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Original Issue


IN THIS neighborhood the quickest way to become a big name is
with a gun or a football. Nathaniel Webster made his choice long
ago. Vicious only at play, Webster, a linebacker at Northwestern
High, may well be the best tackler in South Florida's gold mine
of schoolboy talent, and that is enough to ensure him a
scholarship somewhere. Still, Miami's Liberty City force-feeds
an 18-year-old a diet no one should know: guns popping in the
night, drive-by shootings, wild car chases, thieves. Six weeks
ago Webster's four-year-old nephew died in a car wreck around
the corner, and two weeks after that two friends crashed and
died. His father works days, his mother nights, and Webster has
that corny pro football dream. He wants to get them out.

"Once I make it,'' says Webster, "I don't want my mother to work
again in her life, or my father, because they've been working
for years, and they've been through a lot. I always want to know
her favorite car because that's what I keep telling her I'll get
her: a car, a house. I tell her that when I make it, she'll have
anything she wants."

For the six-foot, 220-pound Webster and many other prize
recruits college football is not some vague ideal. It's not even
a game. It's money, hope, a future--and any school that can't
promise all those things doesn't stand a chance of landing the
best ones. But when the NCAA announced last Friday that it was
stripping Miami of 24 football scholarships over the next two
years and banning the team from this season's bowl competition,
Webster's reaction was a huge smile. The walls of his bedroom
are filled with taped-up pictures and stories of his beloved
Hurricanes. Now, he figures, he has no reason not to join them.

"I grew up with the Canes," Webster says. "But I was waiting for
the sanctions, to see how hard they were going to be. That would
determine whether I'd go there. Now I know it's not that
serious. They're going to take away some scholarships, but I
still have mine"

Not serious? At first glance the NCAA hammer blow laid on
Miami--for improprieties ranging from massive Pell Grant fraud
to a pay-for-play slush fund to flagrant violations of its own
drug policy--appears to be crushing. The loss of a possible
Orange Bowl berth against Notre Dame cost the university some $3
million, and Miami president Tad Foote was tagged with the
ultimate humiliation for a chief executive: lack of
institutional control. With his athletic program placed on three
years probation and his football team's scholarship pool slashed
from 25 to 12 for the 1996-97 academic year and to 14 for
1997-98, Foote might deny it, but Miami is now in the company of
such NCAA renegades as SMU, Washington and Auburn. "This has not
been a pleasant experience for anybody who loves this place,
obviously," Foote said in a press conference after last Friday's
announcement. "We have admitted very publicly and very
thoroughly that we have broken some rules of the NCAA. Anytime I
look back and say, 'I could have done a better job,' that's
embarrassing. It's been painful, if you want to know the truth.
Really painful."

Now the question is whether the pain will be permanent. Nothing
will hurt the program more than the lack of depth caused by the
lost scholarships--especially when injuries, academic casualties
and football washouts are factored in over time. And unlike a
public school, which is far less expensive to attend, Miami's
price tag limits the number of walk-ons available to fill the

"At Miami we never had walk-ons, because of the expense," says
Ole Miss coach Tommy Tuberville, a former Hurricane assistant
who is riding out a four-year probation with the Rebels that
includes 24 lost scholarships and a TV and bowl ban. "It's
$20,000 a year there, and only $2,200 in-state here. [At
Mississippi] we were able to talk some kids into coming and
paying their own way. When you have that few scholarships, you
can't make as many mistakes. The recruits don't have to be great
athletes, but they have to be guys with character and good
academic standing because they have to be there four or five
years. You can't afford to lose any of them or have them drop
out. There's no margin for error."

Especially in ultracompetitive Florida, where every time one of
the three top schools slips up, the other two circle like
sharks. When the NCAA kneecapped Florida with the loss of 20
scholarships between 1984 and '86 after Charley Pell's anarchic
reign, Florida State went hard after any high school star who
thought of going to Gainesville. "You can draw the line right
there," says Seminole coach Bobby Bowden. "That is where they
let Florida State get a foot in the door--and now Florida State
is not going to pull the foot out." The Seminoles then went
7-1-1 against the Gators before Florida finally stopped the
bleeding this year.

