If this year’s Heisman Trophy truly went to the star of the 2017 college football season, it would go to the Miami Turnover Chain. Somebody would drape its thick links over the neck of the player depicted on the award, and nestle its enormous bejeweled pendent over his chest. We could admire the way the chain’s gold and sapphires sparkle in comparison to the statue’s dull bronze finish. Finally, after 80 years, that old-timey stiff-arming dude would have some swag.
Swag—and this necklace—have defined Miami’s best season since it was stocked with future Pro Bowlers in the early 2000s. Two years ago, the Hurricanes corralled eight interceptions over the course of a full 13-game campaign; this fall, with two regular-season contests and the team’s first appearance in the ACC championship game yet to play, the ’Canes have 16 picks. They’re the first team in 13 years to get four turnovers in four straight weeks against four power-conference opponents. And now they’re 9-0, ranked third in the College Football Playoff selection committee rankings, and three wins away from clinching a spot in the four-team field. Perhaps most importantly, Jennifer Lopez has worn the chain:
Glancing at broader statistics, Miami doesn’t appear dominant. It ranks 18th in Football Outsiders’ offensive S&P+ and 16th in defensive S&P+; for the non-advanced stats crowd, the ’Canes are 39th in scoring offense (32.6 points per game) and 10th in scoring defense (16.6 points per game). Those types of marks suggest that a team should be good, but not necessarily elite. Except that the ’Canes also lead all power-conference programs in turnover margin (plus-15) and are tied for the lead in interceptions (16), and they’re second in total turnovers gained (24) behind only Washington State.
We can believe something rational caused this shift, like the fact an influx of young players recruited by second-year head coach Mark Richt has led to an uptick in defensive prowess. But this is not a sport for rationality. I don’t practice santeria, and college football no longer rewards its national champion with a crystal ball. I choose to believe in the mystical power of a gigantic piece of jewelry that has turned humans into football magnets. The Turnover Chain tells the story of why Miami is doing surprisingly well this season—and represents a reinvigorated identity that could propel this recently dormant powerhouse to future success.
It’s hard for a college football program to reinvent itself. Fans of historically dominant programs like to remember the glory days; often, they believe those programs are still in the glory days, and expect the teams to win as such. But the most important people in college football aren’t fans who view their teams as a proxy to relive decades past when their lives were far more interesting. Instead, the sport is shaped by teenagers who generally possess little knowledge of who ruled the landscape 30, 40, and 50 years ago.
Take Nebraska, for example, which played Miami for the national title repeatedly in the programs’ shared heyday, but is now struggling to stay relevant. You can’t tell a teen in 2017 to come to Nebraska because Tommie Frazier played there. I’m 27, a full decade older than most college recruits, and I’m too young to remember watching Tommie Frazier. Or look at Notre Dame, which just got routed by Miami in Week 11 and has never really developed an attractive pitch for prospects beyond “we’re Notre Dame.” You think millennials are watching Rudy? You think millennials are ENJOYING Rudy?
Miami would desperately like to return to the football heights of its glory days, which spanned roughly from 1983 to 2003. In that stretch, the ’Canes produced some of the greatest teams in the history of the sport, winning five national championships. I generally hate when people argue that great college teams could beat bad NFL teams—no, they definitely couldn’t. That is, except the 2001 Hurricanes, who had 38 future NFL draft picks, 17 first-rounders, and 13 Pro Bowlers.
And these teams weren’t just great—they were also the coolest thing that college football has ever produced. They were flashy, mean, and walloped every opponent to smithereens. They performed crotch chops that would embarrass WWE wrestlers; hell, the most popular wrestler of the past 25 years was a Hurricane. We love thinking about this era of Miami football: ESPN’s 30 for 30 series created not one, but two full-length documentaries about “The U.” No team in the history of this sport has ever approached this level of swagger.
But it wasn’t just talent that made these teams irreplicable. They were built on blatant disregard for both NCAA rules and actual laws. Corruption went virtually unchecked for 30 years from the early 1980s through 2010. Sports Illustrated’s Alexander Wolff wrote in 1995 that one in seven Hurricanes football players had been arrested at the school, on crimes ranging from “disorderly conduct and shoplifting to drunken driving, burglary, arson, assault and sexual battery.” There were bounties for big hits. It’s no secret that many major-conference programs probably pay college players behind the scenes, but not many programs have academic counselors convicted of federal white-collar crimes like organized Pell Grant fraud. You couldn’t get away with this in 2017. You shouldn’t want to try.
Miami’s old ways died in 2011, when former booster Nevin Shapiro flipped on the school from jail. That same year, Miami did everything it could to distance itself from its illicit past by hiring Al Golden, a head coach who wore a bright-orange tie on game day—a fashion decision that he probably thought made him appear businesslike, but that really made him resemble Will Ferrell screaming, “I AM A DIVISION MANAGER! I DRIVE A DODGE STRATUS!” as he grew sweaty, angry, and increasingly disheveled. Golden was canned in 2015 after a nearly five-year tenure in which he went 17-18 in ACC play. During the Golden era, the school made no attempt to reference its past greatness. As it turns out, there’s a thin line between trying to shun a scandal-ridden history and hiring the most swaggerless dude in the world.
After Golden’s ouster, the Hurricanes pounced on Richt, a former Miami quarterback who had just been fired by Georgia despite winning nine-plus games during 11 of his 15 seasons with the Bulldogs. For all of his successes, Richt was subject to a running joke that he had lost control of the program: a handful of Georgia players got arrested; Richt was notably harsher with his discipline than many of his coaching peers; and the program had a rash of attrition. Richt might have played for The U when it was The U; he would not have been a good coach at the school during that period.
He is the right coach now, though, especially because he brought in at least one staffer who knew how to revamp The U’s reputation for 2017: defensive backs coach Mike Rumph, a member of the 2001 national title team who went on to become a state-championship-winning high school coach in Florida. You can’t tell a teen to go to Miami because the ’Canes were good when he was 2 years old. But you know who can? Rumph, who knows how to get high schoolers to buy in and can say that he played for Miami when it boasted the greatest team on the planet. It wasn’t Rumph’s idea to make a turnover trophy; those have existed in college football for a few years, and defensive coordinator Manny Diaz pitched the idea at Miami. But Rumph knew how to make it as Miami as possible, calling up a jeweler who worked with ex-Hurricanes players. His former teammate Vince Wilfork happened to be in the jeweler’s shop when he made the call.
And thus was born what I firmly believe to be the greatest (legal) recruiting tool in the social media era. Plenty of Division I college football programs have staffs devoted to figuring out what memes and Twitter strategies will best catch the attention of teenagers. Miami one-upped them all. Everybody wants to wear the Turnover Chain.
Miami is not the Wild West anymore: In fact, it led college football teams in community service last year. Yet the chain manages to link today’s players to the best parts of the program’s past while leaving the unsavory elements they’re too young to remember behind. It’s the rebranding effort that every once-relevant college football program wishes it could pull off.
Maybe Miami will compete for the national title this season, as its 41-8 stomping of Notre Dame last week showed what this team is capable of. Maybe the ’Canes will fold in the ACC title game, reverting to the form they displayed in narrow, one-possession wins over Florida State, Georgia Tech, Syracuse, and North Carolina. Regardless, Miami has a new and glorious image: a 36-inch, 2.5-kilogram, 10-karat gold piece of pure magic.