SI Vault: Broken Beyond Repair: Why Miami should drop football
This story originally ran in the June 12, 1995 issue of Sports Illustrated.
An open letter to the president of Miami urges him to dismantle his vaunted football program to salvage his school's reputation.
Mr. Edward T. (Tad) Foote II
President, University of Miami
Coral Gables, Fla. 33146
Dear President Foote:
In 1939, University of Chicago president Robert Maynard Hutchins, exasperated by the destructive influence of big-time football on his campus, announced that his school, then a member of the Big Ten, would no longer field a team. Hutchins's counterpart at the University of Arkansas, William Fulbright, the future U.S. senator from Arkansas, applauded that decision. Fulbright -- the father of the woman who would become your wife -- congratulated Hutchins for his "courageous defense of the university and its true function'' and for standing up to the "worst excrescences of our educational system'' by doing away with a sport that had undermined Chicago's academic reputation and made it hostage to those with no regard for the rules.
It is time to do right by the words of your late father-in-law and heed the example of the man he hailed 56 years ago. The revelations of the past few months make it clear that the Miami football program has become a disease, a cancer that is steadily devouring an institution that you have worked so hard to rid of its image as Suntan U. The Hurricanes have won four national championships during your 14 years as president, but they have done so at incalculable cost to the university's reputation and integrity. You have gone through three athletic directors. You are now on your fourth football coach. But only one president has presided over this hurricane with a black eye.
It is time, President Foote, to fire the program.
For all its victories, Miami football has been worse in more ways over a longer period of time than any other intercollegiate athletic program in memory. Scan the list of abuses that beset college sports, and your football team can claim, going back to 1980, at least one entry in virtually every category: improper benefits; recruiting violations; boosters run amok; academic cheating; use of steroids and recreational drugs; suppressed or ignored positive tests for drugs; player run-ins with other students as well as with campus and off-campus police; the discharge of weapons and the degradation of women in the football dorm; credit-card fraud and telephone credit-card fraud.
During the past decade your school enrolled and suited up at least one player who had scored a 200 on his verbal SAT -- the number you get for spelling your name correctly. An on-campus disturbance, involving some 40 members of the football team, required 14 squad cars and a police dog to quell. Fifty-seven players were implicated in a financial-aid scandal that the feds call "perhaps the largest centralized fraud upon the federal Pell Grant program ever committed.'' And among numerous cases of improper payments to players from agents was one in which the nondelivery of a promised installment led a Hurricane player to barge into an agent's office and put a gun to his head.
The illegal acts with which your Hurricanes have been charged run the gamut from disorderly conduct and shoplifting to drunken driving, burglary, arson, assault and sexual battery. Surely you read the exhaustive and chilling piece about your football program in The Miami Herald of May 18. That paper's reporters did the math: No fewer than one of every seven scholarship players on last season's team has been arrested while enrolled at your university. No wonder running back Melvin Bratton, a Hurricane from 1983 to '87, when asked what students thought of the team's rap sheet, said, "They're too scared to say anything to us.'' The old jokes -- about Miami being the school where they take the team picture from both the front and the side; about the Hurricanes topping every poll from UPI to MCI to FBI -- simply aren't funny anymore.
Your school is known nationwide as the place that holds in contempt the most elementary conventions of sportsmanship. Your team's behavior before the Fiesta Bowl in January 1987, when a dozen of your players arrived in Arizona wearing combat fatigues and the entire team walked out of a pregame steak fry with opposing Penn State, might be excused as a lapse in taste. So, too, might the 1986 episode in which your mascot pointed a toy machine gun at a visiting team just before a game. But those occurrences only prefigured the January '91 Cotton Bowl, during which your Hurricanes committed a Cotton Bowl-record 16 penalties, including 10 personal fouls and unsportsmanlike-conduct infractions, during their 46-3 victory over Texas. Surely, as a former Marine, you must have been appalled at an environment in which players could openly defy coach Dennis Erickson's efforts to restrain them during that game and then have one of them say, as center Darren Handy did, that their behavior "might be embarrassing to the university and the coaches, but it's not to the players. We enjoy it.''
