MIAMI HURRICANES BACKSLIDE AGAINST FIU GOES ONE OF TWO WAYS

If there was any belief the Miami Hurricanes had begun to turn a corner after a recent three-game win streak—it immediately went out the window after an unthinkable “road” loss to Florida International on Saturday night at Marlins Park.

After falling behind 16-0 by the third quarter and 23-3 in the fourth, the Hurricanes rallied for three late touchdowns against the Panthers, but ran out of time in a 30-24 loss as crushing for Manny Diaz as it was redeeming for Butch Davis, the one-time UM leader working to shake the “little brother” stigma for his FIU Panthers—which he did for the night, at least.

Despite all the talk of protecting the Canes’ old turf and UM’s over-the-top marketing efforts to play up a return to the hallowed ground where the beloved Orange Bowl once stood—the message and importance of this game was still somehow lost on Diaz’s squad. Miami dropped to 0-3 in games after a bye week this season, while going down in history as the only team over the past four decades to lose thrice in one season as a double-digit favorite; the Panthers a three-touchdown underdog in a game they controlled from the get-go. Congratulations, fellas.

A few miles west, Davis spent the week-of making it painfully important to his team the magnitude of this game—not just to FIU as a program, but to all of these players individually. He played the underdog card carefully—as few if any of these kids were recruited by any major programs—while giving his squad the belief that an upset was within reach.

Ballsy, considering the Golden Panthers had never knocked off a Power 5 school in their limited history—yet executed perfect for a litany of reasons.

Convincing his kids that Miami was beatable; not a tremendous feat when looking at the erratic nature of Diaz’s inconsistent Hurricanes in season one. Aside from the obvious post-bye week struggles, UM showed its hand thrice now regarding playing down to the level of competition—barely eking out a 17-12 win against Central Michigan in late September, rolling in flat weeks later against a one-win Georgia Tech team; lethargically whiffing on 29 tackles in an overtime loss—and now this latest debacle against a third-rate program Miami simply never should’ve lost to.

The Hurricanes bounced back in recent weeks with a come-from-behind win at Pittsburgh and convincing take downs of both Florida State and Louisville—though the latter two were a direct result of better offensive line play that left first-year quarterback Jarren Williams looking like a completely different player, with extra time to go through his reads.

Still, when pressured, Williams has a tendency to revert back to that rattled, inexperienced, redshirt freshman, first-year starter he is—which beyond having his team emotionally ready to go, was Davis’ second leg-up moment of the evening. Miami offensive coordinator Dan Enos didn’t get his quarterback comfortable until too little, too late—yet another Hurricanes’ blind spot in 2019.

Down 17-3 in a flash at North Carolina, or in a 28-0 hole to Virginia Tech, aided by three Williams’ interceptions—slow starts have crippled these Hurricanes too often in Diaz’s rookie season, and in both cases, late furious rallies fell short.

Again, one would be remised to think that Davis didn’t also work this UM weakness into his overall game plan—hammering his team to bust out the gates with a quick start, pouncing early and keeping Miami stunned for as long as possible. The Tar Heels and Hokies did it unintentionally, while laying out an unintentional blueprint even more-destined to work for Davis—knowing how lightly the Hurricanes would inevitably take the Golden Panthers.

CULTURAL ISSUES AT MIAMI NOT ONLY REAL, BUT ONGOING

Diaz often brings up a culture issue that long-time, frustrate fans love to scoff at—but it doesn’t make the assessment any less true. Especially when seeing so many of the same problems persisting today that have plagued this program going back a decade-and-a-half, for all four previous head coaches post-Davis.

Miami players tossing snowballs during 33-17 ass-kicking by Irish in 2010 Sun Bowl; this culture has been off for a while.

Pre-game logo stomps at Louisville in 2006, en route to a 31-7 drubbing, a faux-swag brawl against this same FIU program that was a PR disaster for UM and 7-6 season that ended the Larry Coker era—to snowball fights on the sideline at the 2010 Sun Bowl while Notre Dame was kicking Miami’s teeth in 30-3 in the third quarter, barely a month after the four-year Randy Shannon era came to an end—Hurricanes teams have been grossly missing the mark for years now.

New head coach Al Golden watched in late 2010 from a suite in El Paso, unsure of what he was about to take over—something outgoing senior Ryan Hill was quick to sum up in an interview days later.

“The first thing he [Golden] probably has to do is weed out the guys he doesn’t feel will be beneficial to the program,” the departing cornerback shared with the Palm Beach Post. “We’ve got a lot of guys that have to do a lot of maturing in this program. We have a lot of guys that act like little boys, just not doing what they’re supposed to do”—which referred to players openly mocking Shannon, while blatantly ignoring his rules.

