Miami Hurricanes legend Alonzo Highsmith guested on the Orange Bowl Boys’ podcast last week—the episode powerful enough to make you want to run through a wall, as well as jump in front of a speeding bus.
Highsmith obviously knows the Canes’ football DNA like few others; part of that 1983 national championship, as well as an infamous Fiesta Bowl title game loss in 1986—the lynch-pin “first domino” for legendary head coach Howard Schnellenberger—whose five-year dynasty-build was anchored in keeping South Florida’s best talent home and gaming the system.
Everything that Highsmith discussed and laid out, there’s zero doubt he is Miami’s secret weapon, should this university choose to roll up its sleeves to build a winner. The football icon spent the past decade in a general manager / player personnel type NFL role with Green Bay, Cleveland and currently Seattle—making him an ideal candidate for a cutting-edge, football-only type head honcho; athletic director-eqsue, but solely focused on the game he knows and loves.
Of course, that only works if Miami were to clean house and prepare a rebuild from the ground up—a commitment from the board of trustees to go all in financially, doing what it takes to build a champion—while employing a new athletic director who understands the mission, as well as a born leader head coach who understands that the University of Miami’s football program marches to its own beat, and is ready to go all-in on what’s become a two-decade quest to resurrect ‘The U’.
Captivating as it was listening to Highsmith’s entire story—some harsh realities came to light regarding the zeros to heroes challenge that lies ahead.
The pair that Miami would have to grow to go all-in on a champion-caliber, football-heavy rebuild? Monstrous. Same to be said regarding how the Canes pull it off in this era of a softer athletes; most lacking the toughness, selflessness, discipline and attention span needed to be seed-planters for the movement.
The task at hand is daunting and overwhelming, albeit not impossible if UM implements the right game plan and empowers top-flight personnel.
HIGHSMITH HISTORY: 101
For those unfamiliar with the Highsmith backstory, the episode is equally as full of historical building-block information, as it is exciting to see there’s a way out of this current mess in which ‘The U’ resides.
The Canada-to-Coral-Gables southbound journey—almost as an emancipated minor—with Highsmith living alone in early 80’s era Miami and and playing football at Christopher Columbus High, after Killian and Southridge turned him away; that portion of the tale could’ve been it’s own standalone episode.
Highsmith originally seemed destined to play for one of the traditional bigs; relocating to South Florida to get on the radar for programs like Notre Dame and Michigan—who almost earned his services—until eyes were opened to the Sunshine State’s brand of football.
Florida and Florida State were early leaders for Highsmith, before Schnellenberger delivered his sales pitch and explained how a handful of the right local kids staying home in 1983 could have a decades-long impact on University of Miami football. Aside from Highsmith, Miami Northwestern’s Melvin Bratton was another key figure in Schnelly’s masterplan—a couple of alphas that could be the face of a movement.
An official visit to Miami—which almost never happened, as Highsmith thought he’d seen enough on unofficial drop-bys—changed everything, when he first crossed paths with the one-of-a-kind Jerome Brown, the bad-ass Winston Moss, a brooding Brian Blades and a handful of other future greats.
One can only imagine Schnellenberger’s scheming to get these individuals in front of each other, letting nature take its course—no sales pitch needed from that point on—this future wrecking crew immediately solving how they’d turn the entire sport on its ear if they agreed to come together.
This was the class Schnellenberger felt would start a long-term movement; but in the short term, the Canes won their first ring this crew’s freshman season—left two on the table in 1985 and 1986—but won it all again in 1987; year four under the legendary Jimmy Johnson.
The regard in which Highsmith holds Schnellenberger and Johnson is palpable; talking of both with such respect—their influence changing his life and career, while their winning ways and drive is what earned them the buy-in everywhere these two coaching legends wound up.
Highsmith also spoke of Nick Saban in a similar regard in the podcast—regarding being a winner who builds champions—making it crystal clear that what Alabama has created is precisely what Miami must do to win big’; albeit sticking to their unique brand formula.
As has been discussed on this blog over the years, the University of Miami has always been a different animal—the small private school in the large, diverse metropolitan city. Miami has always been an events town and never a sports town. Anytime the Orange Bowl or Hard Rock has rolled; it meant whoever was lining up and doing battle on that field made that game the place to be in The Magic City that night.
CANES ALWAYS WENT AGAINST GRAIN; EMBRACED UNIQUENESS
Former Miami greats knew that they weren’t an Alabama, Penn State or Notre Dame—nor did they aspire to be. It’s almost too easy at those small-town football factories; the built-in fan bases in rah-rah college towns—a built-in love and adoration, because you’re all those townsfolk have got; the ultimate participation trophy.
Kids who came to Miami for all the right reasons; fast to bask in average facilities, sparse crowds and the challenge of having to perform to garner the city’s attention. Nothing was ever going to come easy—but if you beat the odds at this private university at the bottom of the Sunshine State; prepare to be respected locally and revered nationally.
Highsmith drove it got; as long as Miami was winning—everything was all good in the ‘hood. The decade of dominance era Hurricanes were treated like a pro sports franchise, opposed to a standard powerhouse college football team. Winning was everything and was the mantra; from the head coach, to the assistants, to the staffers and athletic department employees—”national championship, or bust” was the goal every fall; the standard and expectation.
