The great hope of South Florida sports keeps chugging closer and closer to “back” and bringing us all along for the ride. The ride is slow, and building, like when the roller coaster climbs those steep tracks, clickety-clack, and there is no promise but the possibility that what’s ahead might be exhilarating.
I have always felt that Hurricanes football is the most “Miami” of all our major teams, the one that best represents who and what we are. It might be a private upscale university tucked in tony Coral Gables, but the team’s following, like its roster, is a pageant of diversity that is a mirror on the region.
From the sex appeal embodied in that iconic opening of “Miami Vice” to the urban, hip-hop vibe seen in that splendidly bling-y “Turnover Chain” today’s players get when they cause a takeaway, modern UM football has inclusively repped the city’s street-sense and swagger more than any other major local team.
UM football always feels more like our team, ground-up, maybe because these aren’t professional rentals. So many of the players were raised in local neighborhoods.
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This is one reason why there is something special, something communal, about what coach Mark Richt has going on with UM, ranked No. 8 in the national polls and now 7-0 after Saturday’s 24-19 victory at North Carolina.
Here is another reason, one less emotional and more pragmatic:
We crave a winner again, a champion again, and Canes football has us closer than any other team we’re cheering at the moment.
This is an earn-our-support town. You have to win. And there is nothing wrong with that. We have been spoiled, the bar set high. We have cheered 12 major national champions in Canes football (1983, 1987, 1989, 1991, 2001); the Heat (2006, 2012, 2013); the Dolphins (1972, 1973) and the Marlins (1997, 2003).
But among our Big 6 teams — and I include the four major pro franchises plus UM football and men’s basketball — that’s 12 titles in a combined 263 seasons. So you cherish not only those relatively rare championship parades, you cherish the very idea of the next one.
My money is on UM football both on merit and by process of elimination. Look around as UM sits in the top 10 and dreams of angling up into the four-team College Football Playoff:
▪ Dolphins fans reel from a 40-0 embarrassment Thursday night in Baltimore — a dagger to the heart of optimism, Miami’s worst margin of defeat in 18 seasons. The Fins’ record approaching midseason might be 4-3, but it’s wobbly, indeed. The computer model at respected site footballoutsiders.com gave Miami only a 16.5 percent playoff shot … and that was before Thursday’s dispiriting debacle.
▪ Heat fans, their team off to an injury-marred 2-2 start entering Saturday’s visit by Boston, still adjust to the broad diminishment that is Life After The Big 3. This is the feeling of the fall from Miami being the star-laden epicenter of the NBA to, well … to being just another team striving to climb back up onto the national radar. What we had spoiled us. It means pretty good feels empty.
▪ Panthers fans, bless them, must feel as if they’re starring in a hockey version of Groundhog Day, with every season promising an escape from the rut, but every season being the same ol’ same ol’. Who knew it was even possible for a team on skates to keep spinning its wheels? So Florida began the new season 4-5 and well off playoff pace … or did that go without saying?
▪ Marlins fans, ebullient that the unpopular ownership of Jeffrey Loria finally ended, already come to grips by degrees with the idea the honeymoon-feeling might be short-lived. Derek Jeter imbues star power and a résumé of success as the new face of ownership, but indications are behind that radiant smile might lie cold, austere business decisions that could include trading Giancarlo Stanton.
▪ Hurricanes basketball should be a beam of sunshine. The UM men’s team is ranked No. 12 in the preseason coaches’ poll as the season opener looms Nov. 10. Oh, but that ugly cloud! Now coach Jim Larrañaga, though professing his innocence, admits he is the unnamed Miami coach implicated in that FBI investigation into college recruiting, a potentially seismic shadow on the season.
So, for now, our big hopes ride shotgun with Canes football, and the next two games will mean everything.
UM will host No. 13 Virginia Tech next Saturday and then No. 9 Notre Dame the following week, as a slight favorite over the Hokies and likely a slight underdog to the Irish. The regular season will then finish with Miami a very big favorite vs. Virginia and at Pitt.
Then — or so goes the rosiest scenario — the ACC Championship Game could be tantamount to a play-in game for the CFP and a shot at UM’s sixth national championship and first in 16 seasons.
Of course, that all starts with overcoming ranked opponents the next two games.
Richt, who has proved a master at corralling his team’s focus and attaching blinders for the next game, majors in not looking ahead and minors in even keel, as when he said this week, “We’re not foolish enough to think we’ve arrived yet.”
The destination is still a ways off, but you can see it now if you look hard and dream hard. The Canes are on the Road to Back, and the trip, the getting there, is half the fun.