The Miami Hurricanes prepare for their 2022 season opener this weekend—making this the perfect time for the UM fan base to take a breath to reflect on all that’s happened during this nine-month whirlwind.
Without a slew of off-season mini-miracles last December, UM is preparing to take the field in year four of the Manny Diaz era this weekend—which would’ve been both disappointing and fitting when summing up how things have played out in disappointing fashion for “The U” these past 15 years.
Instead, every luck break, fortunate bounce, calculated behind-the-scenes effort and serendipitous act that needed to happen to turn things around—it all incredibly came together through optimal timing when Miami welcomed home native son Mario Cristobal, who his alma mater poached from Oregon in complete underdog, upset fashion at the end of the 2021 regular season.
Miami fans will have the rest of 2022 to talk the ins and outs of Hurricanes football, but with the new season underway this Saturday at HardRock, a moment of reflection and a quick look back at everything that went right for UM over the past nine months—as well as the bevy of disasters that put the Canes in such a hole in the first place.
CHECKERS, NOT CHESS FOR ‘THE U’ PAST TWO DECADES
Even the most ardent supporter of the University of Miami couldn’t have seen this one coming; UM elbowing its way back to the high-stakes table with a fat stack of chips—ready to play big time football and to again chase championships.
The masses had resigned themselves to Miami’s morph into the low-rent, small-budget program it’s been the past 15 seasons. Instead, the Hurricanes miraculously rose from the ashes and is putting together all the necessary pieces to make a big run again in the near future.
With real change taking place and authentic optimism now in the air, loyalists can officially let down their guard—transparently admitting what a farce this wash-rinse-repeat process has been for Miami these past two decades.
Larry Coker was a stopgap hire and fumbled the dynasty he was handed—slowly destroying all that Butch Davis built over a six-year span. With Davis leaving the cupboard full, Coker saw a 35-3 run, a national championship and back-to-back title games.
From there, wheels were off; a 25-12 stumble over the next three years—everything crashing down in 2006 during a brutal 7-6 season leading to Coker’s dismissal.
Randy Shannon was a solid defensive coordinator when he had a loaded two-deep and could out-talent the competition—but he was a cheap and lazy hire by UM, as the program wasn’t far-removed from greatness in 2006 and the administration should’ve been more aggressive to right the ship while things were fixable.
This also would’ve been an ideal time to have brought Davis back into the fold, but the opportunity was fumbled—North Carolina bringing in the former Miami dynasty architect two weeks before Coker was canned.
Another swing and a miss for “The U”.
When another promoted-from-withing experiment tanked, a supposed up-and-comer in Al Golden fast-proved to be an off-brand, empty suit who was swallowed whole on the main stage—sent packing midway through year five—the day after a 58-0 home loss to Clemson in 2015.
Mark Richt might’ve been the right guy in a different era, but he showed up a decade too late. He was followed by Manny Diaz, who proved to be a better politician and poker player than head coach; lurking around after the out-of-nowhere retirement of his boss and forcing the hand of Miami’s administrators who hired him within hours or Richt’s departure.
UM fearing Diaz would stick with his new Temple opportunity if they didn’t make a decision before he headed back to Philadelphia; as if he wouldn’t have left the Owls in the dust two weeks later if Miami conducted a search and landed back on him.
Donna Shalala neutered the football program and ran it into the ground during her tenure at UM’s president, while Blake James was a lame-duck hire at athletic director—the university settling for stability after Kirby Hocutt and Shawn Eichorst both used the office as a pit stop and stepping stone to bigger opportunities.
A dead fish always stinks from its head down and when one throughly inspects every misstep the University of Miami’s top brass has taken since Davis took his talents to the NFL—there was zero reason to believe the Hurricanes would ever truly compete again in this modern era of college football.
Money talks, bullshit walks and while other programs began pouring hundreds of millions into building powerhouses, UM resigned itself to a lean budget—living off adidas and ACC television revenue, while its marketing department relied on nostalgia—propping up the good ol’ days and ancient history as the present-day Canes were nothing to write home about.