Lest not forget this was also the same class duped and caught in the crosshairs of the Nevin Shapiro scandal; guys who ignored Shannon’s warning to stay away from the eventually-shamed Ponzi schemer, with Golden inheriting many of those players while dealing with the fallout of a scandal that didn’t happen on his watch.

Mark Richt might’ve commanded a bit more respect as a long-time SEC head coach taking over the Hurricanes in 2016, but a laid back demeanor and unflappable approach certainly hindered Miami from having a team full of alphas and dogs who played with the kind of balls or bark Davis’ FIU squad brought on Saturday night.

“We wasn’t even calling them ‘University of Miami’ during the week,” linebacker Sage Lewis boasted post-game. “We were calling them ‘University of Coral Gables. We’re the true Miami school.”

Ouch.

It’s one thing to openly mock the five-time national champs privately in practice—but when that attitude becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy that one can boast about after delivering the goods and putting “big brother” in check; well that right there is the textbook definition of swag and a page out of vintage-era Miami’s playbook.

If it wasn’t the Hurricanes on the wrong end of this upset, every UM supporter would offer up a resounding, “Now that’s the shit I’m talking about, right there. Those kids looked like vintage Miami.”

Even harder to swallow, the fact that Diaz didn’t see Davis coming—the architect of UM’s last rebuild, who orchestrated a monumental upset on those same Orange Bowl grounds 21 years ago next month, which Diaz the super-fan was more than familiar with as a 24-year old fan playing the role of grad assistant at Florida State, weeks before the Seminoles began preparations for a national championship game they’d lose to Tennessee.

DAVIS PROVED UPSET-CAPABLE 21 YEARS AGO; DIAZ STILL UNPREPARED

While few on Miami’s current roster were even around in 1998, safe to assume all have watched The U Part 2 and it’s ten-minute segment on the Hurricanes’ upset of No. 2 UCLA, one week after getting throttled 66-13 by Syracuse in a Big East Championship game. This was year four of the Davis era and just over one year after the laughable-three-years-later “From Chumps To Champs—Thanks Butch!” banner that sailed over the Orange Bowl in a would-be 5-6 season when probation sent the program to rock bottom.

Per a post-game Sports Illustrated article recapping Miami’s improbable 49-45 upset of the Bruins, Davis broke down the week in-between complete disaster and utter redemption—as well as something he saw that gave him a belief that an upset was more than doable.

Miami toppled No. 2 UCLA behind Edgerrin James’ 299-yard effort and a belief Davis instilled in the Canes days after losing at Syracuse, 66-13.

“This is not just going to be a game of stats,” he told his Canes days after losing to the Orangemen, and prior to taking down the Bruins and their potent offense. “We’re not going to shut down UCLA, they’re too good for that. But we can limit them by staying on the field and wearing them down. You don’t have to get beat just because of their big stats.”

Davis identified a flaw in his opponent; one that reminded him of some legendary NFC showdowns between the Dallas Cowboys and San Francisco 49ers when he was on staff under former UM head coach Jimmy Johnson for a few Super Bowl runs. Davis studied the Bruins offense and saw “a carbon copy of the 49ers that I coached against when I was with the Cowboys”.

“The Niners were a machine against us, ran up all kinds of offensive yardage, punted once the entire game—but we hung in there and beat them,” Davis told Sports Illustrated in the December 14th issue.

Much like FIU did to Miami this past weekend, Davis’ bounce-back Hurricanes tagged the Bruins in the mouth early—eventually taking an unexpected 21-17 halftime lead over a UCLA team that underestimated a battered-and-bruised Miami—much like Diaz’s squad didn’t expect little ol’ FIU to bring the fight it did.

The Canes would fall behind 38-21 late in the third quarter, as the Bruins’ offense was explosive as advertised—but as Davis mentioned, Miami did stay on the field and eventually wore down the west coast visitors on a balmy South Florida afternoon. The Canes went on to outscore the Bruins 21-7 over the final fifteen minutes—while forcing two turnovers that got UM’s offense back on the field against an overmatched defense and by day’s end, the upset was in the books.

That same skills-set that allowed a two-decades younger Davis to identify how to hang in there to take down an unstoppable UCLA squad—those same traits, the on-point scheming and a salesman’s ability to convince a lesser team a monumental undertaking was doable; all on display Saturday night under the same Orange Bowl sky where that other unthinkable upset took place all those years ago.

While celebrating—or even merely tolerating—a loss to Florida International is a monster ask; fact remains this upset is in the books and it can’t be ignored—nor should it be dwelled on, either. Fact remains, Miami got tagged in the mouth and the only answer now is to find a lesson in this while working to move on and grow from it.

