How Miami vs. Florida State Rivalry Introduced Swagger to College Football
Swagger has been around since Blackbeard ruled the high seas, but it wasn't until the late 1980s that it was introduced to the American sports lexicon.
We can thank the Florida State-Miami (Fla.) college football rivalry for that.
With these schools meeting Saturday night in the biggest matchup of their annual series in a decade, it's worth revisiting how much the sport's image today owes to the exploits and antics of past Hurricanes and Seminoles.
Individuals in sports had shown varying levels of swagger before then, bringing their own forms of cockiness and self-assured demeanor to their games and playing fields.
But FSU and Miami transformed the concept of swagger; more than just an action, it became a state of mind.
At a time when the college game was still more about the teams and schools than the players—when the status quo was nameless, faceless helmeted soldiers from Midwestern schools like Oklahoma and Nebraska—individual FSU and Miami players went out of their way to stand out.
Not just on the field, but in everything they said and did away from it.
"We were the Alis of that era," said former Miami defensive back Bennie Blades in the ESPN documentary The U. "Not only are we gonna beat you up, we're gonna talk to you while we're beating you up."
Miami started up the swagger machine in the early 1980s when, under Howard Schnellenberger, the program grew from an independent doormat into a national power. With a roster chock-full of passionate athletes from many of South Florida's worst neighborhoods, those 'Canes teams became known as much for their physical attributes as their crass, often in-your-face demeanor.
The ESPN documentary The U goes into great detail on Miami's evolution to the top of the college football world and how it used all means necessary to stay there, even as the coaches kept leaving for the allure of the pro game.
Miami's refusal to shake the hands of the Oklahoma captains during the coin toss before the 1988 Orange Bowl was one of many examples where the Hurricanes talked the talk that accompanied the walking of the walk.
But that air of superiority still felt like an anomaly, a fad, until Florida State upped the ante with the epitome of swagger: a rap video.
The video came out shortly before the 1988 season opener between FSU and Miami, a game pitting the preseason No. 1 team (FSU) against the defending national champion Hurricanes.
Miami's players were in shock at the video, for a variety of reasons.
"That's what pissed us off: Florida State was just being us. We were probably a little upset they beat us to it," said former Miami defensive lineman Leon Searcy in The U.
Despite the hype Florida State tossed out ahead of time, Miami won that game 31-0, and for the next 15 years nearly every FSU-Miami meeting was a showcase of swagger and confidence.
Florida State's Deion "Prime Time" Sanders was a central figure in the swagger sweepstakes, showing off his gold chains and Jheri curl hairstyle as well as popularizing high-stepping into the end zone. The self-given nickname was part of Sanders' branding of his image, a perfect example of the level of cocksure bravado that oozed from FSU and Miami.
But it wasn't just the players. The coaches, too, had a level of swagger that transcended above the staunch, rigid demeanors of college football legends Bear Bryant, Joe Paterno and Tom Osborne. They had just as much personality as their players, especially Miami's Jimmy Johnson and longtime FSU coach Bobby Bowden.
Johnson stood out with his perfect hair and deadpan cockiness, and Bowden's "dad gummit!" hokiness was infused with superiority. They played to the cameras and the fans just as the players did, and you could tell they loved every moment of it.
As the years went on, Miami changed coaches every few years and kept hopping in and out of NCAA hot water, while FSU stood pat with Bowden at the helm. Miami was the team of the '80s, but Florida State dominated the 1990s both in terms of the series and national prominence.
They've continued to play each year, and the games have usually been close and still full of swagger, but that mindset has taken over the entire game of college football, making Miami and FSU just part of the collective rather than the trendsetters they were 25 years ago.
Saturday's meeting between Miami and Florida State is the first in which both teams are ranked in the Top 10 since 2004 and the first time both schools enter unbeaten (other than in season openers) since 2003. While swagger is now a staple of college football, these schools still lay claim to its genesis.
And the smack talk is still there, even extending to student newspapers. An editorial of sorts in Florida State's FSView described Saturday's game this way:
"The program that claimed to have invented swagger now faces the team who seems to have perfected it."
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