The old game plan for returning to greatness was laughable. Hire a second-rate coach and hope he could find a way to win big enough with the talent he had on the roster. This would theoretically allow him to lure in some bigger names during the next recruiting cycle—and then he could attempt it again, after a slightly better season. Win another game or two, pick tip another solid kid here or there—painstakingly building the program back one brick at a time.
FOOL’S GOLD WITH MIRACLE ’17 CANES SEASON
The closest this ever came to fruition was 2017, when Richt’s squad kept eking out wins en route to a 7-0 start—setting up back-to-back prime time showdown against No. 13 Virginia Tech and No. 3 Notre Dame, which the momentum-riding Canes won soundly.
Prior to those showdowns, nail-biters against Florida State, Georgia Tech, Syracuse and North Carolina were all one play from going the other way—where a few losses would’ve kept games against the Hokies and Irish out of coveted prime-time slots, or at minimum had HardRock barely rolling.
Exposed by a four-loss Pittsburgh team in the regular season finale, Miami was boat-raced in it’s lone ACC title game appearance—Clemson up 38-0 in the fourth quarter before Richt opted for a field goal to simply not get shut out.
Weeks later, an Orange Bowl homecoming spoiled by a Wisconsin squad that out-toughed a Miami team that went up 14-3 and fell 34-24.
The three-game losing streak carried over into 2018 as well—Richt finishing 8-9 after that miraculous 10-0 start—which led to his stepping down after another bowl loss to the Badgers; the rebuild of his alma mater proving too much after a grueling 15-year run in the SEC, where he got Georgia close, but never over the hump.
Consensus was that the Diaz hire was absolutely rushed and knee-jerk, but denial and anger soon led to some form of acceptance—fans trying to rally around a defensive coordinator who seemed to understand the brand and came across like he had the passion to get things turned around.
Diaz was a Miami native who grew up going to the Orange Bowl during the Decade of Dominance-era and a diehard supported of the Canes—but could he rebuild a UM program in the mold of the ones he grew up watching up close and personal?
Fast, hard-hitting defenses with electric offenses and game-changing special teams—better conditioned than any opponent, with true swag on display by way of on-the-field success and next-level effort put in at Greentree—followed by roping off The State of Miami and keeping the best South Florida talent home?
It might’ve sounded good on paper for those who sold themselves on the pipe dream, but in reality the three-year experiment was the complete opposite.
FRAUDULENT DIAZ ERA IS FINALLY EXPOSED
A smoke-and-mirrors effort followed with Diaz—all bark and no bite, starting with his cigar-chomping gangster-moment as he floated into a booster outing on an 88-foot yacht—prefaced by as a WWE-style practice facility event in January 2019, where “7-6” signs were slapped on tackling dummies and the new head coach joined the player meleé in cringe-worthy fashion.
Since Diaz’s departure, reports of cultural issues, playing favorites and opting not to discipline top players, out of fear they’d transfer—which is precisely the disastrous recipe for how a team like cross-town, commuter-school rival Florida International upset Miami and its curfew-breaking quarterback on that dismal November night at Marlins Stadium, where the beloved Orange Bowl one stood.
As has been pointed out here for years, Diaz wanted to be liked and accepted, opposed to feared and respect—something Barry Jackson exposed in a Miami Herald piece in late July:
“My educated theory is that the lack of discipline, the fact that Diaz let things slide, boiled down to one issue: Diaz wanted players—at least his best players—to like him, because he feared losing them—figuratively—or literally, to the Transfer Portal or to the NFL,” wrote the longtime columnist.
While the loss to FIU was the beginning of the end, a 2-4 start in 2021 proved to be the final straw for the decision-makers—while fans were split between praying for 8-4, while those who’d seen enough were ready for 3-9.
Beat lowly Florida State, lose to everybody else and be gone.
Of course Diaz did the opposite; winning out—except for a must-win game in Tallahassee where Miami gave up a crucial 4th-and-14 late, falling to a Seminoles program that had only won six of it’s past 18 games—including a home loss to Jacksonville State earlier in the year.
