Saturday, September 14, 2013

The Gator Flop and the death of honor

Last weekend, the University of Miami Hurricanes squared off against their on-again-off-again in-state rivals, the University of Florida Gators. The Hurricanes won, thanks to the sloppy play of the Gators, by a final score of 21-16. Much to the chagrin of many Florida fans, the Hurricanes now lead the series 29-26 (full disclosure: I'm a Hurricane) and have garnered a total of five National Championships while the Gators have but three.

Beyond that, Hurricane fans make a habit of pointing out two things, whenever trash-talking (all in good fun, all in good fun) with Gator fans. First, they note how Florida dumped Miami from its annual schedule in 1987. Florida officials and fans claimed it had to do this because of SEC requirements, while Hurricane supporters chalk it up to fear and fear alone. In 2002, the rivalry was briefly renewed with a home and home series, then shut down by Florida once again, until another home and home pairing in 2008 and 2013. Last weekend's game--right now--stands as the final one the two schools will ever play during the NCAA regular season. This talking point rankles most Gator fans who--I believe--would just as soon play Miami every year. But alas, their AD sees things differently.

The second thing that always comes up--always from the Hurricane side--whenever there is cross talk between fans of the two programs is the now-infamous 1971 "Gator Flop."

When a single incident in a game has a special name and scores of articles written about it using that name, you know it's a big deal, like "The Immaculate Reception," "The Drive,""The Catch," or even the "Hail Flutie."

In 1971, the Hurricanes and Gators met on November 27th in Miami for both teams' final regular season game. Both had poor years; neither were bowl-bound and neither had (or would have, no matter the game's outcome) winning records. But on that day, the Gators were dominant. Late in the fourth quarter, Florida was ahead 45-8. Despite this lead, the Gators continued to throw the ball down field, instead of just running out the clock. Why? Because their quarterback--one John Reaves--had a chance to break the NCAA career passing yards record then currently held by former Stanford standout Jim Plunkett.

Alas, Reaves was intercepted on the Gators' last (apparently) drive and all that remained was for the Hurricanes to run a few plays in order to get off the field and end their miserable day. But that didn't happen. The Florida coach--one Doug Dickey--proceeded to use his time outs after each Hurricane play, in order to conserve time and get Reaves back on the field. After those were used up and the Hurricanes--close to the Gator end zone--appeared to be in a position to finally run out the clock, Dickey instructed his defense to "let them score." And the defense obliged on the next play. Nine of the eleven players on the field simply fell to the ground--flopped--when the ball was snapped (the other two did nothing) and the Hurricane quarterback walked into the end zone, untouched. Watch it transpire below:

Dickey's comments to the press in the above video are particularly uninspiring, if not downright pathetic. It was a deeply embarrassing moment for Gator football (something any real fan will admit, though maybe only in private). Reaves went on to get the 10 yards he needed to break Plunkett's record. But today, Reaves is remembered only for his part in the Flop. His record has been broken--indeed, shattered--numerous times. Currently, Reaves ranks somewhere below #230 on the all-time list in this regard.

A few years ago, ESPN ran a story about the Flop that included interviews with the various participants in the game. Their comments are telling. The Gator players--for the most part--don't really want to talk about it. They know what happened was beneath contempt; they know the "record" Reaves supposedly set was meaningless in context. And I think they know their coach let them down by going along with the nonsense. After all, they were college kids. Dickey was there to coach them, to lead them. He failed them badly, though he still doesn't seem to get this, judging by his own words:
Harvin Clark, he caused me all kinds of misery over the years by running back that punt for a touchdown. If he hadn't done that, we wouldn't be talking about this today. That's the real mistake I made, not having him fair catch that punt.
Ridiculous, isn't it? Clark did exactly what he was supposed to do. The point of the game is to score, after all, not accumulate yardage in order to break pointless records.

Of all the players interviewed by ESPN, Florida defensive back John Clifford (a Miami native and one of the two players who refused to "flop"), provides the most honest comment on the matter:
The play came right at me, so I could have made the tackle, but I didn't. I took the gratuitous Catholic genuflect. So I can't be considered any better than anyone else out there. And when [Hurricane QB] John Hornibrook ran past me, he had the most disgusting look on his face I had ever seen. He was definitely not happy. And I was embarrassed. I was.
Of course he was embarrassed, as was every other player on the field and on both sidelines who possessed even an inkling of a sense of honor. It was a horrible, horrible moment for college sports. It was a public display of the worst aspect of teams sports: the pursuit of individual accolades at all costs, regardless of what is best for the team or the game in general.

That was over forty years ago, of course. But things have really not gotten any better, just much, much worse. We--as parents--look to team sports as a source for both healthy physical activity and for teaching participants about sportsmanship, teamwork, and how to both lose and win with dignity. Yet, those who lead these sports, as coaches, as school officials, as boosters, often seem to be teaching all the wrong lessons. At the high school level, I suppose this reality is one of the reasons calls to end high school sports are becoming more and more frequent.

In college, scandals are of course constantly a problem (the University of Miami has had its share in this regard, as has the University of Florida), but the real growing problem in my mind is the phenomenal amount of attention now paid to individual performance, both with regard to "records" and with regard to professional potential. The number one ranked Alabama Crimson Tide (whose coach I cannot stand) takes the field today in a continued defense of consecutive National Championships to play the Texas A&M Aggies, currently ranked number six. A battle of titans, to be sure, one I plan on watching.

But I'm watching it--I must admit--to see Johnny Manziel play, the quarterback of the Aggies. Going by the nickname "Johnny Football," Manziel is a true phenom, as likely to produce jaw-dropping plays on each snap of the ball as anyone who has ever played the game. He's just that good. But he's also something of a horse's ass, given to taunting his opponents, breaking NCAA rules, and generally just behaving like an entitled chump.

Manziel is badly in need of a sense of honor, it is true, but then so too is his coach--one Kevin Sumlin--who is clearly prepared to ride Manziel's star for all it is worth. I can't help thinking there's an "Aggie Flop" waiting in the wings somewhere down the line, when this record or that record is in Manziel's reach and Sumlin willingly commits the team to that purpose alone, as opposed to just winning football games (just as Dickey did so many years ago).

As much as I can blame the particulars here, I also have to hold out some of that blame for fans--like me--who are truly enablers, who want to see "greatness" unfold on fields of green, regardless of the cost. So to must some of that blame be parceled out to the system and those who run it, wherein college football become just a tool for making money. And to the media who covers these games, who trumpet the individual performances with highlights, "plays of the week" honors, and sophomoric banter about the players and their antics. And of course to society at large, where a dearth of honor is not only readily apparent, but readily accepted--even expected--whenever such honor gets in the way of winning.

Oh well. Kick-off is at 3:30 pm, EST.

Cheers, all.

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