The Glory Days
I won't sit here and lie to you and tell you that I don't want college football to go back to the rip roaring days of the 80's, when Miami was king and the refs didn't know what to do. Football seemed more fun, more backyard in those days. You could borderline knock a guy unconscious, and then follow up the hit with a dance performed over his prone body until his teammates rushed in to his defense. You could catch a touchdown pass and sprint into the stadium tunnels, only to return with finger guns blazing. You could actually HIT the quarterback, and beyond that hit him however you wanted to, and not have to worry about being told you hit him too hard. Football was brash, exciting, and predicated on the tenacity and toughness of your team rather than the flashy big play after ten straight minutes of 4 yard runs. Miami was the team to beat for almost a decade. There were other powerhouses, like Notre Dame, Nebraska, and Penn State, but none with the overall talent and don't-give-a-damn-about-you attitude that the Canes had. That's what made them great. They KNEW they were going to destroy you, and at the same time they wanted you to know it too. They played their hearts out, regardless of the competition, if only so that you left the field knowing you had been beaten. The word swagger came about somehow, and it set the tone for Miami football for a long while, probably too long. The 90's hit, and Miami was still good, but the game was changing because of them. There were more penalties, celebrations weren't allowed, and the coaches had changed. Gone were the days of Schnellenberger and Jimmy Johnson. Dennis Erickson was at the helm, and although he won a title in his first year, many will say it was with Johnson's team. Then came Butch Davis and his players, and oh did he have players. He managed (whether by legal means or not, who knows) to put together probably the best collection of talent at one school over the course of a few years that the sport has seen in a long, long time. It was basically his team that won the championship in 2001, although Larry Coker was at the helm. Just a short glance at the rosters and depth charts from that time period reads like a who's who of NFL talent, and it all was condensed in to one nearly unbeatable team. And then, in almost a blink of an eye, it all disappeared.
I'm going to mix things up a bit and deviate from the normal hum of recruiting updates and practice analysis. I got to thinking last night about my time as a Miami fan, and all that I have seen. In the span of the almost 17 years that I have watched this team, I've seen everything that a college football wants to see, and a lot that most never care to witness. I've seen huge hits, incredible plays, championships, one of the best teams of all time, some of the worst teams I've seen, an NFL pipeline, and scandal. That last sentence could easily make up the life span of any other normal college football program, but Miami has managed to wrap it all up and deliver it to it's fans all in the span of 11 years. Miami is currently on the upswing with coach Golden and his merry band of minions, and even in the face of possibly (but most likely not) daunting NCAA sanctions, he has brought recruiting back to the level that we as Canes fans expect, brought a sense of urgency to the program, and forced the players to finally recognize that the logo on the side of your helmet means absolutely nothing if you don't make people respect it. The one thing Golden has begun doing in his short time in Coral Gables, and possibly the most important to at least one section of Miami fans...he has finally begun to bury the swagger.
Butch's players all either graduated or left for the NFL, and while Coker is a decent head coach, he showed a severe lack of recruiting ability. The team was fresh off a title game win and a subsequent appearance and loss to OSU, and Coker still could not attract top level talent. Sure, he had talented kids like Devin Hester, Kelly Jennings, and Brandon Meriweather, but he never could seem to get them to play to the level they should have. He was successful in 2004, finishing 11-2 and beating hated rival FSU in the Orange Bowl, but that season could have ended in a totally different way had they not been embarrassed by Virginia Tech. He was the nice guy coach, the one the players all liked. However, he lacked the fire and the discipline to get the kids that liked him to play hard every down, and it ultimately failed him. Things like the FIU brawl and a 40-3 loss to LSU in 2005 ultimately helped seal Coker's fate. He would be fired, and replaced with what seemed like the best hire for the school.
