Mira chose Miami more out of convenience than conviction: it is a mere 150 miles on the weekenders' beeline from the Coral Gables campus down U.S. 1 to home, and Key Westers by nature always come home. They are called Conchs (rhymes with honks), after the prevalent tropical shellfish of the same name, but they are really homing pigeons.
Key West is a contented amalgam of Spanish and English peoples coerced into togetherness by geography. The city limits are locked in by water. The 40,000 inhabitants cluster together in narrow streets of white frame houses eave to eave, many of them needing paint. Definitively, Conchs are a charming people whose let-me-mind-your-business manners are put aside for celebrities like those whose names appear on their street signs. President Truman, once a frequent visitor, walked around town unannoyed and practically ignored. He loved it.
Conchs live at three-quarter speed and have at their taste's disposal some of the finer things in life: Spanish limes (they're tangy-sweet), sour-sop ice cream (sweeter), bollos, pronounced boy-yos (they're hot), mollettes, pronounced moy-yettease (they're hotter), green turtle steak, guava duff and Duval Street on Saturday night. The Navy has always made good use of Duval Street, and vice versa. None of these things are available in such a package elsewhere, and they possess unmistakable magnetism. Key Westers who have gone off to live in Miami are known to come back periodically just for a bag of bollos and a dish of sour-sop ice cream.
Similarly, the Conch sports fan is a hopeless provincial whose heroes have never lost a game to an outside team—especially a Miami team—without being subject to trickery, terrible luck or terrible umpiring. Key West's best athletes never seem to stay gone long enough to make it big. But Mira and John (Boog) Powell, Key West High, class of '60, are exceptions. Powell made it with the Orioles, Mira with the University of Miami. Key West was beside itself with pride: two big successes at one time! Powell, however, soon fell from grace. He told Pee Wee Reese on national television that he was really born in Lakeland, Fla. "Good Conchs will never forgive him," predicted Key Wester Williams. "That finished him here. But Georgie, he's home-grown. He's black beans and well water. He's ours."
The trace of an accent in Mira's speech is more Conch than Spanish. The Spanish-English fusion over the years has produced some highly pertinent phraseology: you could say, for example, that George Mira was cocky and quick-tempered as a high schooler, or you could say he had a lot of "py-asso," which is the same thing, only more of it. Py-asso is what everybody agreed George had before he went off to be an All-America, but they adored him nevertheless.
There was never much doubt that George Mira was going to succeed at Miami, although there was some question what he was going to succeed at. For instance, there was a distinct chance that he would be caved in by his 220 pound roommates, Leo Lillimagi, Bob Strieter and Dan Conners. "When he tried to get smart we just laughed at him," said Leo, "and sat on him a little." "You don't get sassy with boys that size, you know," said George.
Flanker Back Spinelli, Mira's favorite pass receiver in 1962 (33 completions) and a young man with py-asso of his own, saw Mira first in the university cafeteria when they were freshmen. "He was at the next table, talking football. Just listening and watching him had me worried. 'What if he's a halfback?' I kept asking myself. I could hardly wait to get out to practice to make sure he wasn't after my position."
It never occurred to Spinelli thereafter that he and George were going to be anything but 1) buddies, 2) first string and 3) great. In scrimmages against the varsity, he says, "we could score anytime we wanted to. 'Whata you say, Nick?' George would tell me in the huddle. 'Let's get one this time.' And bang! he'd hit me with one of those rifle shots and we'd have a touchdown."
On the day of the opening game of the 1961 season with Pittsburgh, nationally televised from the Orange Bowl, Gustafson took sophomore Mira aside and laid it on the line: "It's your club to run, George. You can throw the ball whenever you like. I don't care if you're on the goal line. And don't worry about a thing, George, because you're the greatest." Gustafson says now that if talk like that had gotten out, people who know him as a conservative, no-nonsense coach would have recoiled in horror. Mini's response was to bite away the last trace of a cuticle and to be brilliant. So brilliant, in fact, that when he faked to his fullback and rolled out to pass for Miami's only touchdown, the ABC cameras followed the empty-handed fullback into the end zone. Pittsburgh won the game 10-7 in a second-half rainstorm, but George Mira was successfully launched.
Mira took Gustafson at his word. He told Bill Miller, the All-America end, to shut up in the huddle or he'd run him off the field. "Brownie liked to think he should catch the ball every play," Mira said, "and sometimes he got on my nerves." When Gustafson sent in a fourth-down play against Tulane that Mira found unacceptable—"It was off tackle, and we had them set up for an option pass"—the play was stopped short of a touchdown and Mira was livid. Sputtering Spanish expletives as he came off the field, he told Gustafson, "You busted up my sequence. I was setting up for the option." In the Northwestern game that year, Spinelli heard him tell Backfield Coach Root: "Look, I'm the quarterback. Let me call the plays, will you?"