CAN’T ERASE OR IGNORE WHAT TOOK PLACE; MUST GROW FROM SETBACK

In reality, once the Hurricanes didn’t roll in with any passion or purpose, nor hellbent on smacking down a lippy cross-town rival—last Saturday night was already “lost”, in a sense. Even eking out a late win in the same sluggish fashion Miami displayed when hanging-on against Central Michigan months back; nothing was obviously learned as these Canes continued dancing with the devil on too many occasions since.

When dealing with yet another first-year head coach and fourth season under a new leader over the past 13 years—sometimes those tough lessons and moments in the valley are what spark growth and change. In this case, it’s up to Diaz to use this as fuel—opposed to his first step towards ultimate failure.

While Miami’s season finale at Duke is meaningless in the division race—just as 7-5 or 6-6 doesn’t make a shit-of-difference regarding bowl game quality—it presents a teachable moment for coaches and players, alike. This staff has all the ammo necessary for a we-told-you-so type moment in regards to preparation and this ongoing cancer of taking opponents lightly, after any modicum of success is achieved.

All that to say, this is more of a learning opportunity moving forward as the 2019 draws to a close and a 2020 campaign is put together—which is where Diaz will take the steps that either seal his fate, or he begins taking steps towards getting this thing turned around.

Lest not forget in the wake of this FIU train-wreck that Davis has a 24-year start on Diaz in the head coaching universe—one where fans wanted to run him off up through the middle of his sixth year, when he made up for a stumble at Washington with his first-ever take down of Florida State. Prior to that, the criticism was deafening and few believed Davis would ever get UM back towards contender status, let alone assembling a champion and the most-talented team in college football history.

They’re called “rookie mistakes” for a reason and one would be hard-pressed to find a quality head coach who didn’t have his early-career stumbles—but it’s how one rebounds from those that separates the contenders from the pretenders.

OFF-SEASON DECISIONS WILL ULTIMATELY SHAPE DIAZ ERA

Diaz showed some huevos when sacking Richt’s entire offensive staff upon taking over in the waning moments of 2018—as 7-6 and the lack of production on that side of the ball wasn’t cutting it. The newly-hired head coach stated last January that he wanted an “offense that creates situations the make defensive players uncomfortable”—yet the only thing uncomfortable this season has been watching Enos operate as if he’s the smartest guy on the field—trying to out-clever the competition, instead of taking what’s right under his nose.

Miami ponied up a reported $1.2M for Enos’ services—unprecedented for a Hurricanes’ offensive coordinator and step in the right direction by the admin—under the guise that Alabama’s “quarterback whisperer” could bring some of his magic south from Tuscaloosa to Coral Gables.

To some, 11 games might not be an optimum sample size—but to others, they feel they’ve seen enough to contend that Enos doesn’t seem to be a solid fit—which is hard to debate as a disappointing 2019 season draw to a close.

I mentioned the concept of  thin-slicing weeks back in regards to Enos; a term used in psychology to describe an ability to find patterns in events based on only “thin slices” or narrow windows of experience—allowing an observer to make quick inferences about something, someone or a situation with minimal amounts of information. Strange as it may seem, thin-slicing has proven to be as accurate, if not more, than judgments based on more information (hence terms like “gut feelings” versus “information overload”.)

With five losses already racked up before Thanksgiving—including this disastrous setback to FIU, after a three-game win-streak felt like a step in the right direction—the Miami-bred Diaz knows good-and-hell-well that the heat is on. That, coupled with the general frustration that comes with a 15-year rut for a once-proud program—there is little time for UM’s 25th head coach to dick around.

In other words, Diaz better thin-slice his way to some hard decisions with his current staff, because he can ill-afford to let guys hopefully grow into their positions—as a slowed-down time table will ultimately cost him his dream job.

Aside from what he must do staff-wise, it’s time for a hard look in the mirror regarding the brash talk on social media, properly defining with The New Miami really means, as well as celebratory hardware that started off as college football’s greatest motivational tool in 2017, yet has not only lost all meaning two years later—but might actually be having an averse effect on this broken culture he’s trying to fix.

DIAZ’S BRASH TALK & SHINY HARDWARE NEED TWEAKING FOR CULTURE-SAKE

Like many of us, Diaz is a parent—so he’s more-than-familiar with the concept of tough love when it comes to child-rearing. A lot of times parents are faced with doing things that hurt us more than our kids—knowing that act itself is part of an evolution and will promote much-needed growth.

What do many parents do when their kids are either taking advantage of something, or not appreciative of a gift or privilege? They take it away in a point-proving moment, use their words to explain why and then offer up the opportunity to earn it back through hard work and proof of a lesson learned—the entire process often proving a growth experience for a guardian, as well.