Randy Shannon's life story reads like a Greek tragedy. Born and raised in Miami, his father was murdered when he was just 3 years old. By the time he was 10, his older twin brothers were full blown cocaine addicts. It wasn't long after that that they, along with his sister, died of AIDS. Yet somehow, Shannon rose above it all, attending Miami to play football, and was a starting linebacker on the '87 championship team. He played briefly in the NFL for the Cowboys before joining the coaching ranks at his alma mater. He was handed the job after Coker was fired because of his defensive prowess, and in small part because he was a Miami guy through and through. His first year as head coach ended with a 5-7 record, and it failed to get a lot better from there on out. He brought in one of the top recruiting classes in 2008, but that talent never materialized for the most part. He went through 2 offensive coordinators, and still could not muster many wins. Probably his best streak of games came in 2009, when the Canes were forced to open their season against FSU, Georgia Tech, Virginia Tech, and Oklahoma. They came out of that streak 3-1 with the only loss being against VT, and they were ranked again. It was not meant to be, however, as they lost to Clemson and North Carolina to knock them out of the ACC race. It wasn't long after that that Shannon was shown the writing on the wall, and was fired hours after losing to USF in 2010. After Shannon was let go, Miami went through a whirlwind coaching search that included names like John Gruden being thrown around by "sources", but never amounting to anything. Then the hire came, a guy not many had heard of but who carried with him a great reputation.
Al Golden came in to Miami with a white shirt and an orange tie preaching hard work, earning your spot, and above all being a functioning member of society. It wasn't long after he took the job that guys either started transferring or leaving. At first it caused fans to wonder what this guy was doing to the program, but soon it set in that the guys that were leaving either did not want to put in the work, or were having issues keeping their off the field lives in order, and Golden has no place for that on his team. He was cleaning up a program that desperately needed it. They had suffered through 9 years of two coaches who were just happy to coach at The U, and who allowed the players to expect greatness because they wore the orange and green, not because they played well. The word swagger was still thrown around, even though it was never backed up on the field. Golden put a stop to that quickly, saying he hated the word and didn't want it around the team. He implemented his U Tough off season program, a thing designed to keep players working out and in shape when they weren't in practice or classes. He openly admitted that the team was in horrible shape when he got there, that conditioning was almost non-existent. This was evidenced by a lot of the players talking after initial practices, saying there were guys who were vomiting after workouts because they weren't used to it being so hard. There were formed players coming out in the media saying that Shannon was thought of as a substitute teacher rather than a coach, and that he played favorites rather than putting the best team on the field. Golden was the opposite, everyone was equal until you proved your worth on the field. He was starting the process of turning a jilted program around, and was doing it his way, which was not immediately embraced by the fans. Although marred by one of the biggest college scandals since SMU, his first year was not terrible, finishing 6-6 and forfeiting a bowl appearance as a form of self-punishment. He was given an extension during the year, which irked a lot of people because they could not fathom giving a coach such a vote of confidence amidst a mediocre year. What they did not seem to understand was that he was doing the best he could with a group of guys who had not bought in to his style. They were still under the mindset that their helmet design gave them the ability to play football and to earn respect. This was only bolstered by the fact that the majority of these players chose to leave early for the recent NFL draft, only to flop in a big way. He was able to bring in a 33 member recruiting class, highlighted by a few big name kids that no one thought they would land. He was able to sell his system, Miami football, and the chance to showcase themselves to future NFL scouts even though both he and the recruits were staring straight into the face of the NCAA. He has the attitude of the football team completely changed, from an air of "we are going to go out there and do what we are supposed to do" to a new mindset that is centered around working your ass off and playing until the whistle, regardless of if you are on TV or not. The guys want to play for each other instead of themselves, they talk of the team, the school, and the fans. They no longer sound like a bunch of entitled idiots that happen to be football players. They sound like a bunch of football players who might end up being stars.
Who knows what the future holds for the Canes program. In a few months the NCAA should be coming out of hiding with their punishment, likely an extra bowl ban and the loss of scholarships, or possibly something worse. One thing is for certain though, no one who is currently on campus or scheduled to report for classes in a month cares one bit about what the NCAA is going to say, or what anyone else says. They are ready to play for Miami, for each other, and they are ready to prove people wrong. This program feels like it is heading in the direction it needs, a direction which will hopefully lead them back to the elite of college football. People say all the time that college football is better when Miami is good, and for better or worse, agree or disagree, it at least holds true for the city and for the fans. Miami feels like a normal college program again, and while they have a long way to go to actually live up to it, the right guy is leading the charge.