The Banner campaign: Inside the years-long series of airborne insults that helped get Al Golden fired

Golden had many opportunities to look dejected this season -- or at least not look up at what might be flying in the sky. Doug Murray/Icon Sportswire/AP Images

The thread appeared at 8:01 p.m. on a Thursday. "CLEMSON BANNER(S) LINK," it read. The poster called himself OzarCaneSaw, a member of the message board WestEndZone.com and organizer of its righteous and pissed-off horde. His link led fellow Miami fans to a GoFundMe page, which asked for $585. The money would pay for an airplane, and the airplane would carry a banner, and the banner would broadcast another variation of the same idea OzarCaneSaw and his crew had been sending all season. The message had appeared on six game days, 1,500 feet above the Canes at various stadiums, a public proclamation of their simple and singular dream.

Alfred James Golden Jr. was the head football coach at the University of Miami. They would prefer he be unemployed.

They were close. They knew it. The Hurricanes had just lost two straight. Calls for Golden's head had filtered inward from the fringe. Influential bloggers wanted him gone. So did former players. Like every banner week before, once OzarCaneSaw and the message boarders raised the money, they would finalize their ideas. They were groping toward the past, flying to resurrect a version of their team and of themselves that they feared might never return.

"Burn the s--- down fellas, if need be," OzarCaneSaw wrote. "Burn it down."

Their banners had precedent. Four decades after the Wright brothers took flight, a man named Arnold Butler founded Aerial Sign Co. in the mid-1940s and began delivering messages attached to planes. If you knew when and where a mass of humans would gather, all you had to do was make a call and a payment and watch your words fly. You could sell insurance over the beach or say "happy birthday" above the state fair. The FCC regulated messages on television or radio, and print media came with their own sets of restrictions. No one, however, controlled who said what across the sky.

By the 1960s, football fans had begun using aerial banners the same way they've used most every other form of communication: to demand that coaches lose their jobs. Before former Ohio State coach Woody Hayes became a legend, fans in the 1960s flew banners saying, "Good-Bye, Woody!" In 1978, New York Giants fans vented by air about John McVay, the latest in a string of mediocre hirings. ("15 years of lousy football. We've had enough.") And in 1997, an earlier generation of Miami fans flew their own banner in opposition to then-coach Butch Davis. "From national champs to national chumps. Thanks, Butch."

Those banners were scattered and isolated, each one a big enough deal that it became part of a team's lore. Not anymore. Now banners fly at home and on the road, at practices and tailgates. They aim to oust athletic directors at minnows such as North Texas ("Fire Rick Villarreal") and at behemoths such as Texas ("[Steve] Patterson must go"). Last year, New York Jets fans flew a banner in opposition to their general manager. This year, they flew one just to call the New England Patriots cheaters. San Francisco fans believed their team's issues went all the way to the top, so they politely targeted the CEO: "Jed York & 49ers should mutually part ways."

It's unclear how many anti-coach banners fly each year -- aerial advertising companies say they account for a tiny fraction of overall business -- but the Internet seems to have made funding and flying them much easier. Obsessives flock to message boards and, in turn, fuel their own anger and nerve. Sites such as PayPal and GoFundMe allow the rabid to organize anonymously. Where once you needed to track down enough like-minded friends with venom and cash to spare, now you only have to post a link to a fundraising site and your brothers-up-in-arms will come to you. The organization might be digital, but the loudest shouting is analog.

No fan base, regardless of era, had ever orchestrated a banner-flying effort as concentrated and sustained as Miami's against Al Golden. Message boarders flew their first anti-Golden banner before a home game against Cincinnati last year: "Fire Al Golden. Save the U." By now, they were flying the banners almost every week. Some were hopeful (if forgetful): "Make Miami great again -- Butch Davis 2016." Others were despondent: "C'mon, #FireAlGolden. These banners are getting expensive." Still, others showed the depths of their resolve. "I flew 1,124 miles," the banner read before a road game at Cincinnati this season, "just to say, #FireAlGolden." The Miami Herald called them "patriotically treasonous." Fans faced little dissent, though, inside their online forum, where they attributed no names to their ideas, only handles: The Wolf, BozCane, WhatTheHell. Twenty-one people donated to pay for the banner they planned to fly for the Clemson game. Since the start of the season, roughly 120 had donated in all. Before each game, they took a poll. One of this week's options referred to Golden's former job: "5 Years Later, Temple Is Ranked, Miami Is Not." Another referenced this week's opponent: "Dabo: Finish him #FireAlGolden." They debated ideas and cast votes, but ultimately, this was OzarCaneSaw's decision. He'd organized their efforts, so they trusted him to send their message. Three days before kickoff, he made his choice. He picked up the phone.

