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August 31, 2004

Kutz: FSU, Miami discuss contingency plans

Puerto Rican businessmen and homeowners spent this past Monday hanging metal storm shutters to protect their interests from powerful Category 3 Hurricane Frances, which was expected to scrape their coast Tuesday. Less fortunate islanders gathered children and hoofed it to higher ground and into crowding community shelters.

Meanwhile, hundreds of miles to the northwest, University of Miami athletics director Paul Dee, Florida State University athletics director Dave Hart, and representatives from the Atlantic Coast Conference and American Broadcasting Company were huddling to discuss contingencies of their own. What will the college football world do if Frances, who is packing 125 mile per hour winds, maintains her collision course with the southern peninsula of Florida? What will become of their showcased inaugural kickoff of the newly expanded Atlantic Coast Conference?

The first scenario is real life. The other is reality TV.

You know Florida is a football state when residents are more focused on the game than the hurricane; when they scurry for game tickets rather than storm shutters and stock up on tailgate supplies rather than clean drinking water and first-aid kits.

How quickly some forget Hurricane Andrew, which decimated Miami on August 24, 1992 as it killed 26 people and caused an estimated $26.5 billion in damage. Anyone remember Charley, which just two weeks ago flattened a swath of central Florida valued at an estimated $7.4 billion and killed 27 people?

But as far as college football fans are concerned, the show must go on, no matter the cost. So, athletics directors met with the conference and the television executives to discuss contingencies, which could include hanging metal storm shutters on college football for a weekend if Frances passes Miami way.

By the time you read this Frances may have veered off course or blown herself out -- let's hope so -- but we thought you might like to have an inside look, from Dave Hart's vantage point, at how decisions like these are made.

"This is something we are accustomed to because we live in an area where that is not an infrequent occurrence," Hart said. "It is not the first time we have started the week by opening lines of communication with our opponent, our conference commissioner, and our television partner. We have a routine in that communication.

"In everyone's mind, we all want to go to great lengths to put no one in harm's way and certainly that's how the conversations began this morning."

With the unpredictable and intensifying storm still far out to sea, hurricane experts warned that it was still premature Monday to make a decision about postponing the game or moving the venue. Stephen Baig, an oceanographer at the U.S. National Hurricane Center in Miami, said different forecasts put the storm anywhere from Cuba to the Carolinas by the end of the week.

If the experts can't predict where the storm is headed, or when it will arrive, how can a room full of athletic types know where or when to play a danged football game?

One model has it making landfall in Miami on the Saturday before the game. Another has it crashing ashore in Fort Pierce on Saturday, which means it could roll through Tallahassee about game time Monday. Since it was pointlessly premature to discuss moving the time, or location, the group spent Monday charting the possible what-if scenarios and pledged to continue the dialogue every 24 hours as the storm set its unpredictable course.

"It would be at least 48 hours, midweek at least, Thursday probably, before we have a good sense of the path of the hurricane, but those conversations began (Monday) morning," Hart said. "Paul Dee, John Swofford and I will talk again and it will be a daily routine as we continue to get experts' opinions on where the hurricane may be headed."

The group discussed every option available should the storm strike Florida.

"We both have an open date the following week but clearly it would not be played on the same type of national stage as television is already slotting games for that particular week," Hart said. "It's premature to say that would be the option but that is one we would take a very, very hard look at."

If a Category 3 or, God forbid, Category 4 hurricane should make landfall as some models project on Saturday, Sept. 4, the City of Miami would be in no shape, physically or emotionally, to host a college football game on Sept. 6 or even the following weekend.

We saw the aftermath of Andrew. For months, hotels were packed with rescue workers and displaced citizens. Traffic lights were down. Rather than directing stadium traffic, police were called to rescue victims and stop looters. Many of our readers in central Florida who experienced the wrath of Charley are just now getting power restored to their homes and focusing on higher level needs.

"You get into all types of circumstances and potential events that could occur," Hart said. "I remember a few years ago (1998), the University of Southern California was coming here with a pretty serious threat of a hurricane (Georges). They literally called us from the airport with their football team at the airport wondering if they should get on the plane. That's how far down the road we were. It turned out to be a pretty day for football in Tallahassee and we played the game."

