Off the Gridiron and into the Courtroom: Arkansas State takes on Miami
After months of back-and-forth, Arkansas State is threatening to sue the University of Miami over a canceled football game.
On September 10, 2017, Hurricane Irma rumbled into Florida and caused $32 billion to $50 billion in insured losses and resulted in the deaths of 75 people. Hardest hit, the poor and the elderly, many of whom went without power and air conditioning for several days. The storm was a disaster, altering lives and livelihood, and the nation prayed for its safety and mourned for its losses.
Arkansans were among those whose thoughts and prayers went out to Floridians. After all, we know something about cataclysmic storms: Arkansas averages 38 tornadoes per year. The heartless whims of Mother Nature are not lost on the people of Jonesboro, Arkansas, who still talk about the F4 tornado that killed 50 on March 21, 1952.
Among all the casualties Irma inflicted upon the nation are a handful of college football games. Miami was first to pull the plug, canceling its game in Jonesboro against Arkansas State. University of Florida canceled its home game with Northern Colorado, Florida State did the same with ULM. At the last moment, UCF nixed its conference game with Memphis (with the team finding out while exiting the plane at Memphis International).
But Florida Atlantic made the trip to Madison to honor its obligation with Wisconsin. Later in the year, Florida State made-up its game with ULM, as did UCF and Memphis. Florida elected to pay the $625,000 buyout with Northern Colorado, per it’s contract.
That left unfinished business between the University of Miami and Arkansas State.
“We are excited to add a home-and-home series with a program that possesses, in my opinion, a top-10 national brand.”
Everything started with so much excitement.
In 2013, Arkansas State announced something unheard of: a home-and-home with a Power Five program. The Red Wolves would agree to drop into Miami in 2014, and the Hurricanes would blow into Jonesboro in 2017. Arkansas State Athletic Director Terry Mohajir was pumped.
“As our brand continues to emerge, we will keep trying to schedule home games in Jonesboro against the top teams in the country,” said Mohajir, who would also schedule Missouri for a home-and-home, too.
When the contract was signed, the Hurricanes were coming off a 7-5 season under Al Golden. The year before, 6-6. In fact, Miami was no longer a national contender, routinely turning in .500 seasons while trying to find its footing in the ACC. In 2012, the Hurricanes hired Blake James as AD, who was tasked to make the Hurricanes contenders again.
To rebuild the program, the Hurricanes were willing to take their brand to unorthodox places. In 2015, Miami visited Cincinnati, and lost. In 2016, the Hurricanes visited Appalachian State and left Boone with the win. By then, Al Golden was long gone, replaced by Mark Richt, a huge hire that immediately elevated the Hurricanes to its former glory.
When the 2017 season opened, the Hurricanes was a Top 20 program with national title aspirations. Some wondered if a trip to Jonesboro was an unfortunate and unnecessary risk – a trap game. But the game was under contract. It had to be played. Right?
“Arkansas State’s AD Needs To Stop Talking”
Hurricane Irma made a mess of everything.
The Red Wolves opened the season with an entertaining loss to Nebraska in Lincoln, giving Arkansas State fans a reason to believe that a good game was to be had when Miami visited Jonesboro. The athletic department anticipated a sold-out Centennial Bank Stadium, and the Delta town of 75,000 souls was eagerly anticipating the economic bump associated with such a rare occasion.
But a storm was brewing, literally, in the Gulf of Mexico: a category 5 monster named Irma. On September 4, the Monday before game day, nobody was sure where the hurricane would hit land or how strong it might be. Weather watchers breathlessly announced it would be the most powerful storm in decades. By Tuesday, rumors were swirling that Arkansas State vs Miami would be canceled.
On Wednesday, the game was canceled, announced by the Miami Herald at 8:23 a.m. with this headline: “Miami Hurricanes Cancel Game in Arkansas Due to Irma. Next Stop: Tallahassee.” The Florida State Seminoles were ranked #10. In the article, Miami AD Blake James made a statement:
“The decision to cancel these athletic contests is difficult, especially as some are scheduled to take place away from Miami. However, we made the collective decision that we simply cannot put our student-athletes, coaches and staff in danger traveling to and from contests.”
The article revealed that Arkansas State AD Terry Mohajir had made concessions to keep the game on the schedule, including moving the game to Friday. Miami declined.
By the afternoon, the mood between the two programs became as volatile as the weather. Arkansas State fans felt that Miami, who was first of the Florida programs to cancel its weekend game, was ducking the Red Wolves, and the hurricane was a dramatic excuse. If the state of Florida was evacuating, went the argument, then why not evacuate the team to Arkansas? Mohajir, who even offered to pay Miami’s chartered airfare to Memphis, was clearly frustrated with Miami’s lack of enthusiasm.
