“IT’S A U THING” BLOG BACK IN ACTION FOR 2019 FOOTBALL SEASON

The Miami Hurricanes are gearing up to take on the Florida Gators on August 24th—one week earlier than expected—as part of ESPN’s way of getting the 150th season of college football off to a raucous start. The Sunshine State battle—in primetime—will be the only game of the day, raising the stakes and bragging rights on what will already be a spirited battle.

The Miami-Florida rivalry isn’t the only thing making a comeback this season; ItsAUThing.com will return after a two-year hiatus. After returning to resurrect the long-running allCanesBlog.com in 2017-2018, we’ve decided that an unfiltered, brash, pull-no-punches platform better fits the narrative we prefer to run with—as well as The New Miami that head coach Manny Diaz is touting.

Having covered Hurricane athletics for the past quarter-century, it’s hard not to be overexcited by what is taking place since the arrival of Diaz and a shift into those old-yet-new-school attitude being implemented by the first on-brand head coach UM has seen since Butch Davis pulled out of town over 18 years ago.

Larry Coker was a good man and obvious short-term answer for a championship-built squad in 2001—but by 2004, the luster had worn off, recruiting had dropped off and the hard-ass, self-disciplined type of kid that Davis brought on and coached-up had been replaced by frontrunners who only saw the glitz and glam that came with being part of a program on top; not all the hard work that went into building that foundation in the late nineties.

Randy Shannon checked off boxes in regards to a former championship era player leading the program—but a CEO and face of the program, the former linebacker was not. An inexpensive hire in 2007 when the university wasn’t content to invest much into Hurricanes Football—the assistants were as second-rate as the product on the field and by the end of year four, change was in the air yet again.

Al Golden talked the talk at his presser and had the look of a head honcho, but in the end proved to be an empty suit—as well as off-brand, bringing his Penn State stylings south, instead of trying to do things the Miami way and adapting to what he had as his disposal. In Golden’s defense, he was sideswiped by an NCAA investigation and scandal weeks before coaching his first game at UM in 2011—but fact remains that the job wasn’t desirable and the Canes had to roll the dice on another up-and-comer type; crediting Golden for turning around a dismal Temple program and hoping those efforts would translate to success in Coral Gables. They didn’t.

Days after a humiliating home loss to Clemson—58-0— Golden (and his 3-4 defense) was sacked; halfway through his fifth season at the helm.

Mark Richt fell into Miami’s lap months later, after his 15-year stint in Athens came to an end. Leaning towards retirement and calling it a career, the former UM quarterback couldn’t pass up the opportunity to resurrect his alma mater.

Year one was a respectable 9-4; capped off with the Canes’ first bowl victory in a decade. Next up; the first double-digit win season in 14 years and a 10-0 start that brought ESPN’s College GameDay to campus for the first time in the show’s history. A seven-game losing streak to Florida State was broken, while Miami kicked Notre Dame’s ass all over HardRock in primetime and won the ACC’s Coastal Division for the first time in 14 tries.

A three-game losing streak—Pittsburgh to end the regular season, Clemson in the conference title game and Wisconsin in the Orange Bowl—put a damper on a year where UM (briefly) rose to No. 2 in the College Football Playoff rankings, but it set the stage for a Top 10 ranking in 2018 and a chance for the program to finally take a step forward. Instead, the Canes backslid their way to 7-6 and Richt gracefully bowed out after a lopsided bowl loss—again to the Badgers.

While Richt ultimately didn’t get it done on the field—his efforts behind the scenes at the University of Miami created a ripple effect that will definitely earn him an assist if and when Diaz turns the program around.

Whether it was putting up $1,000,000 of his own money towards and indoor practice facility, upgrading the nutrition program for his players or getting the administration out of the dark ages in regards to monies allocated for assistants—those efforts are the foundation for this *new* Miami that Diaz is working to build attitude-wise—while the increased pay for coordinators is what also paved the way for Diaz to take over as defensive coordinator in 2016.

REASON FOR EXCITEMENT THIS TIME AROUND

The purpose of this quick coaching tree history lesson; a reminder how long it’s been since Hurricanes fans truly had something to be excited about. There wasn’t a buzz when Coker took over; just a sigh of relief that Miami kept it in the family with the hire as the program was in true championship form. Shannon was semi-comforting as he too was a “Miami guy” and had succeeded as a coordinator. With names like UConn’s Randy Edsall or journeyman offensive mind Marc Trestman tied to the opening at the time—Shannon seemed the most-logical choice.

Red flags surrounded Golden, due to his flimsy resume and style of ball he opted for—but it was a beggars-can’t-be-choosers era for UM as the brand had lost some luster and football wasn’t a priority to then-president Donna Shalala. Fingers were crossed that his “process” would yield results, but in the end it was a oversized 300-page binder full of platitudes and fluff.

Richt wasn’t as exciting as those who were clamoring for Davis to return, but it was the first time UM hired an established name—a successful 15-year head coach from the SEC who was a proven recruiter; 15 years at Georgia, preceded by a decade at Florida State coaching the offense to two national championships—with two Heisman-winning quarterbacks—under the legend Bobby Bowden. Knocks that Richt “couldn’t win the big one” were expected—but on-paper, giving a once-successful Bulldogs’ leader South Florida’s best athletes; it wasn’t far-fetched to think he could succeed, barring he got a second wind after a lengthy career was winding down.

