The Miami Hurricanes survived a home showdown against the Central Michigan Chippewas last weekend—the entire premise of that sentence so deflating, this piece was pushed off until the climate cooled and a bye week could serve as a welcomed distraction.
In the wake of a win that had the feel and energy of a loss, there was no rush to deep-dive or breakdown the where, how or why of the lethargic debacle. Central Michigan brought the fight, Miami played down to the level of the competition and a sloppy, poorly-executed dogfight ensued. End of story.
Despite holding on for a 17-12 victory, game four of the Manny Diaz error was a stumble—both on the field, as well as the court of public opinion.
Close road setbacks against Florida and North Carolina were somewhat sellable; Miami showed fight in both, rallied late for the lead and played tough—a few mental team mistakes or breakdowns in a young secondary proving to be difference-makers in two losses by a combined seven points. From there, a 63-0 home rout of Bethune-Cookman felt like a perfect tune-up with ACC play a few weeks out—leaving no reason to believe Miami would struggle with Central Michigan, yet that’s precisely what happened.
There are two approaches one can take when digesting and processing this current State of Miami.
The more common method is to continue flying off the handle, bitching about 15 years of irrelevance, ranting that fans “deserve better”, that the “standard of excellence” isn’t being met and to fantasize about Miami hiring top-flight athletic directors and coaching staffs—bailing out on this new regime a third of the way through season one—while living in complete denial regarding to the desirability of these admin-related gigs at The U and blindly ignoring the state of the program Diaz and crew inherited.
Those who stand in that overreactive camp may as well bail out of this piece now and take their show to the nearest message board to scream into the ether. No time here to cater to the over-emotional, knee-jerk crowd that is going to bitch-moan-and-complain game-by-game, or even drive-by-drive. Been doing this too long to try and sell the unsellable.
These pieces are written for those who at least attempt to rise above the bullshit and are working to take a logical, realistic approach to what is, versus what one personally thinks a rebuild should look like—mostly-rooted in simply being tired of the Canes’ irrelevance and nostalgic for a better era of UM football.
CAN’T AUTHENTICALLY DISCUSS PRESENT WITHOUT OWNING RECENT PAST
Back to beating a dead horse—as so many still refuse to look at Miami’s overall body of work the past 15 years; screaming about some mythical ‘standard’ that hasn’t been the case since Butch Davis built a contender from the ground-on-up in the late nineties and Larry Coker pissed it away, unable to recruit and run a program at the high-level of his predecessor; Coker 35-3 with Davis’ talent his first three seasons and 25-12 his final three.
A few low-lights regarding the past decade-and-a-half of Miami Hurricanes football worth re-mentioning:
— 1-of-15 in Coastal Division titles and zero ACC Championships since leaving the BIG EAST after the 2003 season.
— An impossible-to-fathom 99-71 record dating back to Coker’s final season at UM in 2006.
— A three-year NCAA investigation that crushed the overall brand, crippled recruiting and made the head coaching gig a less-than-desirable option—in the midst of a five-year drought where UM was already a watered-down version of what it had been at the turn of the century.
— Five different head coaches in 14 seasons and massive turnover regarding assistants during that span—resulting in zero growth or consistency.
Most-recently, a 7-6 run that saw Mark Richt stepping down after three years–the worst offensive production Miami football has seen since probation in the mid-nineties and a 35-3 post-season loss to Wisconsin that demoralized a program that felt it’d finally taken a step forward after a 10-3 run in 2017.
Knowing all of this to be true, how and why did so many supporters misconstrue any The New Miami talk as if it were some instant-fix—opposed to the long term-attitude adjustment, aggressive mindset, culture change and long-term end-goal product Diaz and staff intended it as?
Diaz got the job because Richt wasn’t getting it done and chose early retirement over the difficult task of rebuilding the Canes; the gig tougher than originally anticipated for the burned-out, long-time Georgia head coach.
Richt only landed the gig late 2015 because Al Golden was still a hot, off-brand mess year five—on the wrong end of a 58-0 mid-season, home ass kicking courtesy of Clemson and hitting his ceiling.
Golden was only hired because Randy Shannon stumbled to 7-6 year four and showed no signs of improvement—the former linebacker-turned-defensive-coordinator getting hand the keys only after Coker’s eventual skid, unable to maintain what Davis had painfully created—and in an era where former defensive coordinator and then-Rutgers head coach Greg Schiano turned down a return to Coral Gables.
Back in the day, coaching turnover was the exact opposite—four Miami top guys consecutively poached by the NFL (or USFL). The getting was so good in Coral Gables, big pro money was thrown at Howard Schnellenberger, Jimmy Johnson, Dennis Erickson and eventually Davis—to make the leap; three of four leaving The U in pristine shape for the next-man-up.