However, if the NCAA's intent was to cripple Miami as it once
did Florida, the outcome is less clear. For coach Butch Davis
holds a trump card shared only by those recruiting for Alabama,
Notre Dame and, perhaps, Southern Cal: the magic of a truly
transcendent name. How magical became apparent last year when
Davis, hired only eight days before national signing day,
promptly snagged 13 prospects and landed the 16th-best
recruiting class in the nation, according to Superprep magazine.
But the power of Miami's four national titles, not to mention
its in-your-face, street-tough image, was never more evident
than in the days following last week's sanctions. Recruit after
South Florida recruit chimed in with Webster and began seriously
thinking about staying home. "They're on my list, but before
they weren't," Sedrick Irvin, one of the state's top running
back prospects, says of the Hurricanes. "I thought they'd get
hit hard like Auburn and Florida did a few years back, but all
they lost was a couple of scholarships. And being a little
selfish, with only 11 scholarships left, if they get me, they
can't afford to get three more running backs."

One key for Miami is that it finished 8-3 this fall with a
roster laden with juniors and thus could challenge for the
national title next year. The other is that the NCAA seems to
have settled on striking surgically at criminal programs with
scholarship reductions rather than with TV penalties. Any
recruit wanting postseason exposure has no worries--the
Hurricanes' bowl penalty ends on New Year's Day. As soon as he
heard that, Webster began making the transition from recruit to
teammate. "I think we can still be Miami," he says. "I think
we're going to show it next year."

That mind-set--local players growing up thinking about we--is
another edge for Miami. Even though Davis can sign only 12
players between now and the end of the recruiting season in
early February, his school still has the strongest foothold in
football's deepest talent pool. "When I first got into coaching,
it was western Pennsylvania, then Los Angeles, then the Houston
area," says Bobby Bowden. "But the last 10 years, South Florida
has been the best recruiting place in the nation. Being right in
the middle of that, Miami can get quality." And, says
Tuberville, Davis "is the best recruiter they've had at Miami
the last 10 to 12 years."

Davis knows the task he's facing won't be easy. "I don't think
we'll be where we want to be for at least another three, maybe
four years," he says. But he also knows that, because athletic
director Paul Dee pushed the university to respond within 24
hours to the NCAA's letter of inquiry in late October, Miami got
the chance to take its punishment before the current recruiting
season ends--and begin rebuilding right away. "The most important
thing is that we can honestly sit in the homes and speak to
parents and say that from this moment forward there are no
impending hammers that may fall sometime in the near future,"
Davis says. "That has been the Number 1 question: Exactly what
were the potential sanctions during their careers?"

No one knew during the last recruiting season, and into the
vacuum leaped an army of recruiters, all with potential horror
stories of sanctions. On one January day Bobby Bowden bumped
into his son Terry, the coach at Auburn, three times in
different homes across South Florida. A lot of the usual
stay-at-home talent left; Terry Bowden alone landed a half-dozen
blue-chippers, including the South's No. 1 defensive player--and
lifelong Hurricane fan--Martavious Houston.

"It was a one-year open season down there last year," says Terry
Bowden. "And this year we know one thing: It's going to be at
least a half-open season down there."

In other words, even if Davis were to sign 12 top players from
South Florida, that would leave 13 up for grabs. Webster was one
of many to report the shocking news: For the first time, even
much-mocked nemesis Nebraska is making a major push in the area.
"We're going to jump into Miami as quick as we can," Terry
Bowden says. "Butch is a great recruiter, but we're going to get
the 13 he can't get and win a national championship. Everyone
else is going to try to get them, too."

COLOR PHOTO: BILL FRAKES For Foote, the NCAA rap stung, but blue-chip recruits like Webster (opposite) see the silver lining. [Tad Foote]

COLOR PHOTO: HANS DERYK/AP [See caption above--Nathaniel Webster]