All that to say, if central casting sent over the Hurricanes’ ideal coach; it’d be the 45-year old native who grew up going to games at the Orange Bowl during the Decade of Dominance with his father, Miami’s eventual mayor. A brash and confident son of a Cuban immigrant who ultimately willed himself into coaching, taking an unorthodox path into the profession as a grad assistant at Florida State; breaking down film and stuffing envelopes.

“I’m the quintessential Miami story because my dad was born in Cuba and my mom was born in the Northeast, and they came together in Miami, an Irish-Catholic transplant and a Cuban immigrant,” Diaz told the Miami Herald soon after his hiring late 2018. “All the changes and friction Miami went through to make it what it is today were being defined in the 1960s, ‘70s and ‘80s, when my family arrived and when I was growing up. Miami became Miami and the Hurricanes were coming to prominence in the ‘80s. It is all intertwined.”

This quirky UM head coaching gig is a multi-pronged best. A strong knowledge of the X’s and O’s of the game is a no-brainer—as is understanding how to run the program itself, making the right hires, being a tireless recruiter, etc. All would be job requirements at any top program across the land—but unlike most other places, the culture is, and always will be, the Hurricanes’ x-factor. When it comes to said culture, can’t think of many who understand it at the level Diaz does—but in a total package-type way and an ability to bring it to life.

It’s also a different total-package sport than it was a few years ago, forget about decades back. Diaz’s youthful energy, fiery ways, social media prowesses and and understanding how to motivate and relate to today’s players—it can’t be overstated enough. Nick Saban has been college football’s benchmark and the old guard for years now, but anyone who doesn’t see a guy like Dabo Swinney as the present and future in regards to who kids want to play for—they’re completely missing what’s going on.

A hard-ass in regards to accountability and getting the job done, tempered with having fun and staying relatable—that’s your prototypical head coach in 2019—and Diaz fits that mold.

BUCKLING IN FOR ANOTHER EXCITING RIDE

Covering the Canes has always been a labor of love, but over the past 15 years—it’s been more of a grind than a passion project, due to the ongoing downtrodden state of the program. The storyline grew stale; constantly in “rebuild” mode—while trying to convince oneself that this go-around with a new leader would be different than before. Year after year passing, with Miami’s proud legacy and most-recent championship further and further in the rear-view.

While some of that of that is certainly still the case—at some point Miami eventually had to get the right break that led to landing the right guy. Highs and lows, ebbs and flows, yin and yang—they’ve always been a part of Hurricanes’ folklore. Those serendipitous championships in 1983, 1987, 1989, 1991 and 2001—the highest of highs; but there were also some low lows.

Missed title shots in 1985 (Tennessee, Sugar Bowl), 1986 (Penn State, Fiesta Bowl—disaster in the desert) and 1992 (Alabama, Sugar Bowl)—as well as having a chance to play for a title stolen from the Canes in 1988 (Cleveland Gary never fumbled in South Bend) and 2000 (FSU in title game after Canes beat the Noles?). As for that 2002 season and that one …. two … three … four … five … FLAG; no words are necessary.

There was also probation and a deserved punishment in the nineties, followed by a bogus investigation two decades later that was completely unjust and damaging—as well as murders (Marlin Barnes, Bryan Pata, Sean Taylor, Shane Curry, etc.) and untimely deaths of other UM greats (Jerome Brown, Al Blades, Chris Campbell, JoJo Nicolas, Tyrone Moss, et al.). Hollywood couldn’t script a story about University of Miami football as the authentic twist and turns would feel completely sensationalized.

This Canes program has been to hell and back—the operative word there, “back”—as Miami always seems to find a new way to rise from the ashes. Yes, Diaz is another unproven guy lacking head coaching experience—but something still feels different about the overall fit this time around, as well as the state of the program he inherited from Richt; the infrastructure itself, as well as the overall talent level.

Sure, there are still some holes—offensive line not where it needs to be, while the quarterback position is still yet to find the next chosen one—but this transition doesn’t feel like Coker to Shannon, Shannon to Golden or Golden to Richt. This one feels different; like UM finally got their guy and that some fine-tuning is needed here; not the giant overhaul past regime changes have brought.

Seeing this unfold in real time and feeling this to be the case, it got the writing juices re-flowing—much like those late nineties when I first started covering UM.

Miami wasn’t “back” by 1998—the second year I was covering the Canes (for the now defunct, but legendary Grassy.com—and later CanesTime.com)—but those who’d followed the program for years could tell that the Canes had taken a step forward and that things were going the right direction.

Knocking off a second-ranked, undefeated, title-game-bound UCLA squad that season—it wasn’t as much of a shock to insiders, as it was the rest of the nation—nor was seeing Miami top Ohio State in the Kickoff Classic the following year, while hanging tough with No. 2 Penn State and No. 1 Florida State during regular season games in 1999. UM was transitioning from “hopeful” to “contender” and it made for some good writing, forecasting and storytelling—a sentiment that, “UM isn’t there yet, but pay attention because the comeback is underway.” 

While no one is expecting a run like Miami saw at the turn of the century; 46-4, two national title game berths, one championship, hitting for the then-BCS cycle; Sugar, Rose, Fiesta, Orange—and complete domination of the sport, as well as the NFL Draft—that hopeful-to-contender transition is again under way, which makes for ideal writing conditions.

Back in the saddle covering Hurricanes Football and ready to see a Diaz-led Miami retake it’s place amongst the sport’s elite. It’s the storyline we’ve been waiting for and it finally feels like “The U” is set to become a contender again. Buckle in and enjoy the ride.

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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