UM’s “Turnover Chain” had a positive impact in 2017 but the Canes’ hardware has fallen flat with a 13-14 run after a 10-0 start two years back.

Miami is now 37 games into the creation that is the Turnover Chain and 11 into this season’s seemingly-forced Touchdown Rings—which even the biggest supporter of swag and the third-generation Cuban link-holding pendant—felt was a big egregious. When the chain was first introduced in 2017, Miami jumped out to a 10-0 start—and was the story of college football that fall under Richt and Diaz’s blinged-out creation; one that had an immediate-impact on his defense.

The Hurricanes were 67th nationally in turnovers-forced in 2016, but made the leap to 13th in the nation after 2017 was in the books. The positive impact was undeniable then—but the current impact seems to be having averse effect, or at minimum is nothing more than a soulless prop that has become somewhat embarrassing to trot out when the Miami is creating turnovers in losing efforts; now an dismal 13-14 since that exciting start in two years back.

This current era has too many Miami players taking to social media and posting successful, individual moments from losing efforts—armed with some faux motivational quote or lyric about being humble, hungry or starting with nothing, but now getting “here”—as if just suiting up for the Hurricanes and playing sub-par football was ever a destination for anyone whose played for this program.

None of this is to say that Diaz even needs to permanently shelve the hardware, but at minimum—rewrite the rulebook he created and make the Miamiesque bling even more situational; creating a culture where a guy is prone to deny the chain and sacrifice an individual moment of mugging for crowd and sideline cameras—instead rallying his offense to go out there and turn a bonus possession into points.

Honestly, the only thing that would’ve been more embarrassing than actually losing to FIU would’ve been a defensive player posing with that chain after a late turnover when down 23-3, after Williams had already coughed it up three times—even having already seen Miami players dancing on the sideline like In Living Color fly-girls when down 16-0 early third quarter, after a three-and-out and on the heels of the Canes’ third interception.

Just like the art of comedy and being funny—timing is everything, and Miami’s lightheartedness in the face of adversity couldn’t have been more out of place. Aside from revamping the hardware rules, a message needs to be sent in regards to all and any look-at-me guys clowning on the sideline in losing efforts—hoping to trend on social media—while their teammates are getting their teeth kicked in by a commuter school with a roster full of kids UM didn’t even bother recruiting.

TRUE GROWTH COMES OUT OF FAILURE, NOT INITIAL SUCCESS

Saturday’s setback against Florida International was ugly any way it’s sliced or diced, but anyone who’s followed this Miami program diligently over the years is aware that sometimes out of the shit is where the flowers grow.

Davis’ late nineties rebuild; his players’ “enough if enough” moment came in Tallahassee on the wrong end of a 47-0 beating. The Canes survived a double overtime thriller at Boston College the next time the took the field and starting to find themselves from there—upsetting UCLA a short 14 months later.

Johnson stumbled to 8-5 his first season in such fashion that had social media and a 24/7 sports news cycle existed then—he might not have seen year two.

The now-legendary JJ blew a 31-0 halftime lead to Maryland, only to fall to Boston College on “Hail Flutie” in Miami’s next game. Toss in a bowl loss to UCLA in Tempe and an earlier season 38-3 waxing via Florida State at home—St. Jimmy had painted himself into a nasty little corner with the defending national champions; fueling disgruntled fans’ fire, as many wanted defensive coordinator Tom Oliviadottito get the gig over the middle-of-the-road Oklahoma State guy who never beat Nebraska or Oklahoma.

The future-Hall-Of-Famer also dropped the 1985 season-opener to Florida—Miami’s last home loss until falling to Washington in 1994—but finally got his first career win in Norman five weeks later when the unranked Hurricanes knocked off the third-ranked Sooners, 27-14 and ended the regular season with a 58-7 pasting of Notre Dame, before getting brought back down to earth with a 35-7 Sugar Bowl loss to Tennessee.

Undefeated the next regular season, before a fatigue-driven misstep at the Fiesta Bowl and choke against Penn State—Johnson’s Canes adopted an “Unfinished Business” approach for the 1987 season, which led to a year-four championship, against an absolutely brutal schedule—another huge step in Miami solidifying itself at the team of the decade.

While it’s impossible to undo what’s already been done—this setback is most-definitely a teachable moment for these players, while also a case-building opportunity for Diaz to part ways with any on this staff who aren’t aligned with his personal championship-related goals.

The only thing that would make a loss to Florida International worse—not finding a way to use it in a motivational sense, or a building block in Diaz’s attempt to resurrect this Miami program from decade-plus long coma.

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.

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