David J. Neal

David J. Neal: South Florida’s sports year marked mostly by failures

Former Dolphins coach Joe Philbin, above, started the 2015 season 1-3 and was fired by owner Stephen Ross. Tight ends coach Dan Campbell was named interim coach.
Former Dolphins coach Joe Philbin, above, started the 2015 season 1-3 and was fired by owner Stephen Ross. Tight ends coach Dan Campbell was named interim coach. MIAMI HERALD STAFF

The Panthers sit atop the NHL’s Atlantic Division, with games in hand, on Dec. 31, 2015. That’s starting the discussion of South Florida’s 2015 athletic calendar year by mentioning the cherry on top of a post-Ultra Music Festival Port-o-Let.

You could argue there has never been a year of more grandly depressing failure in South Florida sports than 2015. If you’re not doubled over laughing about it, that is.

None of the Big Four acknowledged professional outfits made the playoffs. For three of the four — Panthers, Marlins and Dolphins — the playoffs might as well be lumped with VCRs, Schoolhouse Rock and other things the middle-aged remember fondly. Because the Heat rarely misses, you have to go back to 2002 to find a year when South Florida whiffed for the cycle on professional playoffs.

But, even then, two teams didn’t fire coaches midseason after humiliating defeats as the Dolphins and Marlins did with Joe Philbin and Mike Redmond, respectively. And this year, South Florida’s fifth big-league team, Hurricanes football, joined their peers. Clemson’s 58-0 stomping at Sun Life Stadium, the worst loss in program history, blasted coach Al Golden into unemployment.

What moment sums up South Florida Sports’ 2015 like that day’s KO of UM quarterback Brad Kaaya? Clemson sent only two pass rushers. Only one of the three Hurricanes offensive linemen with nobody to block, Alex Gall, thought to help on Clemson’s All-America-to-be Shaq Lawson and Gall came late. Lawson dismissed left tackle Kc McDermott, brushed past Gall and knocked Kaaya from October into November — concussed out of that game and the following one.

Perhaps only one moment matches that: The Dolphins’ final offensive play of the calendar year. Fourth-and-goal from the Indianapolis’ 5-yard-line, down 18-12. Winning touchdown or lose. Backup center Jamil Douglas snapped the ball early. The rest of the Dolphins line stood as still as Buckingham Palace guards while the Colts’ defensive line poured over quarterback Ryan Tannehill like Miko Grimes’ insults.

All part of, to paraphrase the movie Don Corleone, that comedy the Dolphins and Marlins play at being dysfunctional organizations. The NFL’s Lego franchise now tries again to fit pieces together with different sets of hands.

The Marlins replaced Redmond on an interim basis with general manager Dan Jennings. Jennings’ games managed/head coached above the high school level: 0. OK, they didn’t have a manly tight end coach to promote as the Dolphins and Hurricanes did, but please.

Of course, the Marlins didn’t improve. Of course, they didn’t just kick Jennings back upstairs but fired him altogether, as if any GM could succeed shackled as Marlins management is. Good luck, manager-for-now Don Mattingly.

Nobody since Jackie Robinson in 1949 led a league in hitting and steals until Marlins second baseman Dee Gordon did this year. Gordon did something last done 66 years ago by one of America’s historic sporting icons. It says something about baseball’s status in 2015 America — or maybe just what the Marlins have done to their status in this town — that it didn’t feel like a bigger deal.

Back in the late winter-early spring, the Panthers did what the Panthers do — hung around the edge of the playoff race and teased you with potential. Then, they suffered the usual untimely losses and key injury (leading goal scorer Nick Bjugstad). And slumped to a playoff-free spring for the 16th time in the past 18 years if you count the 2004-05 lockout (and serious puckheads do).

Achievement got confined to the fringes of our sports caring, the bargain entertainers who give us more wins for our buck, such as Katie Meier’s women’s hoops team at the University of Miami. They got to the NCAA Tournament’s second round. TV ratings and attendance say, historically, no large market cares less about college basketball. Jim Larrañaga’s making people care by coaching the Hurricanes men’s basketball program home above .500 each season. They made the NIT final last spring.

Yeah, the NIT, the second-tier tournament. Just like the rebooted North American Soccer League, the second-tier soccer league in which the current version of the Fort Lauderdale Strikers made the semifinals this past fall.

Both deserve all the thumbs up you can give them. But their Febreze got funked out by their more prominent brethren.

Where were you Nov. 14, when South Florida’s two FBS football programs, UM and FIU, seemed in a Bizarro Wonderland race to see which could fall behind farthest, fastest against North Carolina and Marshall, respectively? Combine the games and the two trailed 97-0 before the Hurricanes scored.

Despite giving up almost a point per minute for the second time, UM football made it to a bowl. A bad bowl Dec. 26 in a slightly better town than Shreveport, Louisiana. But it was a bowl.

The Sun Bowl, in El Paso. It snowed. UM lost, it’s sixth bowl game loss in a row.

As most rough years end, horizon lights signal a better future. Mark Richt could get UM football back to national relevance, if not the preeminence Hurricanes fans seem to see as a birthright. Justise Winslow is the first Heat rookie to get really excited about since Dwyane Wade. The Panthers look as if they’ve muscled their perpetual Titanic around the iceberg.

Like everybody else, they’re looking to put 2015 behind them.

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