The athletic director gazed across the coffee table. In his hand were the keys to college football's most dominant and most vilified program of the past quarter century. In his suite sat a head-coaching candidate unlike any he'd ever seen. ¶ The man had never packed his bags to climb the coaching ladder. He'd never attended a coaching clinic or read a coaching book. He had no mottos to sell. He had no sell in him at all. ¶ He was something else that few big-time college football coaches—and none at Florida's three empires—had ever been. He was black. ¶ No one knew much about the man's earlier life. That's how he'd kept it. But the AD was a lawyer, and he knew how to craft the question that had to be asked to cover him and his university. He called it the Eagleton Question, the one that George McGovern hadn't posed to Tom Eagleton before naming him as his running mate on the 1972 Democratic presidential ticket, only to learn later that Eagleton had been hospitalized for psychiatric treatment and undergone electroshock therapy. ¶ "Is there anything about your past, Randy," the AD asked, "that we should know?"
The past was the problem. It wasn't the problem of Miami athletic director Paul Dee alone, of course. It was the sport's problem. It was the culture's problem. Even the strongest and fastest athletes in the country, being taught on the most privileged campuses by the finest coaches, couldn't seem to shed it. Just when they seemed free of the troubled homes and streets they'd come from, their pasts would catch them from behind, drag them, their teams and universities to their knees. Guns, drugs, robberies, assaults. All the old and easy answers had vanished. Paul Dee was staring at a new one.
For a century football coaches had taken kids through the tunnel from boyhood to manhood. The Pop Warners and Knute Rocknes in the game's first generation, the Bear Bryants and Woody Hayeses of the second wave. White men who as boys had chopped wood and pushed plows to help their families survive, who'd endured wars and economic calamity, who could drop a bucket into the well of personal experience and drench a boy in the ethic of git-yer-ass-back-north-o'-yer-heels when he'd been laid flat by linebacker or life.
The third wave of coaches was mostly middle-class, the sons of Depression fathers. Glibber men with better haircuts, no longer pouring out personal truths but borrowing them from the Bears and the Woodys, constructing the persona of Coach rather than having it seared into them.
A strange thing began to occur at football's highest levels. The slicker the game and its coaches became, the rougher became many of the boys who played it best, the products of pasts that the coaches couldn't possibly know. A sharp crack! was heard across the land, as if something were snapping.
Or was that gunfire?
THE BULLET entered the back of Bryan Pata's skull and ripped through his brain. Such a big, lovable kid the Miami senior defensive end was, the kind who would drape his arm around a coach who was having a bad day or gallop into the offensive huddle at a critical moment to exhort his teammates. But something had begun haunting him last year, sending his eyes over his shoulder and up to his rearview mirror, and he'd ended up murdered in midseason outside his apartment by an assailant still unknown.
Pata's death came less than four months after one of his teammates, defensive back Willie Cooper, was shot in the buttocks outside his apartment, provoking yet another teammate, safety Brandon Meriweather, to pull a handgun from his pants and return fire at the attacker.
The Hurricanes had closed out 2005 in a postgame melee with LSU players in the stadium tunnel at the Peach Bowl, then stormed the field at Louisville last September and stomped on the Cardinals' logo, then engaged in a helmet-swinging brawl with Florida International players a few weeks later. And still, after all that tragedy and chaos, would Miami have fired Larry Coker had the Hurricanes finished 12--1 instead of 7--6? Or argued, truthfully, that they'd been victims of mayhem last year nearly as often as they'd been its perpetrators, that they'd wrought far less of it than many rivals in recent years, that their eight players on the ACC All-Academic team last season were the most of any team in the conference?