- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 1, 2003

Who can blame the University of Miami for wanting to join the Atlantic Coast Conference? Now that the Hurricanes are on board, the ACC is clearly the top dawg in college athletics. And by college athletics, I mean football and basketball, of course, because they’re the straws that stir the drink.

Speaking of stirring, this hostile takeover of Miami and Virginia Tech has certainly stirred up a tsunami along the eastern seaboard. Big East football looks like it’s been hit by a tidal wave, and Syracuse and Boston College seem utterly adrift after being rejected for membership by the ACC. Yes, they still belong to the Big East, but that’s like saying Saddam Hussein still lives in Iraq (if, indeed, he does).

Think of it: Miami, Florida State and Virginia Tech in football — plus emerging Maryland, N.C. State and Virginia. This, coupled with the usual heavyweights in hoops (Duke, North Carolina, the Terps et al.). What other conference in the country can match that?

Lost in all the finger pointing and hurt feelings is that this union of Miami and the ACC completes one of the most remarkable comebacks in sports history. How remarkable? This remarkable: As recently as the spring of 1985, the Hurricanes didn’t even have a basketball team — not even at the Division III level. That’s right, the U of M, which just accepted an invitation to compete in the best college basketball conference in the land, didn’t even field a team in the sport.

From March 1971 to November 1985 — a period of 14 seasons, for the subtraction-challenged — nary a dribble was heard in Coral Gables. The hoops program had become so hopeless in the post-Rick Barry years that the school president simply shut it down. No basketball today, no basketball tomorrow, no basketball ever (on his watch, at least).

Miami football almost suffered the same fate. After a string of unsuccessful seasons in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, it had one cleat in the grave. But then Lou Saban was brought in to coach, and while Travelin’ Lou didn’t turn things around, he did stay long enough to recruit a quarterback, Jim Kelly, who would begin the process.

And here it is, 25 years later, and the Hurricanes’ decision to leave the Big East for the ACC is stop-the-presses stuff. This is the same football program whose weight room in the mid-‘70s consisted of “a barbell in a broom closet,” as Miami Herald sports columnist Edwin Pope once put it. Miami hasn’t just come a long way; it’s driven the ball 99 yards.

Even Howard Schnellenberger, who brought Miami its first national championship in football in 1983, is slightly in awe of what the Hurricanes have accomplished since. “They’ve done something no other program has done,” he told the St. Petersburg Times in December. “Five national championships with four different coaches, on the verge of winning a sixth. If that had been one coach, it would have been outstanding. For it to be done by different people is truly remarkable.”

At Miami’s news conference yesterday, it’s doubtful Saban’s name came up. Or George Steinbrenner’s, for that matter. But they might have had as much to do with the “bizarre, strange and goofy” last few months — U of M president Donna Shalala’s words — as any of the current participants.

That’s right, George Steinbrenner. In 1954, while a graduate student in Cleveland, the future Yankees boss helped coach the West Boulevard Annie Oakleys in the Pigtail League — a girls’ softball team. One of his players, the second baseman, was a 13-year-old bundle of energy named Donna Shalala. It’s hard to believe some of George’s relentless commitment to winning (his softball Annies won the championship that summer) didn’t rub off on young Donna. In fact, Shalala might be able to teach her old coach a thing or two, considering how she’s operated as a university president.

At Wisconsin, she took over an athletic program near the bottom of the Big Ten and decreed, “This must end.” Soon enough, the Badgers were going to the Rose Bowl and, after she’d left, to the basketball Final Four. And now she has maneuvered Miami — not always gracefully, but determinedly — out of the Big East and into the ACC, a much better geographical (and presumably financial) arrangement.

By delaying its decision until the Very Last Day — after which the exit fee to leave the Big East would have doubled to $2million — Miami was able to consider more fully “who we are, where we are and where we want to go,” Shalala said. And the Hurricanes ultimately chose, as we suspected they might, the upwardly mobile ACC.

Never underestimate a former Annie Oakley.

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