|A year after the brawl, FIU and Miami say it won't happen again|
|Written by Admin|
|Wednesday, 12 September 2007 10:42|
CORAL GABLES, Fla. (AP) -Nearly a year later, Chris Smith still wonders how it happened.|
The former Florida International player doesn't know why he threw Miami's Matt Perrelli to the turf and punched him to help spark one of the worst on-field brawls in college football history. Or why dozens of others starting fighting as well. Or why some swung helmets and crutches as weapons.
Smith watched the replays that night in his room in sheer disbelief, then looked at the ceiling and sobbed. He spent the rest of the weekend in solitude, trying to figure what went wrong. He's still pondering that one.
``I remember thinking it would be a slight confrontation,'' said Smith, whose college career ended that night; he was kicked off FIU's team two days later. ``And before I knew it, everything just happened. I was like, whoa! This thing got way out of hand.''
In all, 31 players - 18 from FIU, 13 from Miami - were sanctioned for the fight, which marred the first meeting between the programs separated by 9 miles in South Florida. Most of those 31 players will be in uniform Saturday, when the teams meet again at the Orange Bowl.
Both teams have made the same vow: Another fight cannot, and will not, happen.
``Nobody thought last year would be that type of deal,'' Miami coach Randy Shannon said. ``But it was.''
If this were a regular week, the storylines would be easy.
FIU's first-year coach Mario Cristobal is facing his alma mater, a school where he coached until last December. Shannon will see his son, Xavier, starting on FIU's offensive line. Miami safety Kenny Phillips' brother Jarvis Wilson plays at FIU.
Of course, all those are overshadowed by the events of Oct. 14.
``It's like a forest fire,'' Miami athletic director Paul Dee said. ``You never plan on it. ... And it starts in a flash.''
That night started, oddly enough, with some sportsmanship: Miami and FIU's bands congregated at midfield and played ``America the Beautiful.''
But the problems were already starting.
The Hurricanes said an FIU player deliberately ran into a Miami player during warmups. There were plenty of hits after the whistle as the night went along, with some of those labeled by both sides as cheap shots. Verbal taunting was a constant.
``Usually when it gets to that point, refs step in and stop it,'' Smith said. ``But it happened so fast, it probably caught them off-guard too.''
With 9 minutes left in the third quarter, as Smith said, ``the coffee pot started overflowing.''
Miami's Kyle Wright threw a touchdown pass to James Bryant, who pointed at the FIU sideline as he scored and took a theatrical bow toward the stands. FIU players reacted angrily, and after Jon Peattie kicked the extra point, the fight was on.
``There was a lot of extra stuff going on that really nobody wants to talk about, a lot of stuff that's between the whistles that's not caught on all the cameras,'' Smith said. ``I'm not pointing any fingers. It takes two to tango. But enough was enough. He took that bow and it was very disrespectful.''
Smith attacked Perrelli, Miami's holder who was then kicked in the head by McDuffie - who is still an FIU student. He politely declined an interview request, only saying he wants to put the situation behind him.
The fracas escalated quickly; even Miami's chaplain was struck during the melee.
``It was awful,'' Miami defensive end Calais Campbell said. ``We're out here to play football. We're not here to fight. I didn't really know what was happening at first. And when I saw one of my teammates about to get hit, I got in the way and pulled somebody back. I just wanted it to end.''
Officials from both schools acknowledge the fight was a concern leading up to the game. Many Miami and FIU players were high school rivals and both teams have rosters largely filled by South Florida natives who've competed against each other for years.
``Sometimes when we play teams that have players on the team who want to be at a certain school, that can happen,'' Randy Shannon said. ``I think that's what happened last year. Our players will be better prepared for it this year and I think coach Cristobal will do a good job of making them understand. He'll handle it and we will, too. We'll all do a better job.''
Suspensions came the next day. Former Miami player Lamar Thomas, a TV analyst on the game, was fired by Comcast Sports SouthEast for comments he made, including ``You come into our house, you should get your behind kicked.'' The fight may have helped prompt coaching changes.
FIU coach Don Strock - the only coach in the program's five-year history - resigned about a month later. Miami's Larry Coker was fired after a 6-6 regular season, but has said if the brawl never took place, he believes he'd still be coaching the Hurricanes.
``Looking back, the series was a mistake. But at first, I thought it would be great,'' Coker recently told The AP. ``It was another home game for us and a good series for FIU from the standpoint of their credibility and giving their families a chance to see a game. I thought it was a good move. As it turned out, it was terrible.''
There was some talk about postponing or canceling this season's game amid the fallout from the brawl. But many support the decision to play.
``If we can't play a clean collegiate football game between two schools 9 miles apart,'' FIU athletic director Pete Garcia said, ``then shame on us.''
Smith won't be there Saturday, saying he has no interest in reliving the bad memories.
His football career isn't over; he was in camp with the Philadelphia Eagles this summer and he said there are other NFL teams interested in him. For now, he's back at FIU, taking the last few classes he needs to finish his criminal justice degree.
``It was a terrible thing,'' Smith said. ``But we move on.''
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