I am convinced that homecomings are mostly positive expressions, and though I harbor minor reservations, I do not share the skepticism of the Miami sophomore I happened upon who likened the one we attended (separately) to a brush with Zen Buddhism. He found it interesting, he said, but of no particular meaning. Most of my experiences with the ritual have come while traveling to colleges other than my own. The prospect of going back and reexperiencing one at the University of Miami sent my mind into a kind of vertical roll, so removed was I. I had been busy Making A Career, even as an undergraduate, and had not developed as a homecomer. I suspected that if you were not a perennial and had been pushed to catch up overnight, like an artificially ripened tomato, a Homecoming could be a bad trip. Most of all, I thought I would feel like an intruder. This turned out to be an unfounded fear. I did not feel like an intruder at my Homecoming. I felt intruded upon.
Early in the week I took a ride through the campus to see the house decorations (the Hurricanes were up against a team called the Aztecs; there seemed to be a number of unusual acts you could perform on Aztecs) and lunched, by happenstance, with a professor I had not seen in 15 years. I remembered his having lisped when he really got into a subject. I told him that the campus seemed quite pleasant and bustling and I was having a good time already.
"Not after you read this," he said, and pushed a copy of a Sunday magazine section story under my nose. Under a splashy headline that said THE BIGGEST AND BEST UNIVERSITY IN ALL OF CORAL GABLES WANTS YOU TO THINK OF IT AS THE CORNELL OF THE SOUTH, the writer resurrected the clich�d specter of "Suntan U." She said that Miami's legendary position as a "party school" was intact, and that its image was "burnished only by the sun." She paid grudging tribute to the fact that the Miami medical school was so good it had to turn away 90% of its applicants, and the law school 80%, but in total the "gentlemen and gentlewomen" of the university were, like "the ancient Sisyphus, doomed to roll the stone up the mountain, the stone that keeps falling back."
My professor friend looked like a man who had been rolling stones all day. What bothered him most of all, he said, was the hoary appellation "Suntan U." He said The Saturday Evening Post had used the line 30 years ago, "and it wasn't so funny then, either." I consoled him that the image never bothered me, that I had more confidence in my education than that. Besides, what did he think college kids do with their spare time, anyway? "You think they ignore the ski slopes in Colorado? The beer halls in New Haven?" He shook his head sullenly. "Thuntan U," he muttered. I was glad to get out and let him pay the check.
The Homecoming parade had more people in it than watching it. One sponsoring group, the school of engineering and architecture, had to hand-carry its decorations up Ponce de Leon Boulevard and down Miracle Mile because somebody stole the float bed. But I had my kids along, and parades are always good when you've got kids to explain the fine points. Happily, I ran into George Mira, Miami's alltime quarterback. George's figure had settled some, but he still looked as if he could throw a football through a wall. I was pleased to learn his pizza-parlor business was thriving.
When Mira moved off to find the float he was supposed to ride, a man in his 20s, who had been eavesdropping, volunteered the opinion that Miami's teams had never been as exciting as they were when Mira was firing away in the '60s. The young man had the despairing face of someone trained not to cry under punishment, and who had had many chances to practice. "We used to fill the Orange Bowl," he said. "Now we're lucky to get 20,000." He said it was hopeless, what with the insatiable Dolphins usurping Miami's fans.
I told him he had to have more faith in college football than that; that it was an infinitely better game and that all it would take would be a big victory or two. He said yeah, "but over whom? We play all the good teams on the road and get waxed, and we get to 'come home' to see San Diego State."
I said not to worry about attendance, that other big-city schools—Pittsburgh, USC—had turned their programs around despite the pro menace, and Miami would, too.