The biggest championship game in sports is taking place in a city where most of the sports teams are going through historically bad stretches.
MIAMI – As a kid growing up in South Florida, Mike Lowell lived for football weekends.
Saturdays meant the University of Miami Hurricanes were playing — and usually winning — and Sundays meant Dan Marino was airing it out for the Miami Dolphins.
“Think about this: I never saw the Hurricanes lose at home,” said Lowell, referring to UM’s 58-game winning streak at the Orange Bowl that stretched from 1985 to 1994.
Times have changed, though, and now Lowell can’t even keep his 15-year-old son interested in any of Miami’s sports teams. Lowell won a World Series as a third baseman for the Miami Marlins, but it was his time up north, when he was the World Series MVP for the Boston Red Sox, that turned his son into a fan of Tom Brady and the New England Patriots.
And that, Lowell said, is killing him.
“It tears at your heart because you’re thinking, ‘No, it’s gotta be ’Canes and Dolphins,’” Lowell said. “The fact that you can’t pass on that kind of excitement to your kids, it hurts.”
Such is the state of Miami sports fans as Super Bowl LIV comes to town. The biggest championship game in sports is taking place in a city where most of the sports teams are going through historically bad stretches.
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The Dolphins haven’t won a playoff game in two decades. The team has started 21 quarterbacks since Marino retired and is still searching for the answer, resorting to 37-year-old journeyman Ryan Fitzpatrick this past season.
“It’s been miserable for a while,” said former Dolphins and Hurricanes coach Jimmy Johnson, who was recently elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
The Hurricanes have fallen ever further. The ’Canes were consistently a national championship contender from the 1980s into the 2000s. They won five national championships, the last of which came in 2001 with a roster that produced 17 first-round draft picks and 38 players drafted overall, including Ed Reed, Sean Taylor, Vince Wilfork, Andre Johnson, Frank Gore, Jeremy Shockey and quite a few others.
But ever since, the ’Canes have plummeted to the point of irrelevance on the national stage. They have lost nine of their past 10 bowl games, endured two losing seasons and finished this past one with a 6-7 record and a 14-0 loss to Louisiana Tech, a team that’s been ranked only twice in its 39-year history.
“I found myself the other night rooting for LSU, and I didn’t even feel bad about it,” said Antrel Rolle, a member of that 2001 Hurricanes squad, referring to this season’s national championship game. “There’s no way in hell I would’ve even considered doing that before. If you were in Miami and weren’t a Miami fan, you were going to get your ass run out of town. But now? Kids don’t even want to go to the U.”
The Florida Panthers have fared no better. After 26 seasons in South Florida, their lone claim to fame remains their plastic rat-laden appearance in the NHL Stanley Cup Finals in 1996.
Even soccer fans in Miami are in a tough spot. The city was awarded an MLS franchise led by David Beckham, but the team – Inter Miami – hasn’t been able to secure a permanent site for its stadium, forcing it to kick off its inaugural season in March at a temporary facility in Fort Lauderdale.
And then there’s the Marlins.
Jimmy Johnson refused to talk about them. Same for Marino.
“We’re not gonna talk about the fish,” said Rick Gonzalez, 43, a Miami sports fan. “It’s painful.”
Despite winning the World Series in 1997 and 2003, the Marlins have proved to be the most infuriating of South Florida’s sports teams. Part of that is because of their poor performance in recent years – only four winning records since their last title. But mostly, fans cite the repeated fire sales they’ve had to endure.
The team was broken up after winning the World Series in 1997, trading away Gary Sheffield, Bobby Bonilla and others the following year. The team was broken up again after the 2003 World Series, trading away Lowell, Josh Beckett, and future MVP and Triple Crown winner Miguel Cabrera.
The Marlins gutted their roster again shortly after moving into Marlins Park in 2012. And they gutted it again after the team was sold to a group led by Derek Jeter, that time trading away two of the past three National League MVPs: Giancarlo Stanton and Christian Yelich.
“It’s hard for young fans to want to go buy a jersey and follow someone because they know he’s not going to be there in a few years,” Lowell said. “It’s been tough.”
Miami sports fans say they have three reasons for hope right now.
The first is the Heat. Dwyane Wade led them to an NBA title in 2006 and then two more during the “Big Three” era with Wade, LeBron James and Chris Bosh. After fading for a couple of seasons following the breakup of that group, team president Pat Riley has put together a new core of players that already has the Heat back in second place in the Eastern Conference.
“For right now, it’s all Heat all the time,” said Nick Anfuso, 22, who works at Hard Rock Stadium, where the Dolphins play, but was attending a Heat game last week.
The second reason for optimism is that South Florida remains a hotbed for high school football talent. There are eight divisions for high school football in Florida, and teams from South Florida won seven state championships in 2019.
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Randal “Thrill” Hill, a former receiver for the Hurricanes and Dolphins, said the success of pro and college teams might ebb and flow, but the young talent remains throughout Miami.
“There was a coach in the NFL who would tell me, ‘You give me the skill position players out of South Florida … and I’ll kick anybody’s butt,’” Hill said.
The final source of joy for South Florida fans? A Super Bowl without Tom Brady, who has plagued his AFC East Division rival for nearly 20 years.
“I’m so happy,” said Mason Taylor, a 13-year-old Miami fan. “I do not like him. He’s been there too long.”
Or, as Anfuso put it: “It’s like Christmas. It just feels so good.”
Contributing: Jarrett Bell, Sandy Hooper