It would be one thing if your troubles began and ended with your players. But the miscreants have been on your payroll, too. As founding chairman of the Miami Coalition for a Drug-Free Community, you must be horrified that for three years an academic counselor in the athletic department systematically looted the federal Pell Grant program, which provides funds for needy students, in part to support his cocaine habit; that a secretary in your football office admitted to the Herald that she supplied marijuana to, and used it with, players, including on the eve of the 1994 Fiesta Bowl; and that in 1988 one of your strength coaches pleaded guilty to possessing steroids.
Your last coach, Erickson, was notorious for his carousing. His drinking was well-known around town, but it didn't catch up with him until he left last winter for Seattle, where he now coaches the Seahawks. In April he was nailed for drunken driving with a blood-alcohol level that was more than twice the legal limit. But one Erickson assistant, Gregg Smith, pleaded no contest to a charge of reckless driving after initially being charged with driving under the influence, and another, Ed Orgeron, reached a civil settlement after he was arrested in connection with a bar fight.
It turns out, says the Herald, that members of your coaching staff even invited a player to drink with them. But then, Hurricane players have had little reason to respect their coaches; during your tenure on campus the team has been in the charge of three different men -- Howard Schnellenberger, Jimmy Johnson and Erickson -- each of whom, within two weeks of insisting that he wasn't leaving for another job, left anyway. The man you hired to replace Erickson, Butch Davis, has a reputation as a straight arrow. But in light of his having been a key member of Johnson's staff at Miami, the choice of Davis hardly signals the departure you so desperately need.
The Herald's recitation of damning details goes on: It tells of players' visiting a downtown strip club so often -- at times escorting high school recruits -- that the place came to be known as "the office.'' It describes how in 1992 authorities shut down a Hurricane hangout, Luke's, the club owned by 2 Live Crew rapper and Miami supporter Luther Campbell, for serving alcohol to minors and permitting nude dancing and the open smoking of marijuana. But the Herald's portrait of your football dorm, Foster Hall, as a place where serial intercourse with drunk or passed-out women was commonplace, and where players peeped at one another as they had sex, makes Luke's look like a day-care center.
The Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel has weighed in too, reporting that over the past two years, your athletic director, Paul Dee, suspended critical parts of what had been a rigorous drug-testing policy, and that Erickson failed to report numerous positive tests of several players, including at least one of All-America defensive tackle Warren Sapp's. Had Sapp's test results been revealed, he might have faced a suspension that would have affected not only his career but also your football team's fortunes.
The Claude-Rains-in-Casablanca observation -- "I am shocked . . . shocked!'' -- won't do anymore. This is where your football program stands midway through the 1990s: Campbell, your most notorious booster, has threatened to bring down the program by telling the NCAA all he knows if his main man, Ryan Collins, is not named to start at quarterback for Miami this fall. One former rival, South Carolina, which has had its own share of run-ins with the NCAA, considers your team such a pariah that it refuses to play you anymore. Now even longtime Herald sports editor and columnist Edwin Pope, an ally of yours and your athletic department's through virtually every scandal, has broken ranks. The final straw for Pope was Dee's lawyerly doublespeak in the wake of the Sapp saga. Surely you know: For you to lose the pontiff on Hurricane football is like LBJ losing Cronkite on Vietnam.
Pope can't understand why you assigned Dee, your general counsel during the Pell Grant scandal, to investigate why the athletic department ignored its own drug-testing policy, a mess to which he was a central party. Of course, you also had appointed Dee to a committee that spent two months reviewing the Hurricanes' conduct during the Johnson era, back in the mid-1980s. The committee recommended the hiring of a former NCAA investigator to help monitor compliance, but otherwise it concluded that there was nothing amiss that a 46-page student-athlete handbook and code of conduct couldn't cure, and it pronounced your football program one of integrity "on and off the field.''