Whatever was accomplished with a midseason, three-game win-streak—both sides were out for blood after an inexplicable loss to a putrid FSU squad—yet even with that, Diaz looked to remain at UM, if not for a perfect storm that began brewing mid-season, coming to fruition the first weekend of December.
Had it not been for a few billionaires taking matters into their own hands—reaching out cryptically to a hometown son at a fork in the road career-wise—Diaz would’ve most-likely seen year four in Coral Gables.
PERFECT STORM PAVED WAY FOR NATIVE SON’S RETURN
Instead, all roads ultimately led to Cristobal—always hiding in plain sight as a head coaching option for UM, though the timing wasn’t optimal until here and now.
The fourth-year Oregon leader also had a good thing going on in Eugene—and he wasn’t trekking back to his alma mater for anything less than a perfect scenario, where demands had to be met, championship intentions laid out and the University of Miami committed to making Hurricanes football great again.
In short, UM needed to prove it had its shit together or Mario wasn’t coming home.
As for the resume, a two-time national champion (1989, 1991) and a grad assistant under Butch Davis from 1998 through 2000—Cristobal spent the next two decades climbing the coaching ladder and proving his worth.
When Davis bailed for the NFL after the 2001 Sugar Bowl, Cristobal followed Greg Schiano to Rutgers, after the UM defensive coordinator accepted the head coaching gig for the Scarlet Knights.
Three years later, Cristobal was back in Coral Gables under Coker, where he coached tight end for two seasons and offensive line for one—before taking the teeth-cutting, doomed-to-fail head coaching opportunity at Florida International—where he achieved a winning record by year four and the Golden Panthers won their first-ever bowl game.
Run off after year six, Cristobal had a six-week run at UM where he joined Golden’s staff, before Nick Saban came calling with a career-changing opportunity. It was a move that riled Miami fans up in the moment, while those leaning on logic over emotion knew was the only path if Cristobal was ever going to be in position to take the top job at UM down the road.
Love of UM aside, Cristobal would been a complete fool to stay on at Miami under Golden—in the midst of an NCAA investigation, no less—instead of saddling up next to Saban at Alabama.
The next four seasons saw Cristobal in an assistant head coach, recruiting coordinator, offensive line coach hybrid role in Tuscaloosa—where he picked up a national championship ring (2015), as well as slew of wisdom and knowledge from arguably the greatest college football head coach of the modern era.
What difference would Cristobal have made in Coral Gables from 2013, through Golden’s mid-season firing in 2015? Outside of an extra recruiting battle won here or there, zero would’ve been done to advance his coaching career—sitting under a lame-duck Miami head coach, versus being plugged into a modern-day powerhouse at Alabama. This was the only logical step and a career-defining moment.
Period, full stop.
The next opportunity to ladder-climb revealed itself in Eugene when Willie Taggart tapped Cristobal to be his offensive coach, co-offensive coordinator and run-game coordinator at Oregon for the 2017 season—which created another game-changing, college football-defining moment after Taggart left for Florida State in December and the Ducks promoted Cristobal to head coach for 2018; a four-year run that had him ready to either take Oregon to the next level, or to channel that energy into his alma mater.
Cristobal built on Taggart’s 7-6 run in 2017, going 9-4 in 2018—followed by a 12-2 run, a Pac-12 title and Rose Bowl victory in his second season.
COVID-19 caused a quirky season for Oregon—the Pac-12 starting the season in November, after original plans to cancel—but the Ducks still won the conference, before falling in the Fiesta Bowl to No. 10 Iowa State.
In his final year at Oregon, Cristobal reached 10-1 before getting clobbered in back-to-back games by a solid Utah team—the final regular season road game, as well as in the conference championship—where plans to solidify his return to Miami came to life the first weekend of December.
Regarding this return to Coral Gables—made official on December 6th, the Monday after Friday’s Pac-12 title game—money no longer an issue, after a regular season full of Oregon fans, Miami rivals and college football pundits all swearing up and down that the Ducks head coach would never leave his current position—or personal Nike contract via Phil Knight—for a notoriously-cheap, non-contender that was the modern-day University of Miami.