Dana Karl stepped out of her Porsche and into her office at North Perry General Aviation Airport on that Thursday in late October. Nearly 20 years ago, in her own living room, she and her then-husband had started Aerial Banners Inc. Now the company flew thousands of signs each year from airports across the country. Aerial Banners was among the first in the industry to create a website, and as web usage grew, so did her business. Most clients were corporate. Some were private. By the time her phone rang that afternoon, she knew to expect a certain Miami fan on the other end.

She was happy to take his money and fly his banners, regardless of whom he wanted fired. She had only a few rules: No references to race or religion. "Ass" was OK, but "f---" was not. No threats. No slurs. Otherwise, she would fly anything. She'd flown banners for Democrats and Republicans. She'd flown "will you marry me" banners and "happy anniversary" banners. Before Al Golden, she'd never called for a coach's firing, but the Miami horde had become a source of steady business all fall. She hadn't met the leader, but they spoke almost every week.

By 10 o'clock that morning, the new message was ready to fly.

Three days later, Paul Bryson walked through North Perry's hangar in Hollywood, Florida, approaching a Piper Pawnee plane a few hours before kickoff. The plane was small and light, an old crop duster that flew low and slow. He checked its fuel and its oil, then the bolts on the engine, the wings and the wheels. He climbed inside and strapped on his headset and gripped the steering column as the plane rumbled and rolled. Bryson rose from the earth and looked down on inland South Florida: strip malls and palm trees, highways choked with cars. He looped around the airport and deployed a hook, attached to a 20-foot rope, and then he looped again. It was time to pick up the banner. He turned the plane's nose toward the ground and down he flew -- 80 mph, then 90, then 100, the most dangerous moment of every day. Come in too high and you miss. Come in too low and you run straight into the ground. Just last year, one of Bryson's colleagues had crashed and died.

His descent this time, though, was perfect. Hook grabbed rope, and rope jerked upward as he rose. Seconds later, the banner began to unfurl, displaying a nylon and graphite ribbon of text across the sky. Bryson had no idea what it said. He never bothered reading the messages, only the times and destinations of his flights. So he climbed toward 1,500 feet and flew the three minutes from airport to stadium. Since 9/11, flights above sporting events had been restricted. You couldn't fly directly over a game from the hour before it began to the hour after it ended. So instead he flew during the tailgate, making a five-minute loop around the stadium and surrounding parking lot, unaware that this time, he was part of the message that flew behind.

Below, Paul Lawrence walked through the parking lot at Sun Life Stadium, past tailgaters who grilled burgers, shotgunned Miller Lites and danced under green and orange tents to rap and reggaeton. No matter how many games his Hurricanes lost, Lawrence still loved the easy rhythm of these Saturdays. He rolled into the parking lot with half a dozen 40-something men who'd held season tickets for nearly 20 years. They opened boxes of chicken from Pollo Tropical, sipped beers and wandered through the lot.

Lawrence looked up. By this point in the season, scanning the sky for the banners had become just another piece of the game-day experience -- as much a part of his routine as the walk to his seat in Section 120. Early in the year, he thought the banners were "classless," but by this point, after the Canes had suffered two embarrassing losses, he didn't care. Anything to get the message out. Anything that meant Al Golden would soon be gone. So now Lawrence looked up and saw it: "Our pilot has as many Top 25 wins. #FireAlGolden." This time, he couldn't help but laugh.

Inside the stadium, ushers pointed fans toward seats. On the field, players stretched, and there among them stood Golden. Earlier this season, cameras had caught him looking at the "Butch Davis 2016" banner that flew before the Canes played Florida Atlantic. It had to be frustrating: Golden had been hired in 2010, just months after Miami flagrantly violated various NCAA laws with the help of then-booster Nevin Shapiro. Golden's teams had won more than they'd lost. His players graduated. In news conferences, he always said the right things.

But here he was, ready to face his team's toughest test of the season, and yet another banner now called for his firing. It's unknown whether Golden saw it. (Through his agent, Golden refused to comment for this piece.) But no one wanted to talk about it, or any of the other banners. Several of Golden's friends declined to speak for this story. His wife did not return emails. The university would not make athletic director Blake James available. The same went for players and coaches. When approached on campus, quarterback Brad Kaaya said he could "get in trouble" if he spoke outside prearranged media sessions.

"These people," Miami sports information director Tom Symonds said, referring to the cabal behind the banners, "are just looking for a reaction. If we did them that favor and gave them that reaction, we'd be encouraging this sort of thing. We'd be giving attention to people who crave it."

They'd be giving attention to the members of the "WEZ," WestEndZone.com, whose name alludes to the general admission seats in the old Orange Bowl where gang members and middle-aged parents sat side-by-side and openly drank as the Canes taunted their way to another victory. Today, the website's members argue about presidential politics and the Syrian refugee crisis. They post reviews of restaurants and ask one another to rate pictures of porn stars. They give words of encouragement. They call one another homophobic slurs. And, in between, they brainstorm what the next banner will say.