That same weekend, Miami decided to postpone its game with UCLA until December, at which time the Hurricanes defeated the highly-ranked Bruins, thrusting the Seminoles into a national title game against Tennessee in the Fiesta.

"Miami is in a totally different situation by having experienced the tragedy of the aftermath of Andrew, so I have always been very respectful because I do not think you can walk in those shoes unless you have experienced something like that," Hart said. "Miami postponed that game and it was the right thing to do given the memory of the destruction of Andrew. That storm veered away from Miami and they ended up having a pretty weekend but they still made the right call."

Given those factors, you would think the discussion would turn toward postponing the game until November when the two teams share another week off. Unfortunately, that weekend comes immediately after FSU plays Florida and immediately before Miami plays Virginia Tech.

"I would be opposed to that," Hart said flatly. "In putting this game together I felt very strongly that we need to play Miami early and (the Hurricanes) agree with that. They are in the same posture we are. It would go completely against the grain of that desire and strategy. I simply would not be crazy about an option that would have us playing Florida and then Miami. If that was the only alternative, at the end of a lot of long discussion, I would be opposed… But, again, it is premature. If we are in a scenario where we would have to reschedule then I believe we should play it as soon as we can."

FSU, which has a senior-dominated offense, would benefit from playing this game early in the season. Miami's coaches, who must replace four 3-year starters on defense, would probably prefer to wait until November.

Of course the most selfish scenario, from a Seminole standpoint, is to move the game to Tallahassee this year, with a return game to Miami next year.

"I'd vote for that," Hart said, with a selfish laugh. "In all seriousness, we will talk about every scenario. And even though I have argued my strong desire not to play at the end of the year, nothing is off the table. Out of courtesy to potential victims in that path, we will discuss every potential alternative including moving the game to Tallahassee, as strange as that may seem to some people."

Depending on the path of the storm, one could argue that moving the game to Tallahassee, either for the existing Monday night game or for the following Saturday, could make sense. You would also expect the ACC and ABC to be all in favor of kicking off the inaugural game in the expanded Atlantic Coast Conference between Florida State and Miami on the largest national stage possible, whether that be in Miami or in Tallahassee.

"That depends on the path of the hurricane," Hart said. "That would be one option television will want to discuss. But again, given the unpredictability of hurricanes, who knows? Everyone thought for certain Tampa was going to take the brunt of Charley but at the very last minute, Tampa was spared but someone else suffered the tragedy and the wrath of Charley. If the hurricane's path is headed anywhere in the direction of Florida, even moving the game from South Florida to North Florida, at this point, would be a tenuous decision."

As this plot unfolds, you probably wonder who is holding the cards. Is it the television moguls or the conference office?

"The home team," Hart said. "I go back to my Southern California example. That was totally the decision of the home team, which happened to be us. In this instance, the final decision will be Miami's."

Could the ACC influence Miami's hand? Will ABC flex its muscle?

"I do not think anyone can and that is as it should be," Hart said. "We have had one discussion and will have more in the days to come. While all parties concerned give input and share concerns and potential resolutions, at the end of the day, Miami, as the home team, would have to have authority to make the decision and I do not think there would be any pressure brought to bear by the ACC, certainly not by us, and not by ABC.

"In a best-case scenario, ABC and the ACC would like Miami to make a decision that is not premature, but without a doubt, the most important thing is to keep people out of harm's way.

"It is going to be very interesting these next couple of days."

The next couple of days will be interesting for the Seminoles, who await their date with the Hurricanes, but let's give thanks that they will be nowhere near as interesting as for those who await their fate with the real deal.

Senior columnist Jerry Kutz has covered the Seminoles for more than 20 years.

Special note: This column was originally printed in the Osceola, an independent weekly covering Florida State athletics. Now entering its 23rd year as the only newspaper dedicated to full-time coverage of FSU athletics, the Osceola is available both on-line and in print. Call 1-800-725-4321 for subscription information or visit the
Osceola Store.


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