It’s hard to quantify what makes a thing charismatic. I recently went to New Orleans for the first time, and before I arrived, I was a little skeptical because often when people can’t shut up about how great something is, the expectation is set so high that anything but perfection is going to be a let down.
I wouldn’t call my visit to New Orleans prefect, yet you can add me to the group of people who overwhelmingly approve of the Crescent City. There are a ton of factors that can lead to likability, and due to a mix of athleticism, talent, dominance, personality, but mostly swagger, Miami created a program that produced players football fans gravitate to.
People liked those national title teams so much that 30 for 30 had to do a Part 2 of the The U documentary. Their cultural upheaval of college football — criticized at the time — is now celebrated for injecting energy, culture, speed, and bravado into the sport.
Ed Reed, Clinton Portis, Vince Wilfork, and Reggie Wayne were all fan favorites. Even guys like Michael Irving, Warren Sapp, and Ray Lewis are still beloved to select fanbases despite off-the-field issues. (This is not a defense of those men; if anything it’s an indictment of how much awful behavior fans are willing to overlook.) Greg Olsen and Jonathan Vilma are both on network TV calling NFL games on Sundays.
There are no doubt people, like Nebraska fans and Florida State alumni, who hate Miami football, but they love to hate them so a small sliver of affection exists. Villains can be likable, too. Ask Heath Ledger or Alan Rickman.
However, the league is currently bereft of Hall of Fame caliber Canes. Who’s the most notable Miami alumni in the NFL right now? Travis Benjamin? Braxton Berrios? Duke Johnson? Allen Hurns? I guess it’s Jimmy Graham, and he’s more known for his basketball career at Miami than the one year he played football and had 17 catches total.
If you’re arguing that the U still influences football at the college and pro levels, the only current evidence is the turnover chain, which was cool until we got a bunch of knockoffs. (The worst was Florida State’s turnover backpack, and the best was SMU’s turnover chalice and crown.) That’s the only trend the Hurricanes have set in a couple decades, and the novelty of your NFL team drafting a player from Miami has subsequently worn off.
That begs asking, what school has claimed the aura that left Coral Gables?
USC was well on its way until Pete Carroll took the Seattle job. Ohio State produces pros, but like Alabama, too many fans view them as evil empires. Associating with Nick Saban is like dousing yourself in bad cologne, as is introducing your school as “THE Ohio State University” during lineup intros on Sunday Night Football.
Clemson’s run of transcendent teams may be coming to an end, and Trevor Lawrence is going to have to turn into a mix of Patrick Mahomes and Tom Brady to negate the damage done by Deshaun Watson.
The team with that cachet, that moxie, that indisputable charisma also has a striped mascot, but it’s none other than LSU. A list containing Joe Burrow, the Honey Badger, Odell Beckham Jr., Ja’Marr Chase, Justin Jefferson, Patrick Peterson, Playoff Lenny, Glenn Dorsey, and Devin White is every bit as impressive as the one Miami had. And there are multiple ex-Tigers repping LSU all over ESPN, including Ryan Clark, Marcus Spears, and Booger McFarland. (Neither Ryen Russillo nor Scott Van Pelt went to LSU, but their affinity for Baton Rouge and their popularity among sports fans probably has a little to do with how much love gets thrown the Bayou’s way.)
While no one is accusing Joe Brrr or OBJ of lacking confidence, I don’t think swagger is the primary reason the purple and gold are so popular. First off, the talent has to be good enough to warrant the attention, and the players who have come out of that program are insane, so check that box. (Side note: When the LSU doc gets greenlit, maybe leave the locker room speeches by Les Miles and Coach O on the cutting room floor.)
The next is national narrative, and as long as the Crimson Tide and Saban are dominating college football to a nauseating degree, people want to see them lose. Don’t underestimate the spitefulness of fans. The Tigers are Bama’s biggest rival, and one of the few programs capable of going five star for five star with them.
It’s also extremely easy to pull for an “underdog” that hails from a state that’s shown a large number of people a great time. Omahans are always disappointed when the Tigers fail to reach the College World Series because they love partying with LSU fans that much. Fans also have a good time when they visit Miami, so maybe the key to winning people over isn’t as mysterious as I proposed. It’s as simple as being really good at football and coming from a school/place that people think of fondly.
Derek Stingley Jr., a cornerback, is the highest rated Tiger heading into the 2022 NFL Draft, with some mocks putting him in the top 10. When a follower of the franchise that drafts him — or any Louisiana State product — sees “LSU” next to the pick, it’ll bring the same lofty expectations and excitement that once came when “Miami” was the school next to the name.
And if these LSU players keep delivering like those all-time Hurricanes, it’ll be a long time before another school takes the Tigers’ charisma crown.