“When you’re from Miami, you have to be good in order for the people to come out—Howard Schnellenberger understood that. Jimmy Johnson understood that. The importance of football was manifested through our coaching—everything we did at the University of Miami was to be a national champion,” Highsmith shared. “If we wanted 80,000 people in the stands—we knew we had to win. Football was of the utmost importance—and the urgency was always high. The standards were set at the University of Miami; it was either national championship, or bust—and that’s how we approached every season.”
Outside of the University of Alabama, the championship-or-bust mindset no longer exists in college football—as it took building a modern day machine in Tuscaloosa to attract the best national talent annually. Play for the Crimson Tide for three to four years—a player is all but guaranteed a few SEC Championships and at least one national title; a turnkey process.
Bama’s process is so tried and true, Georgia has gone all-in copying the blueprint—starting with a $200,000,000 investment into football and athletic three years ago, literally called the “Do More” campaign—verbalizing their attempt to chase and topple a giant.
Quoting the flamboyant Ric Flair, “To be the man, you gotta beat the man”—and as the 2021 seasons unfolds, No. 1 Georgia finally looks up for the challenge of dethroning a champion—on a collision course to meet Alabama in the SEC Championship game, though Saban and the Tide are never to be counted out.
HOW TO WIN BIG WITHOUT BIG TIME PLAYERS?
The only thing Highsmith wasn’t asked to quantify or to answer—the age-old chicken and the egg dilemma that has plagued Miami for years; how do the Canes find a way to win with the talent they have, to attract the talent that they ultimately need to win big?
Obviously a top-tier head coach and well-paid staff could recruit and develop talent better than the low-rent hires Miami has employed over the past two decades—but even a great sales pitch isn’t going to top the millions of dollars big winners like Alabama and Georgia throw annually at their recruiting experience.
Attracting top 5-Star talent that the biggest and best are chasing down—it requires being a winner, not selling a long-term, how-to-win game plan. Miami is faced with having to win big without the big time talent it’s working to attract.
Furthermore, how do you sell today’s me-first athlete on something bigger than themselves?
Listening to Highsmith talk about how he, Bratton, Brown, Moss and others were willing to get on board with Schellenberger’s long-term vision—how can that even resonate in today’s instant-gratification world and with today’s self-absorbed, short-sighted athletes?
Selling players on being the foundation or building block for something that might not take root until after they’re gone—most will choose going somewhere the process is already in place; setting them up to win big immediately and to gain massive exposure as a result—which impacts personal brands, social media engagement rates and the ability to get paid in this new NIL college athletics landscape.
Miami hasn’t seen a collection of these kind of selfless athletes since Butch Davis was pitching a probation-era rebuild and a next-generation player like Edgerrin James bought in—that 1996 class also landing foundation-layers Damione Lewis, Daniel Franks, Nate Webster, Al Blades and James Jackson—en route to an unthinkable 9-3 run, for a program conditioned to be in the hunt every year.
Probation bottomed the Canes out the following year—the 5-6 run Miami’s first losing season since 1979—but the ballers kept lining up and buying in; that 1997 class including Ed Reed, Najeh Davenport, Dan Morgan, Kenny Kelly, Reggie Wayne, Daryl Jones, Martin Bibla and Markese Fitzgerald, as well as Santana Moss—who agreed to come to Miami on a track scholarship in order to play football.
Three years later, Miami was national championship-ready again—the best team in college football at the end of the 2000 season, before winning it all in 2001 and having it stolen in 2002—all because of the buy-in, belief, hard work and chances this collection of kids was willing to take a few years prior.
Proven winners like James, Franks, Jackson, Webster, Wayne, Moss and Morgan all left Miami without a ring—but became legends as the guys who sacrificed and put this program on their back—in effort to carry the Canes to the top again.
Highsmith believes Miami has enough talent-wise right now to at least win the ACC Coastal—but stopped short of saying the Canes could win the conference, reach the College Football Playoffs or chase championships in this current state. He also stayed away from the topic of Manny Diaz—politically correct in offering up nothing more than not knowing what Miami’s third-year guy has or doesn’t have in the tank as the guy currently in charge.
PLAY YOUR BEST, NOT YOUR FAVORITES
An indirect shot was taken, though—the topic of playing the best players, versus the discontent that brews when coaches subscribe to a safe seniority system—rewarding those who have simply been around longer, versus those who pass the eye test. Highsmith called it the recipe for disaster it’s been for years at Miami—predating Diaz and going back to the post-Davis era.
The hard-hitting former running back talked about famed practice battles at Greentree and how the greats would refuse to come out of games—not wanting to lose their job to hungry back-ups, while confidently believing no one could to the job as good as they were doing it. Anyone not on the field that wanted to play—you better good-and-hell-well snatch that opportunity in practice, or the rare game moment where it was time to shine.
The best way for a back-up to see playing time was when Miami was rolling heads and destroying the competition, to the point where second stringers were theoretically in the game to take some heat off—except that Hurricanes back-ups played like their lives depended on it.
