Greg Cote

With Wade gone, Dolphins and Canes could make Miami a football town again

Coach Howard Schnellenberger gets a ride on his players’ shoulders after UM won the 1983 national championship.
Coach Howard Schnellenberger gets a ride on his players’ shoulders after UM won the 1983 national championship.

You can almost feel it. It is the tremor under your feet that augurs the earthquake. You can almost hear it. It is the low, distant growl of approaching thunder.

Football is back. The games have not begun, but the season has. The sports calendar shifts, pivots. We saw it on the college side a couple of days ago as the Miami Hurricanes and new coach Mark Richt appeared at the Atlantic Coast Conference’s kickoff event in Charlotte, North Carolina. We see it next on the pro side as the Miami Dolphins begin their first training camp under new coach Adam Gase on Friday.

The Marlins are not ceding quietly. No. They chase the playoffs as Ichiro Suzuki chases 3,000 MLB hits, baseball making its strongest case in many years to keep South Florida’s attention even as football arrives as subtly and demure as a freight train.

It is hopeless, though. Our collective eye and mind will soon wander uncontrollably to the sound of pads popping and the sight of spirals cutting through the late-summer air.

Especially this year. This feels different. Bigger. Like an opportunity.

With the Dolphins and Canes both revitalized by promising new coaches, coupled with the Miami Heat palpably diminished by the seismic departure of Dwyane Wade, there is a chance for King Sport to rise and again stake its claim.

Miami: a football town again?

Keep that a question mark for now until such time the Dolphins or Hurricanes or both can turn that into an exclamation point. But it could happen. And it has been a long wait.

Football owned this town starting with the Dolphins’ back-to-back Super Bowl wins in 1972-73 and accelerating in 1983, when UM won its first of five national championships and Dan Marino’s arrival electrified the Dolphins. But football’s grip began to loosen as Marino retired in 1999, the Fins won their last playoff game in 2000 and UM won its most recent national title in 2001.

Wade arrived soon after that, when 2006 brought the first of three Heat NBA titles in a nine-year span, and everything changed. It was quantifiable. Dolphins local TV ratings plummeted. Canes football attendance dwindled. The Heat became the “it” team, fueled by social media and a younger demographic.

It’s a mythical title, of course — who owns this town — but yet it matters.

I can tell you from direct knowledge there separately has been talk recently within the Dolphins and Hurricanes administrations about there being an opening, a big chance in 2016, post-Wade, for our flagship football teams to reboot and reassert themselves in the market, reversing a decade-plus slide to mediocrity reflected in both teams having new coaches.

Surely the Marlins, good, pointed right and hosting the MLB All-Star Game in 2017, feel the same opportunity. Same with the young and ascending Florida Panthers, who might be the closest to competing for a championship of any of our major teams.

But no fans are hungrier than Canes fans starving to see their team return to national relevance, or Dolfans aching to see their team back in another Super Bowl.

It was 2000 when last UM won a bowl game and the Dolphins won a playoff game the same season. It was ’03 when both teams won at least 10 games the same season.

Betting odds don’t suggest either team is poised to make a big jump back to prominence this season. But new coaching staffs (and maybe the law of averages) offer hope.

In Richt the Canes have a proven winner steering now, and a top-tier quarterback in Brad Kaaya, who figures as an NFL first-round draft pick. That this could be his final UM season before turning pro ratchets up the urgency.

“It’s got to be about this season,” as Kaaya put it.

Richt spoke in Charlotte to the ACC media as if he sensed UM’s return to prominence was at hand.

“Once we get the ball rolling, I think people will say, ‘Miami is back,’ ” he said. “I don’t think people will say, ‘Miami is having a good year.’ They’ll say, ‘Miami’s back.’ You can say you’re back when you have the tradition of five national championships.”

Two notes of caution on that.

First, beware the false hope. Recall that as recently as 2013, UM was 7-0 and ranked No. 7 in the country. Everybody loved Al Golden; frat boys dressed like him at games. “Miami is back!” went the exalting cry. Remember? The Canes finished 9-4. Golden was fired two years later.

Second, Miami has an enormous ACC hurdle it can’t seem to clear, having lost six games in a row to rival Florida State. This year’s meeting is Oct. 8 in Miami. That’s the litmus test Richt adopts. Find a way to solve the FSU curse, then maybe we’ll find a way to get around to “Miami is back” talk. Is that reasonable?

If Richt inherits a fair amount of skepticism borne of predecessors’ failures, Gase inherits even more.

Gase is a bright young hire; some think he could be the NFL’s next big thing in coaching. But his FSU is the New England Patriots. A daunting early-season schedule could dig the Fins an early hole. And Ryan Tannehill, five years in, still must prove he is the long-term solution able to lead a team to the playoffs.

The Dolphins and Canes each made what look like very good coaching hires and both teams should be pretty good in the coming season. But how good? Good enough, in the post-Wade era, to make this feel like a “football town” again?

Miami is wondering that. Wishing and wanting that. And waiting to see.

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