That committee's verdict sounded like many of your own utterances over the years. In 1983 you praised Schnellenberger, during whose tenure Miami's pattern of taunting began and its graduation rate dipped into single digits, for presiding over a "showcase'' in which "athletes are students'' and men of "honor and integrity.'' In '86 you said, in response to the committee's report, "We have made great progress in recent years, and we will make more.'' You said this in '87: "I'm an old-fashioned guy, and for me the answer is to go back and insist that they be students first and athletes second.'' And in '91: "Watch us.''
We've watched. So presumably has the NCAA, which has punished your school only once during the last 15 years -- in 1981, for major recruiting violations. But the gumshoes from Overland Park, Kans., are now upon you, following up on players' claims in the spring of '94 that Campbell and former Hurricanes gave them incentive payments for everything from vicious hits to touchdowns. Campbell denies the accusation, but the NCAA will also be investigating the institutional implications of the Pell Grant and drug-testing fiascoes. If the NCAA had a RICO statute, the tool the feds employ to prosecute an ongoing criminal enterprise, your practice field would already be a palm grove.
Certainly the university's efforts to turn Erickson into a scapegoat for the failure of your drug-testing policy is itself a plea of guilty to the most-dreaded charge a university administrator can face from the NCAA: "lack of institutional control.'' So, too, is the contention that no senior university employees had a clue that assistant academic coordinator Tony Russell parceled out more than $128,000 in fraudulent Pell Grants to 57 players from his athletic department office. Russell, who was sentenced to three years in prison, has consistently denied that anyone else knew what he was up to during the three years he ran his scam.
Once the NCAA gets through with a school, "lack of institutional control'' often translates into "lack of much of a football team for the next few seasons.'' That possibility argues even more persuasively for taking drastic, preemptive action yourself. Yet in the wake of the collapse of your drug-testing policy, you appointed still another committee, only this time -- you must be getting really serious now -- the committee was supplemented by a "special task force'' charged with reviewing the activities of the entire athletic department. And you're still saying essentially the same things you have said for a dozen years. "If something is broken, we will fix it,'' you told The Dallas Morning News last month. "We remain committed to offering competitive intercollegiate athletics with integrity, on and off the field,'' you said in a press release last week. And: "I believe and predict the difficulties that have plagued the team in the past are history,'' you said to the Herald on May 18.
We might believe and predict the same thing, if you weren't sounding less and less like the leader of a university that you once proclaimed would become "this generation's Stanford'' and more and more like one of those flight attendants who says, "We'd like to be the first to welcome you to Cleveland,'' but never actually welcomes you to Cleveland.
No one is mistaking Coral Gables for Palo Alto. Which is a shame, because if it weren't for your football team's excesses, there might be reason to do so. You have added faculty, lifted the board scores of incoming freshmen and raised $517 million in a five-year fund-raising campaign. Even as you have done away with the recreational-education and physical-education majors in which football players were often stashed, an enhanced academic support system has helped the team's graduation rate climb steadily, topping out in the respectable low 70's the last time the NCAA checked. We sat in your office in 1991 and heard you rightly celebrate your decision to do away with your football dorm, over the objections of Johnson and your then athletic director Sam Jankovich five years ahead of the NCAA's deadline for phasing them out.
But precisely because you have proved that you can be an effective president, you should be able to summon the courage to shut down the football program. Oh, the boosters will surely howl in outrage. Some trustees will, too. "That to me is an irresponsible suggestion,'' says Ron Stone, an insurance executive who is a member of the board's athletic affairs committee. But then your trustees just don't get it. One of them, former U.S. Undersecretary of Commerce Charles Cobb, actually characterizes the men who have presided over your athletic department over the past 15 years as "disciplinarians.''
