CORAL GABLES (CBSMiami/AP) — The beginning of the NCAA Baseball Tournament Regionals will have an interesting twist in South Florida.
Separated by nine miles, Miami and FIU are natural rivals.
That is, they would be — if they ever played.
For a multitude of reasons, the Hurricanes and Panthers have not met in baseball since 2008. That changes Friday night when FIU visits Miami in an NCAA Tournament first-round matchup that has tons of subplots — namely, two coaches who once teamed up to rule college baseball and now simply do not like one another.
They’re not telling.
“I’m only focused on Friday night’s game between us and FIU,” Miami coach Jim Morris said.
“I couldn’t tell you what happened because I don’t remember,” FIU coach Turtle Thomas said.
Here’s what’s known: Thomas was an assistant coach under Morris from 1994 through 1999, and during that span the Hurricanes were rolling. Thomas was considered one of the nation’s best recruiters, always putting together top classes that helped Miami win the national title in 1999.
Long before that College World Series, Thomas and Miami agreed to part ways at season’s end. He didn’t fly home with the team after the series. He left his Miami gear at his locker, caught a commercial flight and was watching prospects at a showcase in Florida the next morning — figuring he better be ready to recruit if someone else hired him. He’s never worn his Miami championship ring.
“I don’t remember much about that situation,” said Javy Rodriguez, a star on that 1999 team and now the coach at perennial power Miami Gulliver Prep. “Didn’t really know until after the season that there was an issue between the two. I guess they were very professional about it on the field if us the players didn’t notice anything. I know we won the College World Series.”
A widespread belief — never confirmed by either side — is that Morris and Thomas disagreed over recruiting practices. Years later, allegations of sign-stealing surfaced. Florida State accused Miami of it, saying Thomas (long after his departure from Miami) told them about the practice. It was also rumored that Florida State got a list of Miami’s go-to signals, the inference being it was provided by Thomas.
Again, nothing was ever proven. And neither coach is willing to share old tales, either.
“My one and only concern right now is starting off this regional with a win,” Morris said.
The Hurricanes (44-14) go into the tournament as the No. 5 national seed. FIU (29-29) needed to pull off a series of upsets as the No. 8 seed in the Conference USA tournament just to earn the league’s automatic berth. Once FIU played its way into the field, both the Panthers and the Hurricanes figured that the NCAA would put them together.
Sure enough, it happened.
“They’re going to want to beat us more than anything,” Miami slugger Zack Collins said. “This is their Omaha, I would say. I played with a lot of those guys in high school and I’m sure if every one of those guys got recruited by Miami, they’d want to come here.”
It’s not just the baseball programs that aren’t friendly.
The football teams brawled in 2006, leading to more than 30 suspensions and laying the groundwork for the schools to stop playing in basically everything. There’s been a thawing, the football series will resume in 2018, but there are no plans for the baseball teams to play in the regular season anytime soon.
“We want to play,” Thomas said. “Being down here, you can find weekend series for your schedule. You need to find about 13 (midweek) games. Playing a home-and-home, that would help. So we would like to play. I’ll leave it at that.”
Miami doesn’t, or at least hasn’t. There’s some valid reasons that could explain why — the brawl fallout, RPI concerns (Miami finished this season ranked No. 1, FIU was No. 152) and the notion that the Hurricanes have more to lose than gain in such matchups.
The schools played in 36 straight seasons from 1973 through 2008, and not since. FIU won the last meeting, knocking off the then-No. 1 ranked Hurricanes in Coral Gables.
“That’s the only time in FIU sports history, beating a No. 1 team,” Thomas said.
FIU was sent to the Coral Gables Regional in 2010, but didn’t play the Hurricanes. The Morris-Thomas stuff was brought up then, and just like now neither side was interested in saying much. It also came up in 2000, when Thomas was an assistant at LSU and the Tigers played Miami in that year’s College World Series.
And now they meet again.
“I would expect a good crowd, no question about it,” Morris said. “A lot of people want us to play each other.”
On Friday, they’ll get their wish.
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