It’s been days since the Miami Hurricanes ended their 2021 regular season and all remains quiet in Coral Gables—sans a slew of boisterous fans with “sources” attempting to predict the future, while others remain in sky-is-falling mode—trusting that UM will stay true to its flawed ways, never missing an opportunity to miss an opportunity.
Understandable concern considering 15 years of football incompetence and an administration that has gotten it wrong more often than right. Lame duck coaching hire after lame duck coaching hire, Miami is now 118-85 since LSU smacked the Canes around in the 2005 Peach Bowl—which was the official car crash ending of UM’s previous dynasty.
The most recent low-rent hire—Manny Diaz—now a disappointing 21-15 as year three draws to a close.
In what was supposed to be a step-forward season for this Diaz-led squad, Miami limp-dicked it’s way to 7-5, in arguably the worst collective season the ACC has seen in years; No. 17 Pittsburgh set to face No. 18 Wake Forest in Charlotte for all the conference marbles this weekend.
The Canes went 3-1 in November—including an unforgivable loss at Florida State—against foes that were a combined 17-31 on the year. Prior to that loss, a three-game win-streak that was nothing more than lipstick on a pig after a brutal 2-4 start.
Miami finished on a two-game win-streak after the disaster in Tallahassee, rolling Duke, 47-10 last weekend—which should’ve been the case, considering the Blue Devils finished 3-9, went winless in the ACC, and ride and eight-game losing streak into 2022–with a new head coach as David Cutcliffe was let go days back.
Louisville hung 62 points on Duke, while the ACC’s “best”—Pittsburgh and Wake Forest—dropped 54 and 45 points, respectively.
The Blue Devils were doomed from the start; losing to Conference USA bottom-dweller Charlotte in their season-opener. Miami should’ve beaten the brakes off these guys by even more, after dropping two of the previous three to a basketball school.
A CHANGE IS GONNA COME
A changing of the guard at Duke doesn’t even scratch the surface regarding the coaching carousel that’s taken place in college football over the past few days; massive shots fired in Los Angeles and Baton Rouge, where Southern Cal and LSU both let it be known they’re on missions to build champions—price tags be damned.
Lincoln Riley walked away from Oklahoma on the heels of a 10-2 season—hours after losing to rival Oklahoma State—becoming the next head coach of the Trojans. A day later, Brian Kelly bailed on a one-loss Notre Dame squad knocking on the door of the College Football Playoffs—taking his talents down to the bayou, in effort to chase championships with top-flight Tigers talent that he never pulled in South Bend.
Calling these seismic shifts for the sport is a gross understatement; big time coaches leaving big time programs for bigger time destinations and championship-caliber programs that are ready to chase titles.
Conference shuffles are also underway, as the SEC builds a Marvel-like super-power—welcoming Oklahoma and Texas next year—while the Big 12 attempts to reload by adding Cincinnati, Central Florida, BYU and Houston to its roster.
Throw in rumblings about the playoffs expanding to eight teams—if not more—and it’s become crystal clear that the entire sport is exploding in a manner set to further separate the haves from the have-nots.
Translation; if the University of Miami doesn’t get its collective shit together, break the bank and embrace a football-centric attitude and approach—it will be nothing but nostalgia for the Hurricanes from this moment forward. Lower the casket, start shoveling the dirt and remember the good times via a pair of 30 For 30 documentaries, as ‘The U’ will be deader than a doornail without some massive moves being made immediately.
All this to say, it appears said moves are being made—albeit not on the timeline an impatient fan base wants—but none of that matters as long as Miami gets its guys in the coming days; both a football-driven athletic director and new head coach capable of building a winner.
Fragile egos and public callouts make for strange bedfellows, but the two overlapped late September of this year when ESPN’s Kirk Herbstreit used his College GameDay platform to tell the sports world that the University of Miami didn’t give a shit about football anymore.
Feathers were ruffled and four dozen egotistical board of trustees members were probably quick to puff up, but it didn’t make the statement any less true—an embarrassing track record of bad hires, coaching turnover, average seasons and one division title since joining the ACC in 2004; proof how far the mighty had fallen—which Herby was all over.
“Until you get a president and an AD and a coach together on the same page, I guess football doesn’t matter. It matters to the alums, to the brotherhood of ‘The U’—but I don’t know if it matters to the people making the decisions at Miami and if they don’t change that, it doesn’t matter who’s the head coach,” Herbstreit shared in his mic-drop moment.
Miami players went out and routed Central Connecticut State that afternoon, but it was a hollow victory for any with deep loyalty to this program—the Hurricanes sitting at 2-2 and about to find themselves 2-4 weeks later after stumbling out the gate in conference play.
