“Just as a reminder to myself / I wear every single chain even when I’m in the house …” — Drake, 2013’s “Started From The Bottom”
Miami is hardly the first college team to rally around an inanimate object, the most recent high-profile example being Alabama’s “Ball Out Belt.” Much like Miami’s chain, the Crimson Tide’s belt was given for performance on the field. But unlike Miami’s chain, the belt didn’t have black South Florida roots. And it didn’t become anything like the cultural phenomenon the gaudy slab of diamonds and Cuban links so connected to brothers and sisters in the 305 area code.
The Miami Hurricanes’ chain was inspired by a quartet. First-year Miami defensive coordinator Manny Diaz was looking to motivate his players. Cornerbacks coach and Canes alum Mike Rumph told famed jeweler Anthony John “AJ” Machado an idea he had for a necklace that defensive players could wear each time they forced a turnover. Super Bowl champion and former Canes standout Vince Wilfork was at Machado’s shop for an unrelated piece of custom jewelry and told Machado and Rumph the chain had to personally reflect who and what Miami stood for. Not just the campus, but the community’s culture. “In Miami, what are we famous for? We’re famous for the Cuban chains,” Machado told the South Florida Sun Sentinel in September. “But we need to add a little something to it.”
The chain’s true price remains a mystery, part of its ongoing fascination. But this 6.5-pound, 10-karat piece of jewelry — like so many trophy-esque watches, tennis bracelets and pearl chokers — is loud, boisterous, arrogant. And fun. Miami is famous for many things, and the swag of a Cuban link chain is one of them. The Miami Hurricanes’ turnover chain is Miami culture to its core. And it goes beyond — just ask Raekwon about his classic 1995 Only Built 4 Cuban Linx.
The U’s ascension back into the ranks of the elite programs in the game is directly tied to the allure of its turnover chain. College football, fun but far from radical, needed Miami’s swagger again. The team — led by guys such as safety/leading tackler Jaquan Johnson, linebacker Shaquille Quarterman, defensive end Trent Lewis, quarterback Malik Rosier and running back Travis Homer — is as counterculture as Allen Iverson was to the Jordan years of the NBA. The team is a breath of fresh air in a landscape with dominant but less personable powerhouses like Alabama, Ohio State or Michigan. The NCAA — chided for years for its lockdown on celebrations, which is seen in many circles as the “Miami rule” — enforces the personality of teams over players. So watching a team not only revel in how good they are but also live up to the hype? It’s rich. And the turnover chain has galvanized a defense that’s as physical, violent and cocky as there is in the country — tied for fourth in the country in turnovers forced (24) in one fewer game. Their Sept. 9 game at Arkansas State was canceled as Hurricane Irma barreled toward South Florida.
At 9-0, and currently first in the ACC’s Coastal Division, the Canes are the No. 2 program in the country. They’re also sitting on a streak of four consecutive games of four turnovers, including Nov. 11’s dismemberment of No. 3 Notre Dame — much to the chagrin of Fighting Irish defensive coordinator Mike Elko, who all but called the dogs on his own team with a peculiar pregame on-field rant. A recent poll, too, found that many believe the chain is the best story in sports. And even if it’s not, the financial implications and the marketing behind the chain have already paid dividends of hundreds of thousands of dollars for vendors capitalizing on the sudden nationwide appeal with various forms of apparel. It’s great, right? But is it?
“Do it for the culture / They gon’ bite like vultures …” – Quavo, from Migos’ 2017 “T-Shirt”
Because already, infatuation with the chain teeters on appropriation. There’s always this tension when something very black — like a big gold chain, being worn by black men — “catches on.” The success of a thing or a gesture or a style is great, but then suddenly it’s not “ours” anymore, the benefit of it is going to everyone else and it’s wrung out and dead before it can be fully enjoyed.
It’s a feel-good story until it isn’t, right? Take the dab for instance, popularized in 2015 by Migos and brought to the doorstep of middle America on Sundays by Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton. Everyone did the dab. That includes candidates such as Hillary Clinton, as well as Speaker of the House Paul Ryan’s son.
The dab became a caricature of itself. A pure, fun creation of popular hip-hop was bastardized by an American culture that has always fed off its energy — and yet is so very often ultimately demonized. Comedian Paul Mooney talks about in a bit called “Ugly On Us But Cute On Them” in 2012’s The Godfather of Comedy.
He could well have added big jewelry. On black people: grotesque, over the top, showy. On others: bold, edgy, fancy, innovative.
The turnover chain is more talked about right now than the race for the Heisman Trophy. Everyone wants in on the most recent gold mine, the flavor of the moment. But however impossible, how about we try to let the players have this moment? And let’s not forget: Their spontaneously joyful on-field marketing of the chain has generated hundreds of thousands of dollars, if not more, yet the guys on the field are entitled to none of the profits. The chain should be theirs.
The turnover chain is a flashback to “The U” that was the baddest, most intimidating and most threatening force in college football. But the rules changed, and the brand of bullying that made Miami nationwide goons (but neighborhood superstars) has been discontinued. So it begs the question, will this new we-the-best momentum of the chain soon feel the clip of new rules? Yes, because, as ESPN’s Dan Le Batard recently said, “This team is still black. And the people doing the ravaging on defense are still black. There will be a turning on that. Showboaty black guy rarely gets embraced. … To be honest with you, if we’re going deep into this, the chain is the only thing from those overtly black Miami teams that is allowed in 2017.”
“Don’t look down on the youngsters because they wanna have shiny things.” — Pimp C, 2013’s “F—WithMeYouKnowIGotIt”
How long The U’s undefeated season lasts is no guarantee, especially since there’s a date with No. 4 and defending national champion Clemson on the very near (Dec. 2) horizon. Yet, there’s history that shines brighter than the 900 orange and green sapphires swaying back and forth on the necks of players who have revived arguably the most culturally relevant college football program of all time.
The chain creates excitement on the field. The chain is useful because the players are motivated by that gleaming trophy. And the chain is important far beyond just the Instagram ops for celebrities and fly-by-night fans. Don’t let the University of Miami’s turnover chain die the same death as the dab. Don’t let the true essence of the chain be swept under the rug. Don’t allow the history of the chain and its place in Miami culture to be overlooked. Because it’s going to happen. If it hasn’t started already.