Throwback Thursday: The “Cancelled Game” With Historic Implications

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditmail

Weather-cancelled games have become an early-season norm of the college football calendar. Now, this unfortunate byproduct of climate change is utterly inconsequential in the grand scheme of … well, human existence. But since The Open Man is a site dedicated to sports and entertainment, and not existential dread, we’re focusing on a weather event that fundamentally changed the college football landscape.

Sufficiently depressed yet? It’s going to get worse if you’re a fan of either UCLA or Arizona. You know what’s coming: Georges.

None of the preceding or following is intended to make light of Hurricane Georges. While illustrative words like “disastrous” or “catastrophic” are routinely invoked in sports commentary, no result on the gridiron short of grievous injury ever actually lives up to those definitions. Georges killed more than 600 people and wreaked billions of dollars in damages, especially to the Dominican Republic and Haiti.

A football game keeping UCLA out of the BCS Championship and denying Arizona its first-ever Rose Bowl appearance is wholly insignificant in that greater context. You may think I am belaboring the obvious, but … well …

Anyway, in my 1998 Throwback Thursday retrospective, I included the main details of the cancelled game between UCLA and Miami. The decision to forego this cross-country, nonconference tilt was reversed two weeks after it was initially made, with UCLA athletic brass ironically believing the Bruins would need this game to play for a national championship — an aspiration that looked like a distinct possibility following a rout of Arizona in a Top 10 showdown.

The loss to UCLA happened to be Arizona’s only of the season. With the newly formed Bowl Championship Series, however, a national title-contending UCLA would go to the Fiesta Bowl, which would almost assuredly send Arizona to the Rose Bowl — a holy grail still eluding the program almost 40 years after it joined the Pac-12.

This is all well-covered territory.

The rescheduled game itself was a gem. Miami’s 49-45 win over UCLA on Dec. 5 of that year is one of the most thrilling contests of the past two decades, both for its back-and-forth nature and the high stakes involved. That, too, is well-covered ground.

Revisiting those two weeks when Miami was no longer on UCLA’s 1998 schedule, however, is fascinating.

The below is from an Orlando Sentinel column, which heavily implies UCLA was using the cancellation to duck Miami. Sports media was still three years from the launch of PTI, which provided the impetus for full-fledged embracing of debate, so it wasn’t quite as acceptable to outright declare a team cowards for its administration not wanting to travel across the country for a make-up game.

If the game isn’t played, it likely will hurt UM more than UCLA. Not only will the Hurricanes lose about $500,000 in revenue and a nationally televised game on CBS, but they could also could miss out on a shot at a postseason berth.

Hey, it was the ’90s; Alanis Morissette was big at the time, so you can understand the irony. Hindsight magnifies the irony, as one could argue pretty definitively that without the Miami makeup, a 10-0 UCLA gets the nod for the Fiesta Bowl over 10-1 Florida State.

While the Seminoles brought name recognition, an invaluable currency in college football, the residual hard feelings from Florida State playing in an losing an immediate-rematch national championship two seasons earlier may have lingered. More definitively, Florida State sat one spot behind UCLA in the final AP poll before the fateful final week.

So, yes, UCLA ended up having more to lose. However, the benefit of hindsight might be even more ironic when applied to Miami.

The concern the Hurricanes would miss the postseason seems suspect in retrospect, at least without an appreciation for the state of the program then.

Miami opened the 1997 season ranked No. 13, but a four-game losing skid that bottomed out in a 47-0 pummeling at Florida State signaled a clear end to the original golden years (not to be confused with the Golden years) for Hurricane football.

The U had not really been The U since 1995. The Whammy in Miami in 1994, when Washington snapped The U’s Orange Bowl winning streak, signaled something of a last-hurrah before multiple-loss regular seasons in the ensuing three campaigns.

Off the field, 1995 brought Miami football to its nadir.

The sanctions leveled against Miami were, at the time, largely regarded as not severe enough. College football was still less than a decade removed from SMU receiving the death penalty, an option the NCAA has not exercised again since (even in instances when it arguably should have). Butch Davis took over a radioactive brand, and the 1997 season was the inevitable basement The U hit as a result.

When the Hurricanes let opportunities to beat Big East rival Virginia Tech slip away the week prior to UCLA’s visit, the previous season’s 5-6 finish loomed ominously. Miami needed a bowl game, and cancelled games weren’t going to get it there.

Now, 1998 marks the midway point between the Sports Illustrated expose and Miami’s return to the pinnacle with one of the greatest college teams ever assembled. I have read 1999 referred to as the beginning of Miami’s march back to the top of college football. By the 2000 season, there was no doubt the Hurricanes were back among the elite, having beaten national championship game participant Florida State and having a serious gripe about being passed over.

Washington handed Miami its only loss that season, a Pac-10 receipt for UCLA’s loss in 1998. But then, Miami returned the favor in 2001 when it destroyed the Huskies, 65-7, in a game rescheduled for Thanksgiving weekend due the Sept. 11 terror attacks.

Common opinion dictates that Miami showed signs of returning to full strength in 1999, but for me, the UCLA makeup game is the turning point; the 180-degree turn from the 47-0 loss the year prior.

Edgerrin James’ one-man decimation of a Rocky Long-coordinated defense garnered the headlines — deservedly so. He ripped off 299 yards rushing and scored three touchdowns, including the game-winner with less than a minute left.

But James was just one noteworthy name from that contest that, in retrospect, demonstrated the juggernaut Davis was building. James’ 299 yards weren’t even half the Hurricanes’ total output, which approached 700 yards. Santana Moss and Reggie Wayne were that team’s top two receivers, youngsters Bubba Franks and Najeh Davenport provided reverse support at tight end and running back, and the defense featured Al Blades in the secondary.

Miami was on the cusp of greatness. UCLA has never returned to the same level. It might be the most important moment in the history of cancelled games.