain from friends through the Instagram account TwoCanesWithTheChains. “This chain gives players something to be excited about and it brings the community together. When you think Miami, you think shiny things — gold teeth, Cuban link chains, beautiful women, fancy cars. That’s who we are, and this chain represents all that.”
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Seeking a way to reward players for interceptions and fumble recoveries, Diaz and his staff came up with the idea of a chain that would be placed over the head of the playmaker on the sideline. Cornerbacks coach and UM alum Mike Rumph knew exactly who to call: AJ Machado, a Cutler Bay jeweler known as “The King of Bling” whose customer list includes hundreds of NFL and NBA players.
As it happened, former UM player Vince Wilfork was at AJ’s Jewelers when the UM coaches called. “The coaches told me they want to bring back that swag, so Vince said, ‘AJ, you gotta make them a big, fat Cuban link,’’ Machado said. “I took it to another level. I’ve lived in Miami 40 years. I’m 305 all the way. I knew what the kids like.”
He created a 36-inch chain of 10K gold mixed with alloys to keep the cost down. He then designed a six and a half inch “U” medallion encrusted with 900 small sapphire stones — 450 orange, 450 green. Machado would not reveal the price of the jewelry. He will say only that he charged the UM athletic department “a hometown discount.”
So far, the chain is fulfilling its original purpose. The Hurricanes lead the Atlantic Coast Conference in interceptions (13) and fumbles recovered (7) and are ranked seventh nationally in interceptions. Fifteen different players have earned the right to don the turnover chain so far.
The chain, which is stored in Diaz’s traveling humidor, spends the week in a secret place and comes out only on game day. It has taken on a life of its own. There are knockoff chains popping up all over town. Adidas came up with a T-shirt that has the turnover chain painted on its front, and former UM player D.J. Williams’ company Dyme Lyfe also has a licensed turnover chain shirt. Harry Rothwell, manager at AllCanes sporting goods store just off campus, has sold 300 to 400 turnover chain shirts per week since the season began.
“I can’t keep them on the shelves,” Rothwell said. “It’s the biggest thing since ‘The U Invented Swagger’ shirts.”
There is even a Turnover Chain Rap song by local rapper SoLo D.
“We do like to have fun here,” UM coach Mark Richt said Tuesday. “Our guys are doing a great job enjoying it. I don’t see anybody taunting anybody. I see them just enjoying the pure joy of making a big play and having your teammates and fans celebrate with you. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that.
“How many kids are going to get turnover chains for Christmas? I know the recruits like it. It’s good, clean fun. If we were 4-5 and had six turnovers, I think people would probably make fun of it. But when you win, things become cool sometimes.”
Sideline gimmicks are nothing new. Alabama has its Ball-Out Belt. Virginia Tech has its lunch pail. Tennessee has its turnover trash can. Texas A&M has a drum major’s baton. And Kennesaw State has a turnover plank.
The coaches told me they want to bring back that swag, so Vince [Wilfork] said, ‘AJ, you gotta make them a big, fat Cuban link.’ I took it to another level. I’ve lived in Miami 40 years. I’m 305 all the way. I knew what the kids like.
AJ Machado, a Cutler Bay jeweler, who created the turnover chain
But Miami’s turnover chain has made a bigger impact nationally. Alex Rodriguez and Jennifer Lopez wore replica turnover chains to the game against Virginia Tech last Saturday.
“Until you’ve seen it up close, and held it in your hands, you don’t realize how enormous it really is,” said Joel Rodriguez, the former UM lineman, current director of player development for defense, and, most importantly these days, the keeper and distributor of the chain on game days. “It’s just so Miami. A Cuban link gold chain with a gigantic ‘U’ charm on it is so representative of our community, which is what makes it different from the belt and the trash can. It’s about Miami.”
Former rap star Luther “Luke” Campbell, a UM super fan who roamed the sidelines in the late 1980s and early 1990s, says the chain is the best thing to happen to the program in decades.
“This is like the UM of old,” Campbell said. “This chain is fly. Every young guy, whether you’re black, white, or purple, wants a Cuban link. It’s a symbol of success if you’re a rapper, on Wall Street or a football player. Now, these players are laying their body on the line to get a turnover because they want to wear that chain. The fun is back. We invented swag, but then the powers that be at the university turned us into cookie cutters. And now, Richt came in and allows us to do something politically correct, with swag, that doesn’t disrespect anybody. It’s so perfect.”
Diaz unveiled the 36-inch chain on the morning of the season-opening game against Bethune-Cookman. He opened the humidor and the players weren’t sure what to make of the glowing piece of jewelry.
“They were stunned,” Diaz said. “They couldn’t believe how big it was, and how heavy. I think they thought it was plastic at first. I could never have predicted it would have gone viral like this. I think it’s because the chain represents our culture, and our kids and fans want that culture embraced. The guys take the chain seriously. No one touches it. It’s a bit mystical. It’s not something that gets passed around. It really is a privilege to put it on.”
The first player to earn the right to wear it was Malek Young, who intercepted a pass in the end zone in the fourth quarter of that opening game. Rodriguez ran to the humidor, removed the chain and placed it over Young’s head.
Safety Jaquan Johnson, who got the chain after an interception against Virginia Tech, said: “Wearing the chain, it’s a big accomplishment. We go out there and have to guard an offensive player the whole game, and sometimes we don’t get credit for what we do. When we get the turnover, we get rewarded and everyone sees we’re doing our job. It’s definitely a trending topic.
“Everybody is wearing the chains. Everybody is wearing the shirts with the chains. It’s intimidating for opponents to come in and see the turnover chain. It probably plays a mental aspect in messing with the other team.”
When Hokies safety Reggie Floyd intercepted a Miami pass in the third quarter last Saturday, his teammate Trevon Hill ran over and pretended to put a chain over his head. UM got the last laugh with a 28-10 victory.
UM cornerback Michael Jackson, seventh in the country and second in the ACC with four picks, wore the turnover chain twice in the first half against Syracuse: “The jewelry is always in the back of your mind,’’ Jackson said. “It’s fun because that’s the one time the spotlight is on you and you just take advantage of it.”
Campbell predicts that years from now, fans will credit the turnover chain with energizing the Hurricanes football program and making it relevant again.
“We always had a pretty house, it was just a matter of turning the lights back on.”
As good as gold
15 players have earned the right to don the turnover chain this season: