Outside of playing some downright sub-par football over the past decade-plus, the Miami Hurricanes also spent that time suffering from a full-blown identity crisis.
Who is The U and what does present-day Hurricanes Football embody? It’s a question that was at one-time easily-definable, but got rather convoluted when contender status and consistent BCS appearances became a thing of the past—traded in for a middle-of-the-pack ACC existence amongst never-ending “rebuilding” cries.
It’s also a query Mark Richt has been working to solve by way of reshaping Miami’s brand identity—on display this weekend with his second annual Paradise Camp, where the second-year head coach tapped into a deep football alumni pool, welcoming home some legends and giving those great players defined roles in the Hurricanes’ rise from the ashes.
In decades past, college football was more or less the Wild West—a wide-open landscape and endless opportunity for any upstart program who dared challenge the in-place, traditional powers—which the University of Miami did in the early 1980’s and beyond. Locking down South Florida’s local, homegrown talent—which most opponents hadn’t quite caught onto yet—produced speed, swagger, dominance and an anti-establishment attitude that inevitably helped the Hurricanes turn the sport upside down.
Probation derailed the agenda in the mid-1990’s, but the success formula remained the same; bring in Miami-style kids who understood the blueprint and get things back on track. Success wasn’t far removed for those Hurricanes—the late nineties guys growing up watching the “Decade of Dominance” era and chasing the ghosts of those greats.
The game plan worked to perfection and by the early 2000’s, Miami was again on top. Four consecutive BCS games, back-to-back title games, a national championship and 34-game win-streak—not to mention sending top-flight talent to the NFL in droves.
Wins produced swag while swag also fueled those history-making victories. The proof was in the results and there was little room for interpretation. Ultimate success and style point defined the Hurricanes—and then it stopped, making way for a “Decade of Disaster”, with no reprieve in sight.
Prior to the fall, Larry Coker went on a run with the talent assembled by Butch Davis, but the tank was soon on empty and it would take more than a nice-guy, interim-style leader to rebuild proper. Financially-strapped and playing catch-up facilities-wise, Miami football wasn’t yet the desirable gig it’s since become—leading to a promotion-from-within and dice rolled on a former player and longtime assistant, Randy Shannon—who had his flaws and proved better-suited to be a career assistant than CEO and backbone of a program.
When that failed, enter Al Golden—praised for his efforts turning a doormat Temple program around, but still an unproven outsider plucked from the northeast and low-risk, low-reward option for a cash-strapped program with a then-university president lacking a long-term vision for athletics, with her (understandable) focus on a world-class medical school legacy.
THAT WAS THEN, THIS IS NOW—LET’S GO, MAN
Timing is a quirky thing and so often since the turn of the millennium, it hasn’t worked in Miami’s favor. That said, timing also has a way of leveling itself out and eventually coming back around—which happened for the Hurricanes a few Decembers back when Richt’s run in Athens came to an end.
One man’s trash certainly proved to be another’s treasure. The long-time Georgia leader was let go, leaving Miami to scoop up the veteran immediately—believing Richt to be an ideal fit; a proven commodity with a chip on his competitive shoulder and something left to prove with one last go-around.
More than just chasing an elusive championship, the former Hurricanes’ quarterback is proving to be the rebuild-it-right and leave-it-better-than-you-found it type leader—especially in the case of his alma mater. Richt put his money where his mouth is, investing $1M out of his own pocket towards a much-needed indoor practice facility—while leaning on creativity with the forward-tanking Paradise Camp; an event that finally puts the University of Miami on offense regarding how it challenges the competition, moving forward.
For years, the Hurricanes have inexplicably been in defense-mode. Defending the program’s facilities, defending an off-campus stadium or a lack of a traditional college-town atmosphere and the steadfast small-town support that comes from being the only channel to watch in a one-horse town.
The experience in Coral Gables won’t soon be confused with one in Gainesville, Tuscaloosa, South Bend or Ann Arbor—and conversely, none of those smaller towns can compete with Miami’s “paradise” vibe and overall style, so quit with the pointless comparisons or inferences that the Hurricanes don’t measure up.
Richt is changing the narrative; playing up the University of Miami’s unique strengths, which more than negate any perceived weaknesses.
No on-campus stadium? Who gives a shit? The Canes play in a recently-renovated, first-class NFL stadium that houses Super Bowls. No rah-rah college town vibe? Good, as it sets the bar even higher. Hurricanes Football is treated like a big time pro sports franchise. There are no sympathy points or forced support because of emotional alumni ties.
This is Miami. There are countless ways to spend one’s entertainment dollar and everyone is jockeying for the spotlight. Win, and you earn the keys to a diverse, international, big time city. Lose and you’re feel the heat as there are no free rides and tremendous competition for the community’s eyeballs.
Bigger risks equating in greater rewards—which is something the past Miami greats did when putting their balls on the line to play in that orange and green spotlight. Former receiver, mouthpiece and self-appointed motivational speaker Michael Irvin touched on all of that when “Paradise” wrapped on Sunday.
“I just wanna be around the kids, man,’’ the legendary wideout said, “Just pass on to them what it was like when we stepped on these practice fields and how it became what it was, how proud we were to play for one another and how hard we worked against one another.
“You could see their eyes light up at what they have an opportunity to be a part of,’’ Irvin continued. “Being here is important. … This is Miami. You come be a part of something. You dominate here, you own Miami. … You dominate here, you own the world.’’
Owning the Magic City and the world. Sounds a shit-ton better than being king of “Too-ka-loo”—Irvin’s purposeful mispronunciation of Tuscaloosa and the small fish in a big pond experience at cookie-cutter universities across the nation.
CRACKING THE MIAMI CODE; GROWING “THE U”
Having spent 15 years in Athens and a decade in Tallahassee prior-to, Richt is well aware of what makes programs in those smaller regions tick—but he also reaped the benefits of growing up in South Florida and playing his college ball at Miami. Right knows “The U” also stands for “unique”; hence tapping into over a dozen former UM legends for this special camp—while continuing to play up the weather, energy, environment and atmosphere in the 305.
In other words, we play where you vacay. Get on board, or get left behind and deal with the consequences.
Along with Irvin, this past weekend brought Ed Reed, Willis McGahee, Jeremy Shockey, Vince Wilfork, Jon Vilma, Antrel Rolle, Devin Hester, Jon Beason, Bryant McKinnie, D.J. Williams, Brett Romberg, Kenny Phillips and Calais Campbell all back home as player-coaches, wisdom-spouters and veteran motivators, while current coaches intensely led practice.
Coupled with the impossible-to-argue sales pitch regarding South Florida’s weather and the University of Miami’s unique vibe—”paradise” proved the be the ideal adjective. A day later, it’s still hard to tell who got more out of it—the recruits, or the former Miami greats chomping at the bit to see this program back on top again.
“They told us, ‘Just be yourself. Do whatever you feel is right,’ ” former running back McGahee told the Miami Herald. “These guys look up to us, and they can get a lot out of two or three hours. I wish we had this. Didn’t have nothing like this. Didn’t have nobody to talk to but neighborhood friends.”
Rolle echoed his former teammate’s sentiments.
“I see something in them,” Rolle shared with the Palm Beach Post. “It’s a different mentality that they have. It’s a different look at they have. Before I had to feel the guys were just too anxious here. They were just too anxious to try to get to the next level. Right now I’m not so much seeing that. I’m seeing the guys are really anxious to get back to winning and that’s what it’s all about. If you win everything takes care of itself.”
It seems so simple, really—but much like the game of college football itself, without nailing the finite details and properly executing, The Hurricanes haven’t been able to bring it all back together until Richt’s arrival.
Coker and Shannon had their camps, but neither were like the one current on display. Golden tried, as well—earning positive reviews for his efforts, which helped mend fences with local high school coaches burned by his predecessor—but it wasn’t enough to make a real recruiting dent. Steps were taken forward, but the New Jersey native and Penn State alum lacked the authenticity that Richt brings to the table as “one of us”, as well as checking off the “proven commodity” box as a head coach and leader.
Richt’s pedigree also affords him the ability to know how to properly incorporate those uber-successful Hurricane legends into his long-term game plan—another area where recent leaders of this proud program came up short. Shannon was inexperienced, unproven and unable to implement a workable strategy, while Golden simply didn’t have the roots and history with those who helped build this program one snap at a time.
Outside of the obvious, something as intangible as timing is also proving to be on Richt’s side—where others didn’t have that luxury. Miami’s three-year probationary period ended last October—fallout from the NCAA investigation that prohibited former players, boosters and trustees from standing sideline on game.
Richt worked around this last spring, but inviting former greats to the official spring game and night-before banquet—seeds planted that helped lead to these game-changing summer camps that are destined to have the Hurricanes reeling in some of the nation’s best athletes after an unfathomable drought.
TIME IS (FINALLY) BACK ON MIAMI’S SIDE
Phrases like “perfect storm” are easy to toss around when discussing the state of Hurricanes football, but in all reality, there’s no other way to describe the serendipitous nature for Miami over the past almost-two years—beginning with rock bottom when Clemson delivered that 58-0 ass-kicking in late October of 2015.
What felt like the ultimate gut punch at the time—that annihilation proved to be the first step in the journey back. A lesser beat-down might not have cost Golden his job, but suffering the worst loss in the proud program’s history was the proverbial last straw. Interim head coach rallied the troops for a 4-2 run down the stretch and less than six weeks after Golden’s dismissal, Richt fell into Miami’s lap.
Another six weeks later, a solid foundational recruiting class was locked down—Golden and staff’s initial efforts to plant seeds, while Richt’s style, energy, confidence and resume sealed the deal with future stars like Shaq Quarterman, Ahmmon Richards, Zach McCloud and Joe Jackson; the type of player the Canes had swung and missed out on too often.
A serviceable inaugural season followed, full of highs and lows. Late-game losses to Florida State and Notre Dame stung, while a five-game win-streak and convincing bowl victory ended things on a high note—a high the Canes have continued riding, with momentum rising ever since.
All of this will inevitably pose the standard, “Is Miami back?” line of questioning from the national media as fall rolls around—and so be it. Love or hate the Hurricanes, the program remains polarizing. For those in-the-know, best suited to brush off that small-mindedness as the moves being made in Coral Gables aren’t going be measuredly a mid-September showdown in Tallahassee.
Something bigger is finally in the works; a much-needed, revamped process and proper plan is in effect—put into place by the right guy at the right time, with a clear cut vision as to how to make all right for Hurricane Nation once again.
Outsiders, you’ve been warned—and this time it’s coming from the top; rooted in process, not hype.
Chris Bello has been covering University of Miami athletics since the mid-nineties. Getting his start with CanesTime, he eventually launched allCanesBlog—which led to a featured columnist stint with BleacherReport. He’s since rolled out the unfiltered, ItsAUThing.com where he’ll use his spare time to put decades of U-related knowledge to use for those who care to read. When he’s not writing about ‘The U’, Bello earns a living helping icon Bill Murray build a golf and lifestyle apparel brand. Hit him on Twitter @ItsAUThingBLOG or @ChristianRBello.