"Not under Lou Saban," the young man said.
"He's a here-today, gone-tomorrow. He never finishes a job."
At an alumni breakfast at the university, I was pleased to get the chance to hear Coach Saban himself assess the situation. I figured Saban for a realist, not a quitter, although I knew he had presented a moving target over the years. It was only his second year at Miami, but it was his 10th coaching job.
His talk was nothing if not realistic. He seemed to have been influenced by the same prose stylist who inspired the writer of the Sunday magazine article. He told us the football team's attempts to regain respectability were like trying to climb a mountain and "when you get to the top of the ledge with your fingers, someone is on top stepping on your hands and saying, 'You're not quite ready yet.' "
Listening, I experienced a sudden fatigue, as one might who has been climbing mountains and rolling stones. I wondered how long Saban would stand getting his fingers mashed, and mentally compared him with the football coach Miami had when I was in school, the late Andy Gustafson. Gus had come down from West Point to give Miami its best teams in the '50s and early '60s and had sunk his roots. Even when he had an occasional loser and was under fire, he never threatened to pull out.
Saban also showed up for the barbecue-pep rally on the student union patio. There he sounded more hopeful, I was pleased to note. Although the barbecued chicken ran out, the soft night air began to fill with the unmistakable aroma of optimism. Fortified to cheer, we moved down the patio toward the student lake, and just before the rally started I bumped into a former classmate whose name I miraculously remembered. He had retained most of his hair but none of his waistline and said he was "into plastics." Apparently plastics were a springboard to affluence, because he said he was now a regular contributor to the university and returned every year for Homecoming.
I told him the old school looked pretty prosperous, too; that in driving around I had gotten disoriented a number of times, what with all the new buildings. He said yes, but did I know you could get high on the pot fumes just walking through some of the dorms? I said you hear that at every campus you go to. It was the signature of the generation.
He said yes, but did I know that a delivery girl bringing pizza to students in a dorm room late one recent night got "assaulted"? I said the old school looked pretty cozy and safe to me. He said yes, but did I know what lengths they had to go to? "We've got an after-dark escort service now to get girls across the campus safely." I told him that was a sure sign that chivalry was not dead, and I moved away under the pretense of finding a lost child.
The Miami publicist called the homecoming game with San Diego State a match of "two ships passing in the night." They almost passed unnoticed. Only 17,000 people showed up for the game, making a puny impression on the massive Orange Bowl. I was determined to have a good time anyway, and almost succeeded. The alumni had set up an open bar on the 50-yard line beforehand, and those of us in Iron Arrow—a men's honor society distinguished by its Seminole Indian jackets—were a highly enthusiastic group by the time we made our "traditional tunnel" for the players to run through as they came onto the field. But as we made our way back to our seats, a fellow tribesman told me we had to "stick together" through all this.