In this neighborhood the quickest way to become a big name is with a gun or a football. Nathaniel Webster made his choice long ago. Vicious only at play, Webster, a linebacker at Northwestern High, may well be the best tackier in South Florida's gold mine of schoolboy talent, and that is enough to ensure him a scholarship somewhere. Still, Miami's Liberty City force-feeds an 18-year-old a diet no one should know: guns popping in the night, drive-by shootings, wild car chases, thieves. Six weeks ago Webster's four-year-old nephew died in a car wreck around the corner, and two weeks after that two friends crashed and died. His father works days, his mother nights, and Webster has that corny pro football dream. He wants to get them out.
"Once I make it," says Webster, "I don't want my mother to work again in her life, or my father, because they've been working for years, and they've been through a lot. I always want to know her favorite car because that's what I keep telling her I'll get her: a car, a house. I tell her that when I make it, she'll have anything she wants."
For the six-foot, 220-pound Webster and many other prize recruits college football is not some vague ideal. It's not even a game. It's money, hope, a future—and any school that can't promise all those things doesn't stand a chance of landing the best ones. But when the NCAA announced last Friday that it was stripping Miami of 24 football scholarships over the next two years and banning the team from this season's bowl competition, Webster's reaction was a huge smile. The walls of his bedroom are filled with taped-up pictures and stories of his beloved Hurricanes. Now, he figures, he has no reason not to join them.
"I grew up with the Canes," Webster says. "But I was waiting for the sanctions, to see how hard they were going to be. That would determine whether I'd go there. Now I know it's not that serious. They're going to take away some scholarships, but I still have mine."
Not serious? At first glance the NCAA hammer blow laid on Miami—for improprieties ranging from massive Pell Grant fraud to a pay-for-play slush fund to flagrant violations of its own drug policy—appears to be crushing. The loss of a possible Orange Bowl berth against Notre Dame cost the university some $3 million, and Miami president Tad Foote was tagged with the ultimate humiliation for a chief executive: lack of institutional control. With his athletic program placed on three years probation and his football team's scholarship pool slashed from 25 to 12 for the 1996-97 academic year and to 14 for 1997-98, Foote might deny it, but Miami is now in the company of such NCAA renegades as SMU, Washington and Auburn. "This has not been a pleasant experience for anybody who loves this place, obviously," Foote said in a press conference after last Friday's announcement. "We have admitted very publicly and very thoroughly that we have broken some rules of the NCAA. Anytime I look back and say, 'I could have done a better job,' that's embarrassing. It's been painful, if you want to know the truth. Really painful."
Now the question is whether the pain will be permanent. Nothing will hurt the program more than the lack of depth caused by the lost scholarships—especially when injuries, academic casualties and football washouts are factored in over time. And unlike a public school, which is far less expensive to attend, Miami's price tag limits the number of walk-ons available to fill the void.
"At Miami we never had walk-ons, because of the expense," says Ole Miss coach Tommy Tuberville, a former Hurricane assistant who is riding out a four-year probation with the Rebels that includes 24 lost scholarships and a TV and bowl ban. "It's $20,000 a year there, and only $2,200 in-state here. [At Mississippi] we were able to talk some kids into coming and paying their own way. When you have that few scholarships, you can't make as many mistakes. The recruits don't have to be great athletes, but they have to be guys with character and good academic standing because they have to be there four or five years. You can't afford to lose any of them or have them drop out. There's no margin for error."
Especially in ultracompetitive Florida, where every time one of the three top schools slips up, the other two circle like sharks. When the NCAA kneecapped Florida with the loss of 20 scholarships between 1984 and '86 after Charley Pell's anarchic reign, Florida State went hard after any high school star who thought of going to Gainesville. "You can draw the line right there," says Seminole coach Bobby Bowden. "That is where they let Florida State get a foot in the door—and now Florida State is not going to pull the foot out." The Seminoles then went 7-1-1 against the Gators before Florida finally stopped the bleeding this year.
However, if the NCAA's intent was to cripple Miami as it once did Florida, the outcome is less clear. For coach Butch Davis holds a trump card shared only by those recruiting for Alabama, Notre Dame and, perhaps, Southern Cal: the magic of a truly transcendent name. How magical became apparent last year when Davis, hired only eight days before national signing day, promptly snagged 13 prospects and landed the 16th-best recruiting class in the nation, according to Superprep magazine. But the power of Miami's four national titles, not to mention its in-your-face, street-tough image, was never more evident than in the days following last week's sanctions. Recruit after South Florida recruit chimed in with Webster and began seriously thinking about staying home. "They're on my list, but before they weren't," Sedrick Irvin, one of the state's top running back prospects, says of the Hurricanes. "I thought they'd get hit hard like Auburn and Florida did a few years back, but all they lost was a couple of scholarships. And being a little selfish, with only 11 scholarships left, if they get me, they can't afford to get three more running backs."
One key for Miami is that it finished 8-3 this fall with a roster laden with juniors and thus could challenge for the national title next year. The other is that the NCAA seems to have settled on striking surgically at criminal programs with scholarship reductions rather than with TV penalties. Any recruit wanting postseason exposure has no worries—the Hurricanes' bowl penalty ends on New Year's Day. As soon as he heard that, Webster began making the transition from recruit to teammate. "I think we can still be Miami," he says. "I think we're going to show it next year."