While the Diaz-led Hurricanes were losing on the field, Miami faithful were working tirelessly behind the scenes—well-aware it would take more than just tugged heart strings and the lure of home to get him to take the road less traveled—walking away from what he’d spent four years building at Oregon.
UM GETS ITS MAN; RECEIVES IMMEDIATE FACELIFT
Jose Mas, Jorge Mas and and other wealthy, influential Miami fans, alumni, natives or friends of the program began throwing the only type of weight around that mattered—big dollars—which ultimately moved mountains. (Same to be said for local billionaire John Ruiz, whose LifeWallet efforts are turning the NIL game on its collective ear.)
Regarding all the knocks on Shalala for her lack of interest in athletics, her investment in the medical program wound up with the school’s hospital system bringing in record dollars during the pandemic; some of which was diverted towards athletics by way of current UM president Dr. Julio Frenk.
The result, a 10-year, $80-million deal was offered to Cristobal—as well as a promise to invest in a staff and infrastructure; plans for a football operations center underway—while Cristobal virtually had a blank checkbook when luring assistants to Coral Gables.
Cristobal plucked offensive coordinator Josh Gattis from Michigan and veteran SEC defensive coordinator Kevin Steele, while bringing his Columbus High, sidekick offensive coordinator Alex Mirabal back home—as well as defensive line coach and associate head coach Joe Salave’a.
Cristobal was also was Sabanesque in selling Miami as a stepping-stone coaching environment; a way for a Charlie Strong to get back to something bigger, with the former Louisville, Texas and South Florida head coach signing on to coach linebackers, as well as co-defensive coordinator duties. Frank Ponce is also taking a step backwards to go foward; leaving an offensive coordinator position at Appalachian State to coach quarterbacks for the Canes.
Bryan McClendon was also set to follow Cristobal from Eugene to Miami, but his alma mater called and he took a passing-game coordinator position with Georgia. Cristobal got the last laugh, though—poaching secondary coach Jahmile Addae from Athens; also the national champion Bulldogs’ top recruiter.
Administration-wise, there was also the massive hire of Dan Radakovich at athletic director—poached from his perch at Clemson, Miami went from having the equivalent of a substitute teacher running the department, to a proven, heavy-hitter who will lead Hurricanes sports into an insanely bright future.
Miami also brought Alonzo Highsmith back home; something that’s been kicked around within the program for years—nixed by Diaz in a beta move years back, opting to hire Ed Reed in a motivational-type role—knowing that Highsmith would’ve come in like a wrecking ball, exposing the smoke-and-mirrors campaign Diaz was running.
Again, another moment for pause after rattling off a who’s who list of names like the one above.
FROM PRETENDERS TO CONTENDERS, VIRTUALLY OVERNIGHT
A message to old school fans—relive Miami’s coaching staffs between 2004 and 2021 and the type of names the Canes were landing, settling for and trying to get excited about.
Recall an era of Miami football where a 5-Star prospect like Kyle Wright showed up on campus, ready to follow the path of fellow California quarterback Ken Dorsey—only to spend 2003 through 2007 with four different offensive coordinators attempting to coach him up.
A redshirt season with the capable Rob Chudzinski before two seasons with Dan Werner and then throwaway season where Rich Olson and Todd Berry were shoehorned onto Coker’s dead-men-walking staff, before a senior year with a new head coach in Shannon and Patrick Nix calling plays.
UM should’ve given Wright a severance package for the way the program was shoddily run during his five-year tenure.
Miami fans deserve some kind of penance, as well—as a program that racked up five national titles in less than two decades (while leaving a few more on the field and having one stolen) has morphed into a shell of itself. The “U” was still on the side of the helmets, while players ran through the smoke and held up four fingers at the beginning of every fourth quarter—but it was all a charade as UM leaned on what the brand once was in effort to hype the present-day hot mess it’d become.
