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Hiding in Plain Sight (cont.)

Posted: Tuesday September 4, 2007 11:51AM; Updated: Tuesday September 4, 2007 11:56AM
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By Gary Smith

Shannon has had a hand in three of Miami's five national championships.
Shannon has had a hand in three of Miami's five national championships.
Bob Rosato/SI

The third wave of coaches was mostly middle-class, the sons of Depression fathers. Glibber men with better haircuts, no longer pouring out personal truths but borrowing them from the Bears and the Woodys, constructing the persona of Coach rather than having it seared into them.

A strange thing began to occur at football's highest levels. The slicker the game and its coaches became, the rougher became many of the boys who played it best, the products of pasts that the coaches couldn't possibly know. A sharp crack! was heard across the land, as if something were snapping.

Or was that gunfire?

The bullet entered the back of Bryan Pata's skull and ripped through his brain. Such a big, lovable kid the Miami senior defensive end was, the kind who would drape his arm around a coach who was having a bad day or gallop into the offensive huddle at a critical moment to exhort his teammates. But something had begun haunting him last year, sending his eyes over his shoulder and up to his rearview mirror, and he'd ended up murdered in midseason outside his apartment by an assailant still unknown.

Pata's death came less than four months after one of his teammates, defensive back Willie Cooper, was shot in the buttocks outside his apartment, provoking yet another teammate, safety Brandon Meriweather, to pull a handgun from his pants and return fire at the attacker.

The Hurricanes had closed out 2005 in a postgame melee with LSU players in the stadium tunnel at the Peach Bowl, then stormed the field at Louisville last September and stomped on the Cardinals' logo, then engaged in a helmet-swinging brawl with Florida International players a few weeks later. And still, after all that tragedy and chaos, would Miami have fired Larry Coker had the Hurricanes finished 12-1 instead of 7-6? Or argued, truthfully, that they'd been victims of mayhem last year nearly as often as they'd been its perpetrators, that they'd wrought far less of it than many rivals in recent years, that their eight players on the ACC All-Academic team last season were the most of any team in the conference?

But who would listen? From the day the Hurricanes arrived in camouflage gear at the 1987 Fiesta Bowl, they were tagged Thug U. Their two most famous alumni, Michael Irvin and Ray Lewis, had both been in deep trouble with the law, the former arrested three times on drug-related charges, the latter plea-bargaining out of a murder charge after a night of partying with friends at the Super Bowl led to a double killing. Miami, perhaps more than any other elite program, harvested kids from poverty-racked neighborhoods not far from its campus, just too short a trip for many to leave behind their baggage.

The stakes had grown steep, tens of millions of dollars ... and so much that's dearer than money. Everyone needed to solve the problem. But the Hurricanes needed to solve it now .

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