I signed up in November, using my real name. Soon after, a thread appeared in my honor. Posters started by addressing me: "F--- you." Then they called me a f----r. Then came the monkey porn pictures, followed by monkey porn GIFs. The monkeys humped and masturbated and peed, and the thread reached 10 pages. Soon a board member posted pictures of my wife, and then he posted pictures of my sister and then information on where they worked. He described the sexual activities in which he'd like to engage them. I sent him a message. He didn't respond.

Days later, after I'd messaged several posters, asking them to talk for this story, they started another thread about me. They posted my cellphone number. They mentioned the calls they'd made and the harassing text messages they'd sent. (They were lying to one another. I received only one text. It was polite.) I mentioned all of this to Symonds, the Miami sports information director. "None of that surprises me," he said. "These are people who take time out of their days to put up banners and harass people online. They don't have anything else to do with themselves. They don't have jobs."

OzarCaneSaw has just arrived from his job when he pulls up a chair in a coffeehouse one afternoon in November. He is tall and thin, his eyes pale blue, his handshake firm. He has agreed to talk only on the condition that I not publish his real name. Never mind that he has spent an entire season calling out another man in the most public way possible: Other banner funders have faced harassment, he says.

He does, however, admit that he understands why some people hate his work. "But what were we supposed to do?" he asks. "Just sit back and take it? People say, 'It hurts the kids. It hurts recruiting. It hurts the perception of the program.'" He pauses and shakes his head. "No," he says. "No. You know what hurts the kids? Mediocrity. Going 6-7. That hurts. Not this."

OzarCaneSaw grew up in Central Florida, surrounded by fans of other schools. Either you loved Florida State, and you were preppy and elitist, or you loved Florida, and you were a redneck with a truck. He cared for neither. "For me," he says, "it was all about 'Thug U.'" He listened to Eazy-E and 2 Live Crew, and when the Canes showed up to the 1987 Fiesta Bowl in military fatigues, he damn near lost his mind. They were brash and dangerous and hypnotic, playing the game on a perpetual setting of F--- you.

But as he grew older, that changed. Butch Davis left for the Cleveland Browns. Larry Coker couldn't hold it together, and Randy Shannon failed miserably. When Golden arrived, OzarCaneSaw says he gave him a chance, but from the very first game, a loss to Maryland, he could tell that something wasn't right. Worse than that -- the swagger had fully eroded. Golden was a buttoned-down, tie-wearing protégé of his college coach, Joe Paterno.

"At this point," he says, "the people doing the banners -- we're the only renegade piece of the program that's still left." As a kid, OzarCaneSaw wore jumpsuits and leather MCM hats and blasted Sir Mix-a-Lot and NWA. Last year, he ran for office as a Republican. He campaigned on family and freedom. He lost. He leans forward and pauses, as if measuring the distance between now and then. His hair is gray and his shirt tucked in. Wrinkles run like tributaries from his eyes. He puts his fist on the table. "Being a Miami fan means embracing the brashness and the arrogance," he says. "We're continuing that. We're saying, 'Hell no, we will not take mediocrity. We will not accept it. We will not be quiet.'" Moments later, he stands, shakes my hand and turns to the door. It's Friday afternoon. He needs to pick up his children from school.

Back on that Saturday in October, long after the plane headed toward the airport, Clemson handed Golden his worst beating, 58-0, at home. Two days later, OzarCaneSaw was driving out of Delray Beach when his phone lit up with a text: YESSSSSSS!

He knew immediately that Golden had been fired. He got home and logged on to the WestEndZone, refreshing the forums over and over again. "No more campaigning," he said. "It's over. It's finally over. Now we can move on."

One week after Miami finished its regular season 8-4, the Hurricanes reached an agreement with former Georgia coach Mark Richt. Hours after the news broke, the WEZ responded the only way it knew how: by throwing out ideas for a "Welcome Mark Richt" banner. Maybe they should keep it simple, showing appreciation for both their new coach and longtime AD. The Wolf suggested: "Welcome Coach Richt. Thank you Blake." Or maybe they should take the chance to proclaim their own success. From AntarctiCANE: "Richt to the U? You're welcome #FireAlGoldenForever."

But there was at least one more option. It came from someone with the handle IbisNation, who posted it early on the morning after Richt's reported hiring. It didn't get much serious traction, and it probably will never be flown, but it inspired more delighted comments from fellow posters than any alternative. It was simple and savage, everything WEZ posters like to believe themselves to be.

"2 conference titles in 15 years? LOL."

And then the denouement.