For those keeping score, Miami amassed a 118-85 record, between the 2005 Peach Bowl debacle (a 40-3 loss to LSU) and Diaz’s final win in 2021 (a 47-10 victory at Duke). Divide that number over 16 seasons and the Hurricanes average out annually as a 7-5 football program.
Compare and contrast that to the decade-long run where Miami won four championships games (1983, 1987, 1981, 1991), lost three (1985, 1986, 1992), were robbed at a shot of playing for one (1988) and were still the best team in the country in a year they choked away a road opener, blowing their shot of playing for it all (1990)—”The U” going 107-14 between 1983 and 1992, which averages out to 10-1 over that dominant era.
LIES TOLD TO SURVIVE THE DROUGHT
Rarely in the modern era has a program feasted, only to live through the type of famine the University of Miami has endured he past two decades—which is why so many forced themselves to buy into every false start over the years.
The lies we sold ourselves on to white-knuckle our way through season after season. A few of those greatest hits:
— “Coker is the guy to keep this thing rolling. All he has to do is maintain what Davis built. Keep winning, keep recruiting well and follow the blueprint. Tis thing can be foolproof.”
— “Shannon wasn’t our first choice, but he might just be able to pull it off. Long-time defensive coordinator ready for his shot. Played for the Canes. Miami native. Understands the brand. Solid recruiter. If he can just surround himself with some veteran assistants to show him the ropes, he may be able to turn this thing around.”
— “Golden isn’t a Miami guy, but he did turn Temple around and looks like a real an up-and-comer. Did you see the press conference and that 300-page binder with all the motivational stuff? Psychology background like Jimmy, too—he can get into guys heads and get the best out of them. Got the Owls to 9-4 and a bowl game. We’ll see.”
— “This might just be the late-career shot in the arm Richt needs; coming back home after a grueling run in the SEC. Laid back guy and solid coach who could have one final run in him to resurrect his alma mater—this is the best coach quality-wise Miami has seen since Butch.”
— “Sucks that UM didn’t do a full search here, rushing to bring Diaz back from Temple, but he did a decent job with the defense the past few years and maybe he can be a shot in the arm for the program—local guy who knows the brand and young enough to relate to players—if he builds a solid staff around him, he might surprise.”
Paraphrasing as everyone’s personal bargaining stories are slightly different, but these were the type of things so many Canes fans told themselves with every new regime change—after all those first-, second- and third-choice wish-list coaching hires never came to fruition, forcing the fan base to rally around some new lesser hire.
All of that changed in December 2021 when Cristobal returned; a guy that checks off pretty much every box for the unique program that is “The U”—a private university nestled in a suburb of a large, diverse, metropolitan city, where most fans aren’t alum and each new season of college football has to compete with professional sports and countless other forms of entertainment.
Eugene and Tuscaloosa are college sports towns; Miami is an entertainment-driven city—so the Hurricanes better fast find a way to captivate if they want to garner the attention of local sports fans and restless alumni.
However this new season plays out, Miami fans can finally rest assured that a winning infrastructure is getting put in place, while a Cristobal-led program will certainly pass the eye and smell test immediately; especially in comparison to what this program has looked like over the past 15 years.
UM finally has a hard-nosed alpha back atop the program for the first time since the 2000 season when Davis went 11-1 before bailing for the NFL—which is a must at a program with such rich tradition, in a city with so many distractions.
FAKE SWAG, BE GONE—LET’S GET REAL
It’s been a long run of Miami teams full of guys who missed the message that ‘swagger’ comes when the work has been put in all week and the score is being run up on an overmatched opponent on Saturday afternoon. That’s the attitude that built this program the first time, brought it back in the mid-nineties and remains the recipe for success in 2022 and beyond.
To think that a year ago this month, the Hurricanes sat at 1-2 after getting throttled by Alabama, surviving Appalachian State and getting outlasted by Michigan State—only to mug for cameras on the sideline after each score—posing with hardware while blasting a glorified high school (Central Connecticut State) in a 69-0 rout. (This event also took place hours after ESPN’s Kirk Herbstreit went scorched earth on a broken-beyond-repair, Diaz era Miami program.)
