This week's murder of pro football star Sean Taylor by still unknown assailants was tragic. But for residents of Miami, where Taylor was shot early Monday morning in his suburban home during an apparent break-in, it also felt tragically familiar. Taylor, 24, a standout safety for the Washington Redskins, was an equally stellar defensive back for the University of Miami Hurricanes. And his untimely death was just the latest in what has become an unsettling succession of violent ends for active and former UM players.
Some are even starting to consider it the Curse of the 'Canes an ominous karma hanging over one of the nation's most brashly successful (five national championships since 1983) but controversial big-time college football programs, one that has long seemed a magnet for guns and trouble. "Miami's problems are hardly isolated among large college football programs, but unfortunately these incidents do seem a reflection of [the UM football] legacy," says noted sports sociologist Richard Lapchick of the University of Central Florida in Orlando and author of the just published The 100 Pioneers: African-Americans Who Broke Color Barriers in Sport. "It's a reminder that their goal now has to be to build a new legacy."
The roll call of the past couple of decades is mournfully striking. A year ago this month senior Hurricane defensive lineman Bryan Pata was shot in the head and killed outside his apartment near UM's Coral Gables campus shortly after a practice. Four months earlier safety Willie Cooper was shot in the buttocks outside his Miami home. A year before that, former defensive end Jerome McDougal was shot in the abdomen in Miami in his new Mercedes just weeks before reporting to training camp for the Philadelphia Eagles. (Cooper and McDougal survived.) In 1996, linebacker Marlin Barnes was bludgeoned to death in his campus apartment. Four years earlier Shane Curry, an Indianapolis Colts defensive lineman and former UM star, was shot in the head and killed during an argument in a Cincinnati lounge parking lot.
In 2003 Al Blades, 26, a former UM safety, was killed when the car he was riding in and which witnesses say was racing another at high speeds crashed into a Miami canal. A year before that 'Canes linebacker Chris Campbell, who had just finished his last UM season, was killed when his speeding car struck a tree in Coral Gables.
UM boosters are quick to point out that theirs is hardly the only football team to suffer such losses, which is true. But because this is the University of Miami whose football team's outlaw reputation prompted Sports Illustrated 12 years ago to call for the program to be shut down amidst a corruption scandal totaling more than $600,000 it's hard not to ask if the tragedies somehow stem from the reckless culture that coaches and administrators have too often indulged. The team rocketed to prominence in the 1980s by showcasing what fans and critics alike called thug-ball, a smash-mouth gridiron style that seemed to reflect the city the Hurricanes played for: Miami in the era of Vice, of violent cocaine cowboys and shamelessly venal politicians. Controversial rap music star Luther Campbell of the Miami group 2 Live Crew offered "bounties" to UM players who could knock opposing players out of a game with an injury. Whenever Notre Dame played UM, the game was billed as Catholics vs. Convicts.
That aura often followed Hurricanes players off the field and into the NFL. Pro Bowl wide receiver Michael Irvin (UM Class of 1988) almost had his brilliant career derailed with the Dallas Cowboys when he was arrested in 1996 for cocaine possession, busted in a motel suite while sharing the coke with women he called "self-employed models." (He pleaded guilty and was sentenced to probation.) Pro Bowl linebacker Ray Lewis (who left UM in 1996) was arrested in 2000 for alleged involvement in the murder of two men outside an Atlanta nightclub. The murder charges against Lewis were eventually dropped. But such incidents highlight how Hurricanes alumni pioneered the kind of off-field legal trouble so many NFL players are known for today. Taylor, who in his short NFL career was fined at least seven times for infractions like late hits during games (once spitting in an opponent's face), was arrested in 2005 for threatening with a gun a group of people he accused of stealing his all-terrain vehicle. He later pleaded guilty to misdemeanor assault charges. Shortly after the altercation, Taylor's SUV was sprayed by bullets in a drive-by shooting, although no one was injured.
Miami Herald sports columnist Linda Robertson wrote this week that Taylor's shooting death "will reinforce negative opinions of football fans and recruits who were wary of UM and Miami." To their credit, the university and its president, Donna Shalala, are trying to clean things up. The recruiting standards of most major college football programs are a cynical joke when it comes to scholarship and character; UM football is known for being less scrutinizing than most 17th-century pirate vessels. But when former Hurricanes coach Larry Coker in 2004 recruited a Miami teen, linebacker Willie Williams, whose arrest record was longer than his high school transcript, Shalala intervened and demanded the high school All-American meet certain academic and behavioral standards before stepping on the field. Williams eventually transferred to another school. "All big-time football schools have to start creating better programs to make sure the student athletes they recruit can be competitive academically," says Lapchick. "And if it's clear they can't compete, they shouldn't be recruited at all."
Still, the troubles continue. In 2006, 13 Hurricanes players were suspended after a vicious on-field brawl and Coker actually had to set a team policy that players not own or carry firearms. Coker (who arrived at UM in 2001) has since been fired, replaced by former UM linebacker Randy Shannon. Under Shannon, whose hiring has been widely applauded by observers like Lapchick, there have so far been no embarrassing incidents. Unfortunately, there haven't been as many wins either: the 'Canes had a losing season this fall, look unlikely to receive a bowl invitation and haven't won a National Championship since 2001.