UM president Dr. Julio Frenk penned an awkward letter days later in effort to calm a frazzled fan base, explaining that the university could “either be disrupted” or could “play a role in strategically shaping the course of disruption”.
There was also what sounded like fluff when signing off’; calling the Canes “one of the preeminent programs in college athletics” and reminding readers that “excellence in academics and excellence in athletics are not mutually exclusive”, despite no recent behavior to back that up.
CAN’T PUT BAND-AID ON CANCER; IT’S OVER
Over the coming weeks, Diaz was bailed out by an all-world, MVP-like quarterback performance from Tyler Van Dyke—who went on to deservedly win ACC Offensive Rookie of the Year honors; his efforts under center masking an abysmal defensive effort from Diaz’s side of the ball—causing short-sighted fans to bask in empty calorie victories that could’ve potentially earned an in-over-his-head coach an underserved fourth season.
A three-game win-streak was halted in Tallahassee—as was any notion Miami was turning a corner. Diaz put on a masterclass in how not to manage a football game in the waning moments; giving up 11 points in the game’s final two defensive drives—while surrendering a 4th-and-14, as well as not being able to convert a game-ending third down.
Brutal to digest in the moment, falling to a dismal Florida State team that had won a whopping six games in two-and-a-half seasons—all the goodwill surrounding recent wins was out the window. On Monday morning, maligned athletic director Blake James was finally out of a job and the first domino had fallen regarding sweeping change.
Articles began to surface, as did interviews from those with ties to the program. Information that monies were actually available—and that the old Donna Shalala way of sports programs only eating what they killed would be no more under the new president.
Miami’s U-Health department was back in the black, profiting upwards of $800M over two years; $20-30M of that found money set to annually go into football’s new budget—and information shared that Frenk’s eyes were initially opened as far back as 2017, when College GameDay took over campus hours before Miami went on to smoke third-ranked Notre Dame on national television.
UM finally appeared to have a president that understood how a successful football program is the ultimate marketing tool for the university and it’s overall brand—and now there was actually money to pour back into the sport.
The lightbulb finally went on—holy shit—a eureka moment after 15 years of heads being planted in the sand. Will wonders never cease.
While this was all welcomed news to a disgruntled fan base, these leaks were also smoke signals being sent from Coral Gables to Eugene, Oregon—as former Canes offensive lineman, two-time national champion and current Ducks head coach Mario Cristobal is far and away UM’s top target to replace Diaz—as he should be.
Same to be said for the direction the university wants to go with its athletic director; carefully crafted language about this being a football-centric hire and names of former greats like Gino Torretta and Alonzo Highsmith being tossed around; Diaz reportedly instrumental in blocking Highsmith from getting on board in a GM role two years back, instead opting for Ed Reed in a powerless Chief of Staff role to “appease” the fan base.
Miami’s recent revelations directly countered the correct-at-the-time notions Herbstreit shared—and the sent shockwaves through the college football stratosphere, much to the chagrin of those that had left the Canes for dead years ago.
Where Miami’s realistic coaching options looked dismal in late 2006, 2010 and even 2015, before Mark Richt threw his tired hat in the ring—the Canes have some realistic option they haven’t had in the past.
Outside of Cristobal remaining mum on the matter—doing nothing to take his name out of the running, or pledge his allegiance to Oregon—many in the Lane Kiffin camp leaked that the Ole Miss coach would crawl on broken glass from Oxford to Coral Gables for the Miami job; a far cry from the likes of Randy Edsall, Marc Trestman or others who were mentioned for the UM head coaching gig over the past decade.
Kiffin would be a massive upgrade from Diaz, as would countless other ready-to-jump coaches in the sport—but Cristobal is the most-logical option and is thankfully UM’s top choice, even if their “Columbus mafia” strong-arming and crowded board of trustees efforts are flawed.
UM FOREVER IN OWN WAY, CAN STILL GET IT RIGHT
A broken process can still deliver the correct result, which will be the case if Cristobal is named Miami’s 26th head coach soon after he’s coached Oregon in Friday night’s Pac-12 championship game—which appears to be unfolding based on what’s not being said or done.
Whatever the Diaz camp has pulled off by leaking stories or shifting the narrative, the University of Miami has done nothing to back the movement. Articles that Diaz “could” return in 2022; zero reason to not confirm that days after the regular season finale was in the books and Miami coaches are out attempting to recruit.
Arizona State faithful are frustrated with Herm Edwards—now 25-17 four years into his tenure in Tempe. Many were clamoring for his firing after an 8-4 run; few even fazed by the Sun Devils’ rout of rival Arizona last weekend and more focused on the future.