And some wonder why the Turnover Chain and Touchdown Rings were done away with in the Cristobal era—the antithesis of authentic swag past Hurricanes earned the right to put on display to the world, only after winning big.
All this to say, even with the addition of Cristobal, a top-flight staff and with millions of dollars being poured into revamping the program—this will not be an overnight fix for the Hurricanes. Outside of some cultural issues and bad habits that will take a minute to fix, this new coaching staff needs time to put its fingerprints all over this Miami program—while stacking depth and recruiting like madmen over the next couple of seasons.
Upside; Miami will take on an average Coastal Division in the ACC this year—with a few home tune-up games against Bethune-Cookman and Southern Miss these next two weeks, before arriving on the main stage for a primetime road showdown in College Station against sixth-ranked Texas A&M.
One more scrimmage against Middle Tennessee State takes place after a showdown with the Aggies—and then it’s off to there races with conference play, starting at home against a North Carolina program that’s been a thorn in the Canes side since UM joined the ACC in 2004.
Quirky road games at Virginia and Virginia Tech are sandwiched between home showdown against Duke and Florida State—before heading to Georgia Tech and Clemson and then closing at home against Pittsburgh.
TIME TO BELIEVE, BUT CAN’T RUSH PROCESS
Fans immediately want to define year one by wins and losses, but most-importantly the Canes need to pass the eye test when they run out the tunnel this fall. Get back to playing up to the level of competition, instead of down. When that fourth quarter hits in College Station on September 17th—will those strength and conditioning gains kick in, or will Miami wilt late like it did against Michigan State last fall?
Looking at this current schedule, the temptation to say best-case scenario, 11-1 and a worst-case 9-3—it seem feasible—but it’s been a lifetime since Miami proved anything real or lived up to expectations.
Wins at Texas A&M and Clemson are doable, but are they reasonable? And will Miami have the moxie and maturity to endure road games in Charlottesville and Blacksburg, where the Canes have run into buzzsaws at times—even in years where UM had the better team on-paper? Time will tell.
The only given going into the 2022 season is the fact that coaching-wise and program-wise—Miami is officially back on track and is no longer pissing in the wind.
There is an infrastructure in place and a right-fit head coach with the skills-set and blueprint to make the Hurricanes a true contender in a matter of years. The recruitment and development of players that has been sporadic (at best) over the past 15-plus years—fans can let down their guard, finally trusting this process in a way they couldn’t with the last five head coaches.
Get excited, Hurricanes faithful—but don’t run ahead of the cloud, tempting as it might be.
Again, this time last year Miami was days away from getting its teeth kicked in by Alabama in the season opener—a 44-13 rout, while UM was shamed nationally for busting out a silly prop chain when a turnover was called back, as well as rocking dumb rings after finally getting in the end zone mid-third quarter, after finding itself down 41-3.
To wind up punting on Diaz months later, reeling in Cristobal and heading back into the lab for nine months to rebuild this thing—savor that and don’t allow yourself to take it for granted, as you already know others will.
Everyone has seen this show before; if Miami walks out of Texas A&M with a loss in two weeks, the mouth-breathers and mental midgets will take to social media, calling for Cristobal’s head—taking out two decades of frustration as they clamor for 15-0 the Canes to sit atop the college football world again year one.
Find the balance this fall; cautiously optimistic where things are headed in year one—but with full belief that building block are being laid for a better tomorrow. This is no longer a throw-shit-at-the-wall-and-hope-it-sticks brand of Miami football; second rate coaches in fake-it-til-you-make-it mode—needing to get luck to survive.
It’s time to believe in ‘The U’ again. Miami isn’t back, but it’s officially on the mend and every new week is a step towards future greatness and a building block to the return of championship ways.
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 Miami-bred band Company Jones, who just released their debut album “The Glow”. Hit him on Twitter for all things U-related @ItsAUThingBLOG.