Johnson was crucified for running up the score on Notre Dame in 1985—crushing the Gerry Faust-led squad 58-7 in the beloved coach’s final game—left to forever explain that his back-ups were overachievers, using these “garbage minutes” as their audition and real-game chance to shine.
That balls-out attitude was precisely what scouts have told Highsmith they loved over the years; always relishing a Miami practice, as those moments showed them everything they needed to know about said player. Scouts in that era would even jokingly ask of the Canes realized they had a game that particular weekend, as guys were going all out at the highest level.
There was no off switch back then—which was the brand—Miami players always full-throttle. that was the expectation, how they were wired and who they were at their core. Can Miami ever get back to that place? Doubtful, as it no longer exists. One would have to imagine that even today’s Alabama and Georgia players don’t come close to that level of intensity—or insanity—as these older cats were just built different.
Still, Highsmith is correct that Miami is a carefully-crafted brand and it must follow a different script than what other traditional powers do to succeed.
IDENTIFY “THE GUY”; BRING HIM IN & LET IT RIP
Knowing thyself is the jumping off point—as is setting proper expectations and then having the proper leadership in place to execute; which hasn’t been the case since Butch pulled out of town 20 years ago.
Look at those past Hurricanes coaching legends and their career trajectories after succeeding at Miami; Schnelly to the upstart USFL, Johnson taking over the Dallas Cowboys, Dennis Erickson parlaying two rings into the Seattle Seahawks job, while Davis headed to Cleveland after rebuilding the probation-era Canes.
Now look at everyone since; Larry Coker propped up as the face and mascot for a new University of Texas-San Antonio program for a few years, simply because he won big with Davis’ kids. Randy Shannon coached linebackers in the SEC for a few years before even landing a full time defensive coordinator position again—while Al Golden has coached linebackers for a few low-rent NFL franchise since Miami sent him packing; neither coming anywhere close to a head coach or CEO-type role again.
Mark Richt had the cachet after 15 successful years at the University of Georgia; but the Canes needed him in 2006, not 2016—a watered-down version of himself, ready to retire and only taking Miami’s call because it was his alma mater. Three years in, Richt waved the white flag—admitting he didn’t have the stomach to rebuild this thing from scratch.
As for Diaz, his prowess has been discussed here ad nauseam these past couple of years—now sitting at 16-14 and in a downward spiral; wanting to be liked and accepted by his players, opposed the healthily feared and respected. Diaz is all flash and no substance—proven this season as his 2-4 Hurricanes are still breaking out stupid chains and rings for sideline photoshoots in games Miami where is getting its teeth kicked in and ultimately loses.
Listening to Highsmith’s reverence for the iconic coaches he played for; a reminder just what it takes to build a champion. Miami needs the right, proven guy at the helm—not another lazy, cheap, inexperienced, up-and-comer hire it hopes can learn on the job and figure it out.
The program also needs a complete buy-in within the walls of Hecht Athletic Center—a board of trustees willing to do (and spend) whatever it takes to win, an empowered athletic director who puts that plan into motion on a daily basis, as well as a university president who is all-in and speaking the same language—realizing the importance a powerhouse football program does to enhance the university as a national brand.
BURN IT ALL DOWN & TRULY BUILD BACK BETTER
Sadly, the first step forward in this process requires two steps back—losing big now, to wipe the slate clean and to start over.
Kirk Herbstreit fired a big shot when calling out the University of Miami on ESPN’s College GameDay—the general incompetence, the noticeable drop-off and a laissez faire approach to running an athletic department and once-proud football program—which exposed and embarrassed UM internally; proven by their attempts to defend the current process.
With all eyes on Miami, to see how year three of the Diaz era plays out—crushing losses must follow—turning 2-4 into 2-6, if not worse. This season needs to be put out to pasture, while this current coaching regime is put down like a dying dog. Sympathy was evoked by way of two heartbreaking, final second losses for the Hurricanes—which unfortunately negated the argument that should’ve been built about games against Virginia and North Carolina being given away the first 59 minutes, by way of slow starts, sloppy play, mistakes, mental errors and garbage fundamentals.
No. 18 North Carolina State heads to town on Saturday—in what should be a barren HardRock, outside all the red and black adorned fans who made the 10-hour drive south from Raleigh—in what could be a very lopsided loss for the Hurricanes; the Wolfpack packing a punch this fall. Next, a road trip to take on a gritty No. 23 Pittsburgh team, ready to throw a stout defense against an inept, mistake-prone offense.
Should both do the trick and send Diaz packing, it should send Miami’s top brass back to the drawing board—spending the coming months devising a plan to build a winner again. When that happens, the hiding-in-plain-sight Highsmith needs to be on speed-dial and welcomed back to this program with open arms—as no one gets the brand, the blueprint and balls needed to tap into a tried and true recipe for success at The U.
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 is a storyteller for some exciting brands and individuals—as well as a guitarist and songwriter for his band Company Jones, who just released their debut album “The Glow”. Hit him on Twitter for all things U-related @ItsAUThingBLOG.