All that to say, “the day” is long gone and Miami is consistently dealing with more common coaching changes—constantly hitting reset like so many other programs because things have gone awry with the current guy, the plug is pulled, a new regime begins and things either eventually turn, or it’s rinse, wash, repeat over and over again.
The Canes have been stuck in this negative loop hire after hire; hitting ‘reset’ every couple of years—a move that kills all and any consistency, forces culture rebirths and clean slates on the reg.
IT’S ALL ABOUT … A LACK OF CONSISTENCY; FIVE HEAD COACHES SINCE 2006
It’s become an all-too-familiar place; that three-year window where patience is tested waiting on the newest head coaching hire to put his fingerprints on the program; breaking bad habits with current players and attempting to implement an attitude change with the new recruits—while expecting everyone to jell as soon as possible to quiet the outside noise, distractions and critique.
Diaz is the latest to get the keys to the king down—expressing a #TNM approach as end-goal from the get-go.
“We didn’t build this for August 24th—the idea here is to build monsters that last,” Diaz shared days after the season-opening loss to Florida.
Translation; we’re going to get after things as best we can with what we have—but we can’t clean up a 15-year mess over spring and summer, so be patient, buckle in and and set realistic expectations for 2019—a season that will be full of ups and downs.
“But come on, bro—is it asking too much to think this team has the talent to handle Central Michigan, bro???”
No, but it also shouldn’t be some next-level surprise when these “lesser” teams find a way to show up week-in and week-out, creating chaos for bigger programs—yet it’s been Doomsday for too many “supporters” based on the Canes not blowing out the Chippewas.
A dozen years ago when Appalachian State upended Michigan at home, it was an anomaly—but it’s since become more commonplace.
One month into this season Georgia State upset Tennessee in Knoxville, The Citadel took out Georgia Tech in Atlanta, Missouri was upended at Wyoming, while Florida State and Michigan needed overtime to survive Louisiana-Monroe and Army, respectively—while Iowa State needed three overtimes to avoid home humiliation against Northern Iowa.
Pitt upset Central Florida last Saturday and needed an early fourth quarter touchdown to avoid being upset by Delaware a week later. TCU crushed Kansas this weekend—the Jayhawks still riding high from a road dismantling of Boston College weeks back—yet the Horned Frogs dropped a recent home game to SMU; a Mustangs program that went 5-7 last year and is still best known for barely surviving the Death Penalty decades back.
The era of good programs sleepwalking through showdowns against feisty, upset-minded smaller schools—long gone. Power 5 schools best at least bring their C-game, lest them find themselves in trouble. Miami brought it’s D-game against Central Michigan and almost paid a steep price; something Diaz acknowledged post-game when calling out the season’s most-lethargic practice three days before the Chippewas rolled into HardRock Stadium and almost did the unthinkable.
Incredibly enough, even in the wake of almost losing, the Hurricanes limp-dicked their way through last Sunday’s practice session—which again put the first-year head coach in a position to go foot-up-the-ass with his players; proof of a broken culture and a fragility that has plagued this Hurricanes program for years on end.
When things have gotten bad during this down cycle, Miami has self-imploded—the wheels quickly falling off. Take any sub-par season over the past 15 years; decent starts to a season that fast turn dismal, multiple-game losing streaks that are a ripple effect of dropping a winnable game the Hurricanes can’t bounce back from. Coker, Shannon, Golden and Richt all have their fair share of those moments during their respective runs.
Even in 2017, when Miami eked out some close calls and puffed out chests at 10-0—the wheels were off after falling on the road to a four-win Pittsburgh team; the Canes lethargic in the ACC Championship against Clemson and showing zero resiliency in the Orange Bowl against Wisconsin, blowing an early 14-3 lead and falling 34-24.
NEW “STANDARD” HAS BEEN UNRAVELING, OPPOSED TO PAST ERAS OF DOMINANCE
Last September the Canes were tagged by LSU in the opener and smacked up a few scrubs to get to 5-1—before a four-game losing streak that began at Virginia days after a thrilling comeback to beat Florida State. Richt had another four-game losing streak his first season at Miami; the Canes unable to emotionally get over a late 20-19 home loss to the Seminoles, with a chance to take down the arch-rival for the first time in seven tries.
