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A walk on the dark side

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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:

Hard as it might be for the avid fan to imagine, for a lot of people, college football is not the first thing that comes to mind when you say, "Florida." For some, Florida is Disneyworld. Others cannot think of the state without recalling the Presidential election without end. And, then, there are those for whom "Florida" is synonymous with the word "crime."

Going back to the days of Don Johnson and "Miami Vice," the public has eaten up the whole drugs, money and murder side of Florida. There was a time, not long ago, when visitors to the Miami airport -- especially foreigners -- risked their lives when they rented a car. Germany started advising its tourists to treat Miami, Florida, like it was, oh, Kinsasha, Zaire. A place, in other words, where you could get killed at random and for the price of your wristwatch.

Dennis Erickson
Miami went on probation shortly after Dennis Erickson left for the NFL.
Signs that announce rest stops along Florida's interstate inform drivers that they are patrolled 24 hours a day, the result of a string of killings at such locations. Not long ago, on my way from Jacksonville to Tallahassee, for the Miami-FSU game, I pulled off the Interstate for some gas and something to drink that would keep me up. It was late and I was thinking about one of those "energy drinks" that yuppies like to lace with vodka, thus providing the world with more of what it really needs -- wide-awake drunks. Anyway, I wasn't thinking about vodka. And if the place where I stopped didn't carry Red Bull, I'd go with the old standby, black coffee. I pulled on the door. Locked.

But there were lights on all over the place and the gas pumps worked. A woman spoke to me through some kind of electronic device, from behind bulletproof glass.

"Can I help you?"

"Just want something to drink. Along with the gas."

"What do you want?"

I saw coolers on the wall behind her, full of the usual sodas and such.

"Oh, I don't know," I said. "I'll come in and see."

Not in this lifetime, her expression said. She had one hand on the phone and the other where I couldn't see it. I'd already paid for the gas with my credit card so I just turned around and left.

Butch Davis
Butch Davis was brought in to help Miami clean up its program.
On my way out, I saw a road sign, pointing the way to Starke, and that cleared things up. Starke is home of Florida's famously tough prison -- Raiford -- and, by the way, has a town ever been more appropriately named? If I had a business on the road to Starke, I wouldn't let some guy come in to buy a soda after dark, either.

Starke is where the infamous serial killer, Ted Bundy, was finally put to sleep in an electric chair known, fondly, as "Old Sparky." Bundy had done some of his most monstrous work in Tallahassee, at an FSU sorority house. Gainesville had also been the scene of the grotesque murder of co-eds. And Miami, of course, is a campus surrounded by a crime problem. Just ask Edna Buchanan.

I don't pretend to know why there is so much crime in Florida. If I had to bet, I'd probably go with drugs, and the way they have skewed and distorted so many lives and, to some extent, the culture. The "Scarface" Colombian Cartel stuff has spread toxins through the cities, like Miami. But the little towns have been poisoned, too. There are fishing villages on the Gulf Coast where virtually the whole town has been busted. Florida is where the drugs come in, with predictable results.

People who live in Florida have made adjustments over the last several years. Concealed carry laws, gated communities, guard dogs, security firms, robust prison construction ... and they have learned not so much to tolerate crime, but to live with it. They don't have a lot of choice. They could move but, then, most of them have already come here from somewhere else. So crime doesn't shock people in Florida -- doesn't have the resonance here that it does in, say, Nebraska. People in the heartland look at Florida and see the crime there as exotic (and, perhaps, erotic), while the folks who have to live with it consider it an everyday pain in the teeth.

This extends to the problems Florida's football teams have had, over the years, with the law. Florida's teams are, in the minds of a lot of outsiders, outlaw programs. If it isn't the NCAA coming down on a team for recruiting or other violations, then it is the cops busting some star.

Steve Spurrier
Florida's Steve Spurrier once joked that FSU stood for "Free Shoes University."
Miami, the first of the Florida teams to win a national championship, led the way here, too. The Hurricanes were an in-your-face team on the field, and they cultivated the image assiduously. Then, several of the players got busted on various charges and, finally, the whole program got put on probation. There seemed to be a kind of inevitability about it. When Butch Davis arrived, his mission was not simply to win, but to clean up the program.