No sooner was the Territorial Cup victory in the books—defensive back Chase Lucas and athletic director Ray Anderson both stated in post-game pressers that Edwards would return. Edwards even did the same in the Pac-12 Network pre-game show, stating, “I’m the coach here. I’m coming back. I’m not going anywhere. I’m a Sun Devil.”
Outside of what Miami is not saying, Cristobal isn’t saying anything either—leaving some Oregon fans to question his future, while others downplay his ties to his alma mater and hometown; a belief he’d never leave where he’s at for where he’s from.
A public commitment to staying in Oregon would also calm any locker room chaos as his team prepares for a conference title game against a Utah team that spanked them, 35-7 weeks back in Salt Lake City—but there’s been nothing, outside what one would assume is standard coach-speak around ignoring outside noise and rumors and focusing on the task at hand.
Even if Cristobal were to talk down the Miami opportunity, those words would mean nothing in this high stakes poker game head coaches are now forced to play. Moments after Oklahoma fell to Oklahoma State at Bedlam—conference title game dreams dashed—Riley was asked about his future.
“I’m not going to be the next head coach at LSU,” was his answer. The following morning, news breaking that Riley was headed to Los Angeles and would be the next coach at USC; a move that certainly made him a prick in Norman, but not a liar, by way of omission.
The following evening, news breaking out of Baton Rouge that Kelly was walking away from a one-loss Notre Dame program on the brink of a Playoffs berth—the world finding out hours before he was scheduled to meet with his team to share the departure in person.
“IT’S A CANES THING…”—A LIFESTYLE, NOT A SLOGAN
On paper, it would make sense of Cristobal chose to stay at Oregon over Miami—perception becoming reality, as the Ducks have recently won their conference, won a few Rose Bowls and even lost a national title game in the past dozen years, while the Hurricanes have been in a tailspin over that same timeline.
All that to say, life isn’t played out on paper—it’s in 3-D and living color, fueled by emotional decisions and heartfelt moments. These forks in the road are big ones—timing always a factor, as are personal dreams, goals and the legacies we want to leave behind.
What the folks in Eugene are missing; that brotherhood of ‘The U’ on display in those aforementioned 30 For 30 docs. The University of Miami cannot compete with the pageantry seen in smaller college towns, where athletics are the big fish in a little pond—packed stadiums week in and week out; football the lifeblood for most of these cities.
Highsmith touched on this on a recent podcast; Miami guys are a different breed. They sign up to play for UM knowing that stadium will only be filled when they’re playing at a high level, winning big and Hurricanes games become the event in town that day or night.
They know the facilities are good enough, but not over the top—and they develop a chip on their shoulder as a result. They carry it over to battles on Greentree or off-season workouts.
ESPN recently ran a piece about the 20-year anniversary of the 2001 Hurricanes—arguably the greatest collection in history—and it opened with a story about players choosing to workout at 1:00 p.m. in the sweltering South Florida heat and humidity.
Nobody really wanted to do this, but they knew they had to—as to not squander a chance to bring home the program’s first championship in a decade.
“They were the hardest workouts we ever did,” cornerback Mike Rumph said. “But it was crucial to never show how much pain we were in. We used to say that was the easiest workout and we would suck our fingers, like that was pie. It started as a joke first, but it just went to like, no matter what you put us through, we can’t be hurt. We’re tougher than you think.”
Cristobal played for Miami from 1989 through 1992, meaning he was part of the program’s third national championship as a true freshman, watched the Canes squander a shot at another the following year (but getting to wreck No. 3 Texas as a Cotton Bowl consolation prize, 46-3) and then going undefeated for a second national title in 1991, but failing again at another bid for back-to-back rings in the Sugar Bowl the following year.
Two national championships, two left on the field and a 44-4 record playing for his hometown program in its heyday—it will take someone with Cristobal’s muscle memory to want to get Miami back on track for all the right reasons.
UM tried this with Randy Shannon, but the former linebacker wasn’t head coaching material—as proven by his career trajectory since he was let go after the 2010 season; a position coach for years, before eventually working his way back up to defensive coordinator.
Richt also fit the former-player-who-gets-the-brand mold, but rolled in on fumes after 15 years of the SEC kicking his ass. On the brink of returning when parting ways with Georgia, the one-time Canes quarterback only took the call because it was his alma mater—and hung it up after three years, as the rebuild was something for a younger buck with more fire.