Golden had his 7-0 start in 2013 before finishing 9-4; including a post-season no-show against Louisville. Shannon had his 9-4 run in 2009—3-1 out the gate with wins over Florida State, Georgia Tech and Oklahoma, with a 31-7 loss at Virginia Tech worked in as undying proof the Canes were definitely not “back”. Toss in an overtime loss to unranked Clemson at home and another epic fail in Chapel Hill, Miami rolled into bowl season 9-3 and looked one-dimensional in a Champs Sports Bowl loss to Wisconsin.
Fans want to scream about some dated “standard” at Miami; welcome to the new-new—an era where the Canes show no resiliency or an ability to respond to any level of adversity; proving their nothing more than a mid-tier ACC bunch that only occasionally shows any sign of life.
Knowing this to be true, is it really a shock Central Michigan gave Miami fits for games into the Diaz era—a team that’s lost 11 of its past 19 games going into last Saturday? Is anyone truly surprised that practice was lethargic a few days after rolling Bethune-Cookman; heads and egos a bit inflated and feeling like things were back on track for beating up a nobody Wildcats squad?
Instead of being alarmed by things that are a direct result of what’s been the new norm that the past four head coaches have been unable to solve—shift the focus to how the fifth head coaching option since the Davis era is meeting the challenge head-on, while addressing and breaking down what is, the why and how it will get fixed, one painful moment at a time.
“We started non-competitive—which means we still choose to be competitive and when not to be competitive. And when I say ‘we’, it’s not every player. It’s not every player on one side of the ball, or the other—but there’s too many guys that run it for everybody,” Diaz explained hours after last Sunday’s effort-less practice—channeling an eighties-era, Johnson-like psychology-related, macro-approach to the problem, as well.
“When you talk about changing a culture, you don’t just put posters on the wall and it just happens. This is something that is years in the making and it’s never easy. Human inertia is to be average and mediocre. That current and that gravitational pull sucks you down every day—and so it just doesn’t happen where all of a sudden everyone is like, ‘I’m going to come in here and bring my best every day.’ That is quite literally why they call us ‘Coach’—to make sure that it happens.”
As to how and why this has happened at Miami; a program rich in culture and history over the past half century—the first-year head coach had more to say.
“New guys come in and they absorb the culture from the older guys in the locker room. That’s all the stories we heard here, the names that are hanging on the ceiling here—they all passed it down. At some point there’s a disconnect and when there’s a disconnect, it has to be rebuilt. It just doesn’t happen.”
Again, not “tweaked” or “finely-tuned”—but rebuilt; as in from scratch. Little pockets of talent at certain positions doesn’t make a championship team—years of building and buying in to a culture; those first wave of guys getting close, but not getting there—paving the way for the next wave of greats who learned and will benefit from those who were that initial class to kick off that rebuild.
WHERE ARE THOSE FOUNDATION-BUILDING, BORN LEADER-TYPE PLAYERS?
This isn’t foreign ground for Miami as the Hurricanes went through a similar process two decades back, albeit under different circumstances—post-probation and gutted scholarship-wise when Davis laid his foundation with those hard-nosed recruiting classes in 1996 and 1997 that set the stage for the dominance that would occur between 2000 and 2003.
A long-gone nineties era where the best local talent wanted to stay home to be a part of something special and took pride in being “the class” that turned things around; guys like Ed Reed eating shit as a r-freshman in Tallahassee in 1997, on the wrong end of that 47-0 ass kicking—saying years later that he didn’t come to Miami to be a part of that.
Four years down the road; #20 standing in that same locker room at Doak Campbell, screaming at his teammates about being hurt, not winning by enough and hell-bent on a mission to bring home a national title as a senior; returning for that one final go-around because he wanted to get the University of Miami it’s fifth ring.
Fast-forward to present day and a front-runner era of college football, where the best of South Florida’s best are worried about the now and personal gain; taking their talents to Tuscaloosa or Athens, knowing that over three to four years they’ll play for a few national championship and maybe win one, or two.
This is precisely why such a big part of Diaz’s culture change involves a different approach to recruiting and a more brass-tacks approach when it comes to recurring Miami-style guys who want to be Hurricanes and know what it means to not only play for The U—but to be part of that special first wave of greats that puts UM back on the trajectory it belongs.
If one can truly wrap their head around things from this vantage point, what was really expected out of of the 2019 season—and why were so many screaming, “12-0!”, predicting a rout of Florida, offended that Virginia was picked to win the Coastal Division and missing the entire point regarding The New Miami as a long-term goal, versus some off-season makeover? 7-6 last season and a history of wilting over the past decade-plus at any signs of adversity—as well as not knowing how to handle any prosperity?