The trustees won't be an easy sell. You butted heads with the board back in 1984 when you proposed rescinding the admission of anyone, football players included, who didn't take seriously your Freshman Institute, a six-week summer orientation program for the academically deficient. Jankovich and Johnson protested that no recruit would sign a letter of intent if the school could abrogate it a few months later. The trustees lined up against you, and you lost that battle. There was even a confidential memo sent around the athletic department that read in part, "[Stiffer academic standards] could mean that our department could become another Rice or Northwestern -- what a thought!''
But get your board to ponder this: What positives has football brought to the university? And could they possibly counterbalance the persistent, numbing negatives? Football has produced an operating profit over the past few years, but -- to quote Tad Foote again -- "profitability is fundamentally incompatible with the essence of a university. A department of philosophy will never be profitable, but without one, there is no university.'' Besides, your membership in the Big East means that you can now share in that league's huge take of NCAA basketball tournament revenue, which would help tide your athletic department over. Sure, the Big East admitted Miami because it wanted a piece of the bowl and TV revenue from its football team. But if you were to shutter your football program because it is rife with corruption, the league could hardly excommunicate you without looking like a bunch of unprincipled gold diggers.
In fact, getting rid of football would help you achieve your goal of transforming Miami into a first-rate private university in an urban setting. Several studies have found that athletic success by itself has no effect on alumni giving. On the contrary, according to at least one study, when winning is accompanied by the outrages with which you have become all too familiar, football glory may actually discourage contributions. In 1986, the year after Tulane shut down its basketball program in the wake of a point-shaving scandal, donations to that school leaped by $5 million. Wichita State raised $26 million in a special drive in '87, the year in which it dropped football. In roughly the same period during which your football program dragged Miami's name through the mud, another urban, private university has gone big-time -- raising huge amounts of money, going on a building binge and raiding the Ivy League for faculty -- without big-time sports. And no one has any less respect for NYU because it doesn't field even a club football team.
Other schools have abolished a major sport for far less cause than you have to do so right now. After all, the Tulane point-shaving allegations were never proved in court, and when the NCAA sentenced SMU football to a one-year death penalty in 1987 (the school voluntarily added a second year), it was primarily for flagrant and recurrent violations committed by boosters. Your football team is malignant, recidivist and scarcely integrated into your campus. Your city has the Dolphins and hardly needs a jayvee pro team. Your alternative -- to field a national-title contender in a town known for lax living and easy vice, while South Florida's warring newspapers continue to look for any misstep they can find -- is no alternative at all.
So do it. Get rid of Dee. Call Davis into your office and offer him a new job managing your overhauled athletic department. Tell every player on scholarship that you will honor his grant-in-aid if he wants to stay on as a regular student. Embark immediately on a fund-raising drive; you'll be astonished at how many alumni will open up their wallets in response to your courage. Then wait a decent interval. At the University of San Francisco, where renegade boosters were responsible for the Dons' basketball program being hide-strapped with back-to-back probations, president John Lo Schiavo closed down the sport in 1982 and waited three seasons before bringing it back. He was careful to hire a staff as committed as he was to his vision of the university and to keeping boosters at bay. SMU has brought its admission standards for athletes into line with those for the rest of the university, and the Mustangs' graduation rate has achieved respectability. If you do it right, when the time comes to bring back football at "this generation's Stanford,'' your students and alumni will walk tall again.
"As president I take full responsibility,'' you said last week. "The buck stops with me.'' If you really believe that, don't even think about resigning. Think instead of Robert Maynard Hutchins. Think of Senator Fulbright. Think of your own words. "Those with responsibility for the academic mission of universities -- faculties, deans, provosts and presidents, not coaches, athletic directors and alumni associations -- must lead,'' you wrote in 1982. "Universities exist for teaching and research, not winning games.''
As your de facto athletic director, Luther Campbell, might put it, You've talked the talk. It's time to walk the walk.