“Over the past 24 hours I had numerous exchanges with University of Miami Athletics Director Blake James, offering to make additional accommodations for his players and program to assist them with their trip to Memphis and Jonesboro, This morning I spoke with Blake (James), who informed me their team will not be making the trip to Jonesboro to play in our game this Saturday.”
Was Mohajir coming in too hot? Of course. He’s Terry “Bleeping” Mohajir, the former A-State football player who famously wears his heart on his sleeve. To understand Mohajir’s agitation is to adopt his perspective. To Miami, the game in Jonesboro was a inconvenience even before Irma. The Hurricanes were making a long trip for a short gain, playing an opponent with whom they had no history or passion. But for Mohajir, the game with Miami was a promise kept to his beloved program, to the city of Jonesboro, to the students, players, and to the fans. The University of Miami could shrug its shoulders at the cancelation because it was Mohajir and Arkansas State left holding the bag.
Later that afternoon, the Miami Herald responded with an unhelpful lecture under the heading “Arkansas State’s AD Needs Stop Talking.” The article’s author called Mohajir “tone deaf.” While football was certainly the least of Florida’s worries, the Miami Herald failed to acknowledge the Hurricanes’ complete lack of effort to compensate Arkansas State, who had already fulfilled its end of the contract. There were no discussion of moving the game to a more convenient date – and certainly no promise to to pay the agreed-upon cancelation fee of $650,000. It seemed that Miami was simply wanting Arkansas State to just go away.
Arkansas State fans and officials weren’t the only ones grousing. ESPN’s Brett McMurphy pointed out that Miami could find a way to reschedule the game, prompting Miami defensive coordinator Manny Diaz to go on the defensive. Former head coach Rick Neuheisel, in an interview with ESPNU Radio, called it “suspicious” that Miami is not willing to play the game.
Was this criticism unfair? Of course it was. The state of Florida had become a literal state of emergency. In that situation, there are no perfect decisions. Eventually, even Hurricanes head coach Mark Richt felt compelled to defend his program and honor, issuing this tweet:
Later, Richt elaborated further, implying that playing the game earlier in the week, well before the hurricane hit, would have hurt team preparation while putting undue stress on his family.
“Could we have snuck out just in time to play that game? We could have, logistically, but in the meantime, if you’re a coach and you’re putting in 12-hour days and the time that it takes to prepare for a game like that, to show the respect that you need to show to that game, then who’s helping your wife get things done?”
Richt makes a good point, and many Arkansas State fans agreed: how could anyone possibly play football when his mind is on his getting his family out of harm’s way? Irma came and went, leaving behind her mayhem and destruction. With heated words put aside, Florida was left to recover.
Surely, the adults could find a way to make good for everyone.
“As a result of Miami choosing not to appear…”
Arkansas State wasn’t really interested in the $650,000 cancellation fee. The Red Wolves just wanted the game. At the end of 2017, Mohajir again beseeched Blake James for a reasonable reschedule date, and Arkansas State University president Kelly Damphousse reached out to Miami president Julio Frenk seeking an agreeable compromise. James responded that the Hurricanes couldn’t accommodate Arkansas State until at least 2024.
Confounded by Miami’s response, Mohajir consulted with a scheduling service and learned that the Hurricanes had openings in 2020 and 2021. Yet, Miami would not budge. Every FBS program affected by Hurricane Irma rescheduled their canceled games in a timely manner, or (in the case of University of Florida) paid the cancelation fee without complaint. The University of Miami was the lone exception.
Payment of the $650,000 cancellation fee, which was agreed to by both parties when the contract was signed, is due to Arkansas State on February 15. According to Arkansas State’s legal counsel, Brad Phelps, Miami’s legal counsel, James Rowlee, has indicated that the University of Miami has no intentions to pay the fee.
That’s the crux of it, really. Hurricane fans want Arkansas State to put football aside and respect that the city is recovering from a devastating storm. That’s understandable. But the University of Miami appears to have copped an attitude, flippantly telling Arkansas State to wait seven years to make good its end of the bargain. Know your role, Arkansas State.
And that’s how the University of Miami and Arkansas State University will likely wind up in the courtroom instead of on the gridiron. And it’s just too bad. The University of Miami will use the tragedy of Irma as an excuse to shirk its obligation, even as fellow Florida programs equal to its stature honored their terms. Meanwhile, Arkansas State will appear small and petty squabbling for cash (and respect) as a city recovers from natural disaster. It’s all so gross.
Games determine winners. In courtrooms, there are only losers.
A former notary public, Jeremy Harper is a professional writer and Chief Instigator for Storm the Castle Creative. He spends much of his free time staring blankly into space.