The muscle memory in regards to mediocrity and setbacks; it runs deep and will take time to flush out with this current group—which will inevitably lead to some level of discord as the next wave of Diaz-recruited players rolls in with the attitude this new coaching staff it working to implement.
LONE 2019 GOAL WAS TO FIELD A COMPETITIVE SQUAD LIKE ‘THE U’ OF OLD
Those who’ve accepted what is—the current state of the program, a decade-and-a-half of mediocrity and an understanding that each new regime change is two steps forward, one step back—are equally as disgusted with a 2-2 start and close call against the likes of Central Michigan; but simply don’t have the visceral reaction as their expectations for this season were rooted in logic and the laying of a new foundation.
Seeing a more competitive team that looked like the Miami Hurricanes of old, while competing for a Coastal Division crown and getting better as the year went on—that was the ultimate goal. Yes, it sucked royally to have Florida backed into a corner, only to make a handful more mistakes than “the Gator”— allowing them to escape, 24-20.
No, there are no moral victories, but there was enough good to take from that road loss in Diaz’s first showing—especially when considering the alternative would’ve probably looked more like Miami’s last showing on a football field; that lifeless, lethargic shellacking Wisconsin laid on the Canes in Brooklyn.
Two weeks later in Chapel Hill, the Canes were tagged early—shell-shocked by the packed house and rowdy crowd, despite knowing what was coming—but dug in and fought back; something that hasn’t been the case over the years. Miami took the lead late, appeared to have pulled off the comeback—only to see a secondary (missing last year’s veteran leadership) get burned again, as it was by the Gators, en route to another fourth quarter heartbreak.
It was an 0-2 start; but not the types of lifeless losses the Canes have been racking up since things went to shit a dozen years ago.
Miami took care of Bethune-Cookman and things seemed to be turning, despite the 1-2 record—until heads got big, effort got small and a coaching staff had to take things back to square one, yet again, working to teach kids how to deal with adversity, prosperity and everything in between—things that are second nature to contenders and championship-level programs full of players who can self-police.
As this season rolls on over the next two months, may common sense and logic kick into high gear for what will be an up and down ride. For those who struggle to get to that sensible place and need a little push—lean on some recent history lessons and situations some other first-year guys have been in, before getting things on a better path.
Everyone knows Miami’s head coaching family tree by now and some early struggles of first-year guys; Johnson’s run in 1984 with the defending national champs—dropping his final three in epic-fail fashion; a blown 31-0 halftime lead to Maryland, ‘Hail Flutie’ against Boston College the following game and a Fiesta Bowl loss to UCLA to finish 8-5—as well as fans still wanting to run Davis every season through year six, after an early-season road loss to Washington—only to clamor for his return consistently over the next two decades.
Step outside Canes’ culture for a moment and look up some stats and history on some of the best coaches the game currently has to offer.
FIRST-YEAR COACHES OFT STRUGGLE TO CHANGE CULTURES & REBUILD
Nick Saban went 7-6 out the gate at Alabama, as the Crimson Tide were nowhere near the program he’s since built them into–dealing with the type of issues plaguing Miami over the past 15 years. Alabama was a dismal 46-40 between 2000 and 2006, under three different head coaches before Saban showed up—successful at LSU years earlier, but having failed in his short stint with the Miami Dolphins.
For all those sweating a close call against Central Michigan; Alabama lost to Louisiana-Monroe at home in 2007 under St. Nick.
Dabo Swinney is another current top guy that needed upwards of a decade to turn Clemson into a contender. After years of being barely-above-average under Tommy Bowden, Swinney took over for Bowden mid-season 2oo8 and managed to win the Atlantic his first full season, but backslid to 6-7 in 2010—including a home blowout against rival South Carolina.
Two years later—year three-and-a-half—an ACC Championship lost some luster after West Virginia throttled Swinney’s Tigers in the Orange Bowl, 70-33.
Should one really want do dive down the rabbit hole, dig up some old fan-driven sites and message boards from early in the careers of the two most-recent, multi-national championship winners and see how badly some wanted to drive both Saban and Swinney out of town—one written off as a has-been, the other as a never-was—yet in due time, both ultimately got the job done and are currently revered by their respective programs and fan bases.
Time—as much as Miami fans are sick of waiting, it remains the operative word as the aforementioned fifth coaching change since 2006 is the equivalent of hitting ‘reset’ on a video game, or wiping the whiteboard clean.
All one can ask for in this journey; a head coach that’s attacking the issues they come up in real time, while doing everything he can to speed up the process with what he has—and working tirelessly to get this thing to where he wants.
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 lifestyle apparel brand. Hit him on Twitter for all things U-related @ItsAUThingBLOG.