Diaz wasn’t a former player, but he was a forty-something Miami native who grew up in the Decade of Dominance era—and up-and-comer who seemed to understand the brand; drawing rave reviews for his Turnover Chain prop in 2017—a it was quintessential ‘305’ and a throwback to swaggier days for the Canes—until it wasn’t.
A motivational tool for that 10-0 start four years ago, Miami is 28-24 since—the one-time fun prop turning into a laughing stock when rolled out down 27-0 in the season opener to Alabama, as were Touchdown Rings when finally finding the end zone in the fourth quarter, cutting the deficit to 41-10.
LIKE NEO, MARIO IS “THE ONE”
Cristobal doesn’t need props or gimmicks to pad his stats. Teeth cut as a grad assistant under Butch Davis early in his coaching career, he followed then-Canes defensive coordinator Greg Schiano to Rutgers for a three-year run coaching tight ends and the offensive, before returning to UM for a three-year stint doing the same.
Florida International came calling with a head coaching opportunity that lasted six years, before the plug was pulled prematurely. Set to come back to Miami for another run, Nick Saban swooped in at the final hour and lured Cristobal to Tuscaloosa for a four-year run that saw him coaching the offensive line and assuming the role of recruiting coordinator and assistant head coach.
Willie Taggart added Cristobal to his Oregon staff in 2017 and soon as Taggart bailed for Florida State, the Ducks had seen enough to turn Cristobal from interim head coach to a full-time guy—where he went 12-2 his second season, won the conference and a Rose Bowl—before a COVID-related stumble in 2020, as the Pac-12 stumbled in how it handled the pandemic athletically with a late and shortened season.
The Ducks enter this year’s Pac-12 title game 10-2, having upset Ohio State in Columbus, before stumbling at Stanford and getting routed by Utah in the regular season. The Utes are slightly favored in the rematch, while all of Hurricanes nation silently roots for Oregon to lose a close one—expediting what feels like an undeniable and fateful next step; Cristobal’s third official stint as his alma mater.
One would assume the athletic director position will be filled prior-to the hiring of a new head coach—but when dealing with Miami’s top brass and unorthodox ways—hardly a gimme.
UM appears to have pushed back from interest show by former Louisville athletic director Tom Jurich—who has some late-career scandal after a legendary run with the Cardinals—while University of New Mexico AD and Miami native Eddie Nuñez was reportedly in the running, before that conversation hit a wall.
Latest reports out of Coral Gables have the internal chaos on full blast, which couldn’t be more Miami—the program that never misses an opportunity to miss an opportunity—every board of trustees member attempting to yield their power, with too many folks not on the same page.
Even with that, hard to see the stars not finally aligning this go around—an amateur hour athletic director long gone, while the bank account is stocked.
Feelings for ‘The U’ aside, Cristobal wouldn’t leave what he’s building for anything less than a blueprint for a rebuild, the right pieces in place and the necessary budget to compete. Those pieces appear to have finally fallen into place and that helps make an emotional decision a logical one, as well.
Furthermore, at 51 years old this truly feels like a tipping point moment for Cristobal, as well as a Miami program talking the talk and walking the walk regarding becoming a football power again. If it’s not Cristobal, have to believe that the Hurricanes aren’t going to chase down another type of home run hire—lessening the odds that UM’s and Cristobal’s paths would re-align as they are right now timing-wise.
(This sentiment is further confirmed by breaking news that Miami is on the brink of hiring Clemson athletic director Dan Radakovich to replace James—Radakovich earning his M.B.A. from the University of Miami, as well.)
Both the head coach and his alma mater are both at a crossroads, each ready to sink their teeth into a moment and opportunity. The next ten years of Cristobal’s career, as well as Miami’s football trajectory appear ready to go next level—regardless of whether they do it together, or independently of each other.
In the coming days, Cristobal will either go all-in with Oregon, sign an extension and double-down on his commitment to the program that hired him full time three years ago—or he will take a leap of faith, come home to his life-long dream job and get to work rebuilding the Hurricanes in way five predecessors were unable to.
How it all unfolds and plays out in the coming days—still an unknown—but stars have been aligning since a September 25th callout, a doinked field goal kick five days later, a tipped pass two weeks after that, a November 13th face-plant at Tallahassee and taking out the trash 48 hours later, in the form of a lame duck athletic director who overstayed his welcome.
Along the way, Miami found its quarterback, backed into bowl season and fumbled just enough to warrant change—as well as achieving enough success to pique the interest of a new, capable leader.
All the questions will soon be answered and when the smoke clears, have to believe a few old school members of Miami’s football brotherhood are again tethered to this program, ready to right this ship after 15 years of wrongs and to get back that special something that was lost along the way.
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.