Football is back, unfurling this week like a great sail ready to take on wind as summer burns to fall.
The Dolphins open their full NFL training camp Friday. Sharing the Miami marquee, the Hurricanes’ Atlantic Coast Conference media days this week signaled the start of the college preseason.
Yes, football is back, ready or not, but it feels different this year. The context has changed. There is an opening now. There is an opportunity, but, with it, a responsibility.
LeBron James leaving us this month did more than change and diminish the Heat. It loosened basketball’s grip on South Florida. Now, it’s a fair game again. Now, there is a chance for the Dolphins and/or Canes to step up and make this feel once more like what it always used to be by acclimation and without debate:
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A football town.
Remember? Before Pat Riley and Dwyane Wade and Shaquille O’Neal began to change things? Before LeBron taking his talents to South Beach and bringing with him the annual assumption of a championship changed everything?
Football had been our undisputed King Sport down here, from Don Shula’s arrival in 1970 right through into the early 2000s, with two Super Bowl wins, two decades of Dan Marino and five UM national championships leading the way.
Sure, our collective attention has diverted furtively to baseball a couple of times along the way, and even to hockey once, for about a minute and a half in 1996. But otherwise, our first love was all football until the Dolphins and Canes both fell off the national radar and saw their local impact wane around the same time, soon after the arrival of the new millennium.
That was right around the time the Heat began to get bold and sexy and interesting. And to win.
So we had a Heated affair with basketball.
Now that we have been jilted by LeBron, football wants us back.
But here’s the thing: In love and sports and our love of sports, it’s never that simple. Football has to earn back the local passion it once had. Football has to win us back. By winning.
South Florida’s hurt over losing LeBron will hurt all over again, only worse, in three months, around the time the Halloween decorations are up, when the new Heat season starts without him and when the national spotlight Miami owned for four years shines elsewhere.
That will be the meat of football season, by which time we will have a good idea of how the Dolphins and Canes are faring in efforts to re-stake their claim to South Florida.
In some ways, we have never stopped being a football town — that part of us just lay dormant, distracted by the Heat. Dolfans and followers of UM are the great sleeping giants, waiting to be given a reason to rise up, to shout not in anger or disappointment, but with joy.
The wait has not been short for either fandom.
The dates marking the Dolphins’ recent vacancy are on us like a regrettable tattoo at this point: No playoff win since the 2000 season, no Super Bowl appearance since 1984, last championship in ’73. (Sad fact: Dolfans who were teenagers cheering the Perfect Season are very likely grandparents by now.)
On the college side, Hurricanes fans last cheered a national title on Jan. 3, 2002, and the past 10 years have seen UM looking for an elusive U-turn back to national prominence.
Each team’s drought has taken its toll on fans. Most of my friends and acquaintances are fans of one or the other or both. Readers also let me know.
Canes fans, finally rid of the reality and excuse of years of an NCAA investigative cloud, are beyond ready to re-enter the top national tier. They thought they were there a year ago with that 7-0 start and top-10 ranking, before the season fizzled to 9-4 with a 36-9 bowl loss.
Most UM fans understandably like coach Al Golden, who is 22-15 through three seasons, but the company he keeps are the four predecessors who have brought championship parades to Coral Gables. He must join them soon or feel the pressure on him rise by degrees.
Golden’s problem is that one of the teams seen as clearly better than his continues to be Florida State, the Canes’ ACC rival. UM is the media’s pick to win the conference’s Coastal Division, a surprise if only because the quarterback who will open the season remains a mystery. Ryan Williams? Kevin Olsen? Jake Heaps? Not even Golden is sure.
A new UM football marketing campaign called “Renewed Identity” states that the Hurricanes “embody the soul of Miami.” That may be. But that soul needs replenishing. And plenty of Canes fans would gladly trade the renewed identity for the old one: that of swaggering champions.
On the pro side of town, Dolfans’ expectations are lower — they’ll take 9-7 and a wild-card playoff spot — but their outlook is bleaker. Dolfans tend to be beaten down. They expect the worse. They think they’d have no luck if not for bad luck, and they have fresh evidence after an offseason in which defensive end Dion Jordan was suspended four games for a banned substance and center Mike Pouncey had hip surgery and could miss half the season.
Coach Joe Philbin, unlike Golden, is not popular. He is 15-17 through two seasons, the same starting record as quarterback Ryan Tannehill. Those are the two men who must somehow lift the Dolphins from their rut of mediocrity. Their problem is that one of the teams seen as clearly better continues to be New England, their AFC East rival.
The Patriots visit here Sept. 7 in the Dolphins’ season opener. That’s six days after the Canes open at Louisville.
Post-LeBron, Miami is poised to once again be a football town.
But it will take the right football team.
A team that soars and excites and stirs the imagination; a team that stars on ESPN SportsCenter not because of the NCAA or BullyGate but for all the right reasons; a team that does not disappoint; a team that wins and wins and wins and doesn’t stop.
We have been waiting a long time.