Greg Cote

Famous artifacts to curios obscure, UM Sports Hall of Fame is a treasure worth your time

UM Sports Hall of Fame main lobby.
UM Sports Hall of Fame main lobby.

Step into the University of Miami Sports Hall of Fame and traipse back in time and into splendid obscurity, stumbling upon sports you likely never even knew existed on campus.

Venture into a back room, look high up on a wall and see the Four Horsemen. Literally. It’s a black-and-white photo of four guys on horseback, mallets held upright. Meet the Hurricanes men’s polo team.

“Our first national champions,” informs our tour guide, of a sport that flared across UM like a meteor in 1947 and had disappeared by 1950. “They were so good, they once played Harvard in the Orange Bowl, spotted ’em seven goals, and won 12-9.”

Turn a corner, glance down and see boxing gloves entombed inside one of the Hall’s many glass cases. Yes, the Hurricanes had an intercollegiate boxing team from the 1930 into the mid-’50s.

The UM Sports Hall of Fame, exquisitely full of history and curios, was the creation in 1966 of eight Miami-Dade circuit judges, all UM alums. It moved to its current campus home in 1989, tucked into a building down the street from the baseball park, past the track stadium, in front of the football practice field.

On Tuesday night, the Hall stages its 49th annual induction banquet, welcoming to Miami’s Jungle Island its nine newest inductees: football’s Jeremy Shockey, James Jackson and Darryl Williams; basketball’s Steve Edwards; baseball’s Ryan Braun and Dan Davies; tennis’ Audra Cohen; volleyball’s Valeria Tapiana; and current women’s basketball coach Katie Meier.

Induction night is the Hall’s crown jewel, its list of honored invitees now at 309 athletes, coaches and administrators. But the real treasure is not the names on a wall but the place itself, and the thousands of artifacts filling 5,000 square feet and stitching together nearly a century of UM sports.

It’s a sentimental journey, and also an eye-opener for anybody near-sighted enough to maybe think Canes sports history sort of began with Howard Schnellenberger’s pipe in 1983.

Our tour guide is the Hall’s full-time executive director, John Routh.

“I’m a pack rat at heart, so it’s the perfect job!” he says, always with an eye out for donated items. “I tell everybody, ‘Don’t throw anything away. Give us the option of throwing it away.’”

Routh might be the best-known figure in UM sports history who is most famous for never being seen or heard. He’s a former professional mascot who served as UM baseball’s Miami Maniac from 1983 to 1993 and as The Ibis for football games from 1984 to 1992. (He also was Billy the Marlin for that team’s first 10 seasons.)

The last football game he worked as The Ibis was a UM Sugar Bowl appearance. The night before the game, he got struck by a stray bullet while on Bourbon Street. It barely missed his right eye. Doctors told him he came close to losing his sight or being paralyzed.

He was in uniform the next night.

“It’s gonna take a lot more than a bullet to the head to keep me out of that game,” he says.

The retired entertainer has been out from under the giant fake heads and sweating less ever since. He began volunteering at the UM Sports Hall of Fame in 2004 and rose to be its director in ’09, overseeing not only the annual induction dinner but other fund-raising events, including fishing, golf and bowling tournaments.

UM donates the land for the Hall but does not run it, though the relationship is symbiotic, including the Hall sponsoring one football scholarship each year.

Parameters for induction are loose but start with success and impact as UM athletes.

“A lot of people think The Rock [Dwyane Johnson] should be in,” Routh says. “His UM career, unfortunately, was playing behind Warren Sapp.”

For the pack rat and sports nut in charge, being the curator of Canes sports history is a dream job.

“Look at this,” he says with a kid-on-Christmas smile, pointing.

It’s a rusted football exercise bike from 1927.

Around the corner is a 90-year-old photo of UM’s first baseball team and, over there, Tom Kearns’ leather football helmet, circa 1939-43. There is the trophy from the 1933 Orange Bowl, then still called the “Palm Festival.” And the stuffed alligator coach Charlie Tate gave to Ted Hendricks in ’68.

Routh fishes out a 1926-27 Ibis school yearbook with an ad from Coral Way Cleaners that reads, “We’re for the “U.” We want Yo“U” to be for us!”

“That may have been the first use of the phrase ‘The U,’ ” he says.

Then he holds up the last baseball lineup card Ron Fraser, The Wizard, ever filled out, from the ’92 College World Series.

Points to the Chuck Taylor high-top sneakers Rick Barry wore in ’62.

And the old wood canoe carved out of cypress that used to go to the annual Canes-Seminoles football winner.

“My biggest fear,” Routh says, “is that there’s something out there [not yet obtained] that could be the greatest thing we’ve ever had.”

All of the old ghosts in this place will whisper to you if you listen real hard.

In a prized spot on the wall near the Hall’s entrance is a cloth football pennant from ’26, the first year, when UM had only a freshman team. It belonged to a student at the time named Ruby Falligant Caesar, whose sister was among the school’s first cheerleaders.

Her 82-year-old son donated the pennant a few years ago. He recalled to Routh when handing it over that his mother used to sing a school chant, and that distant music might be the perfect soundtrack for this hallowed place:

“Orange, green and white — fight, fight, fight!”