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The legacy of 'Wide Right'

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Editor's Note: Geoffrey Norman is working on a book about college football in the state of Florida. Each week during the 2001 season, he will send a letter to Page 2, in which he will try to make sense of the personalities, events and peculiar culture that make up Sunshine State football.

Dear Page 2:

Achilles and Hector ... Napoleon and Wellington ... Burton and Taylor ... Santiago and the great fish ... Ali and Frazier ... Well, you get the idea.

There are some matchups so good, so compelling, that you would be content to follow them through eternity. No matter how many times the antagonists went at it, you'd know that the outcome would always be agonizingly in doubt. A seven-game series would inevitably go the full seven and when the gun finally went off, nobody would be left standing.

Matt Munyon
FSU's Matt Munyon missed a potential tying field goal last year against Miami when the kick sailed -- where else? -- wide right.
Miami-Florida State is one of those rivalries. Those who cherish college football in all its glorious irrationality feel a special affection for this rivalry, which will be renewed this Saturday in Tallahassee with FSU in the vertiginously unfamiliar role of underdog. The Seminoles haven't lost at home since 1991, a streak of 54 games. The last team that beat the Seminoles at Doak Campbell Stadium was ... Miami.

Which is as it should be. Miami regularly breaks FSU's strong heart. Even the most nominal football fan knows about the field goals that sailed, forlornly, wide right. It happened in 1991 when Gerry Thomas missed a 34-yarder, giving Miami the game 17-16. Miami went on to win a share of its fourth national title. It is an article of belief, among the FSU faithful that, if that kick had been true, the Seminoles would have gone on to win their first national championship.

Another kick sailed wide right the next year. FSU went down 19-16 and continued to wander the deserts of unfulfilled expectations. Bowden remarked woefully -- but with his trademark good humor and sense of proportion -- that when he passed over the river, the epitaph on his tombstone should read: "Wide Right."

Gino Torretta
Gino Torretta and the 1991 'Canes were the last visiting team to win at Doak Campbell Stadium.
That 1991 game was the last that FSU lost at home. In 1993, they won that elusive national championship and went on to become the team of the '90s. Miami, meanwhile, was slapped into the irons of NCAA sanctions and had a hard time beating good teams, especially FSU. After Miami took the '94 game, FSU won five straight, including a 47-0 blowout in 1997.

Even if you were an FSU fan -- or, perhaps, especially if you were an FSU fan -- something essential seemed to have gone out of life. Beating Miami wasn't any fun if it was easy.

Then, last year, Miami and FSU played to exhaustion in the Orange Bowl, and it came down to a Matt Munyon attempt from 49 yards away, with the Hurricanes leading 27-24. The kick, as though ordained by the gods, drifted wide right.

The stars had returned to the proper courses.

"I knew he was going to miss that kick," a longtime FSU fan told me after that game. "That's how it is between the two of us. Goes back to before the first wide right. We've got a very funny relationship with Miami. With Florida, it's simple. We hate them, and they hate us. They do little pissy things all year long to get us. And we do the same to them. But it's different with Miami. We're rivals, but we aren't enemies. Know what I mean?"

Peter Warrick
Peter Warrick and the Seminoles leveled Miami 47-0 in 1997.
Miami was the first big-time team to schedule FSU back in the '50s, when the little school from Tallahassee was trying to get started in football. It might have been a gesture of hospitality, but it was not, certainly, an act of charity. Miami has never shown FSU the slightest trace of compassion. Not on the field, anyway. Miami's equipment manager did call his counterpart at FSU a few years ago to offer anything he needed after the Seminoles equipment truck caught fire. Negotiations between the athletic departments are generally cordial.

On the field, however, Miami is merciless. Jim Burt knocked down a pass for a two-point conversion, costing FSU an undefeated season and, even, a national championship for Bobby Bowden before the FSU legend was even eligible for membership in the AARP.

"That was the first time," my FSU oracle told me. "And it seems like it has happened over and over."

When they played in Tallahassee in 1987, both teams were ranked in the Top 5. Miami won 26-25. FSU lost just that one game that season and went on to beat Nebraska in the Fiesta Bowl. A memorable season ... except Miami finished No. 1.

"One point. At home."

That game -- and the "wide right" games that followed -- showcased Florida football for the rest of the nation. And you could see that these teams had raised the bar. This was the future of college football -- a new, up-tempo game with attacking defenses and field-stretching offenses. Since 1983, FSU and Miami have won six national championships. They have sent scores of players to the pros.

  Miami and FSU draw water from the same spring, and when they play, there is something fraternally brutal about it. It is a rivalry where the emotion does not need to be watered with endless buckets of hype. The antagonism is sincere and fundamental. 

The Seminoles and Hurricanes have always gone after some of the same players when they were still in high school, and, for a lot of the best players from Florida, it comes down to a choice between these two schools. However they choose, they have ready-made enemies at the school that feels jilted -- older players who remember wooing them when they were on recruiting visits and don't like being dumped. Especially not in favor of the enemy.

Miami and FSU draw water from the same spring, and when they play, there is something fraternally brutal about it. It is a rivalry where the emotion does not need to be watered with endless buckets of hype. The antagonism is sincere and fundamental. That both teams are almost always highly ranked is just lagniappe.

Saturday's game was supposed to be between undefeated contenders for the national title, according to the ancient script. FSU, however, blew its lines and lost -- badly -- to North Carolina.

The game exposed something about the Seminoles that a lot of people in Tallahassee already knew -- FSU was so thin it barely threw a shadow. Twenty-five players lost from last year's team. Another 15 veterans gone for other reasons, including a death in spring workouts, a gunshot wound to a player who tried to resist a robbery, violation of team rules, and injuries that hit the team's receivers especially hard. FSU would be starting a rookie quarterback who would be throwing the ball to understudies. The Seminoles promised to go with the running game, but they had pretty much forgotten how to run the ball in Tallahassee.

Bobby Bowden
Bobby Bowden's Seminoles might be dangerous as a touchdown underdog at home against Miami.
The situation is so dire that FSU goes into this game a one-touchdown underdog. Miami -- ranked No. 1 or No. 2, depending on who is voting -- hasn't beaten a quality opponent. Not yet, anyway. The Hurricanes would love to make a statement, especially against the ancient enemy.

FSU is down but still dangerous, and Bobby Bowden might be at his best as an underdog. His name, as someone once said of Robert E. Lee, might be audacity. Reverses, fumblerooskies ... whatever works. The luster might be off the game, but the deep glow still burns.

They play mid-day on Saturday in this season's first great clash of Florida's titans, and as the RVs begin rolling to park among the live oaks and the long leafs, and the fans put on their war paint, it feels that way.

And wonderfully so.

Geoffrey Norman

wide right 

Geoffrey Norman Archive

Norman: Why they call him Steve "Superior"

Norman: Does Bowden still have it?

Norman: Not Howard's end

Norman: 'Unimportant' games define us in important way

Norman: Letters from the center of the football universe, Sept. 4

Norman: Death of a Southern hero

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