In the '80s, while trying to catch Miami, Florida landed in two recruiting scandals and could have received the NCAA's dreaded "death penalty" for the second. Steve Spurrier's first team at Florida won enough games to be SEC champs but was on probation and, thus, denied the title. During Spurrier's term, the program has had problems with a rogue agent, and one of the Gator's current stars, Jabbar Gaffney, has had two brushes with the law -- for larceny and assault -- but is still playing.

But of the three big-time programs in Florida, it is FSU that has had the most serious image problems. Critics of the Seminoles -- the kind who will use any handy club -- call them "the Criminoles," which might have been cute the first time. During a scandal precipitated by another of those shady "agents" who treated FSU players to a shopping spree at a local Foot Locker story, Spurrier would say in his talks to boosters that FSU stood for "Free Shoes University." Even Bobby Bowden thought that was funny ... the first couple of times.

The Foot Locker episode -- which resulted in a Sports Illustrated cover story -- came in the season when FSU won its first national championship. When it won its second, there was another scandal involving a retailer. This time it was Dillard's, and one of the players involved was Peter Warrick, a leading Heisman Trophy candidate at the time. He and another player were accused of conspiring with a cashier in a scheme to pay for a little merchandise but leave the store with a lot of stuff. Stealing, in other words.

The other player, by the way, was Laveranues Coles. Bowden kicked him off the team, since he had been in trouble before. (Bowden had kicked Randy Moss off the team a few years earlier so he had practice dumping great receivers.)

Warrick was given another chance by Bowden, though, for a while, it looked like the prosecutor wanted to put him under the jail and arrange for daylight to be piped down to him. Eventually, a deal was worked out. Warrick copped a plea, suited back up, and starred in the bowl game that capped a perfect FSU season.

Still, at every game there were opposing fans wearing Dillard's bags over their heads. And there were stories in the papers, questions from reporters, and lots of things said -- both lame and ugly -- over talk radio and the internet.

Peter Warrick
Peter Warrick spent some time in street clothes during the Dillards scandal of 1999.
And it was a shame because the offense was relatively trivial. There are people in Congress guilty of a lot worse than what Warrick was caught doing.

The discussion can take all kinds of different routes and go on forever, if you have the stomach and the time. Do football players get away with things that other people get busted for? Maybe. But you could also argue that Peter Warrick almost got charged for a felony on what was basically a shoplifting beef -- precisely because he was a football player, and a star football player, at that. The prosecutor might not have been interested, if he was just a walk-on or some kid majoring in hotel management.

You can argue over whether football is corrupting or helps turn out good citizens. Whether or not too much emphasis on football makes players think they are above the law. You can point to schools where football players are isolated from the rest of the campus, and even society, and say that this is corrupting and leads to antisocial behavior. But, then, you can look at Annapolis and West Point, where they are supposed to know how to do it right but have still had their problems with football players. And you can look at what happened with boosters and recruiting and "institutional control" at Notre Dame and Alabama, where folks like to think they do it the right, and wonder why people are spring-loaded for the Florida schools.

One thing that does seem undeniable to a partisan of Florida football -- the state's big three schools get excessive attention when they get in trouble.

Partly, this comes with being good. Win a national championship and you can expect some extra scrutiny. It is the price you pay, and most coaches and fans will happily pay it.

But there is also, I think, an increased eagerness to condemn the Florida schools and players and to hype up wrongdoing, whether it is proven or merely charged, simply because it is Florida, where, as everyone knows, the streets and stadiums are full of criminals. I've read worse things about football in Nebraska, heartland of America, than I ever have about any of the Florida schools. For a while, there, Nebraska players were as hard on their girlfriends as they were on their conference rivals. But that was considered anomalous behavior, whereas, in Florida, it would have been thought typical.

In a way, the outlaw reputation could be a plus. Maybe a team coming to the Orange Bowl or the Swamp or the Doak from one of those places out in the rest of the country will feel just a little extra measure of intimidation at the idea of playing one of those Florida schools where they are supposed to suit up a bunch of badasses. An aura counts for something, and an outlaw reputation -- fairly earned or not -- can at least count for something in football. Ask the Ravens -- or the teams that played them last season.

But the fact is, the players and the programs in Florida aren't that different from those in the rest of the country. But the fans of, say, FSU believe their team gets an unfair shake, especially from the national press. And I think they've got a point. Atlanta is a more dangerous city than Miami, but nobody ever made a TV show called "Atlanta Vice."

Geoffrey Norman

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