CORAL GABLES, Fla. -- There is a tranquil fountain in Al Golden’s spacious office at Miami, a decorative waterfall that gives the illusion of peace.
It’s a futile attempt at serenity.
Since the story of the NCAA investigation broke in August 2011 -- eight months after he was hired -- Golden has been working tirelessly to navigate the program through one of the most highly-publicized and controversial NCAA investigations in the history of college football. He’s been doing it blindly; out of the loop, as lawyers and high-ranking university officials make the decisions. Even with his office door closed, there has been no escaping the residual effects the investigation has had on recruiting, on the field and in the media.
“The shock waves since have not stopped,” Golden said. “They may have gotten quiet externally for a little while, or they may have jumped to the next story and navigated the media away from it, but it’s always come back. I promise you it has always come back. We have not been able to get away from it.”
Not that Golden has tried to run away from it -- quite the contrary.
One of the most underrated coaching moves in college football in recent years was the one that never happened. Golden, who was blindsided by the investigation from Day 1, is now in the midst of his third spring at Miami. His tenure has been lowlighted by three recruiting classes under the cloud of the NCAA investigation, two postseason bans, including the program’s first chance at the ACC title game, and one shocking concession from the NCAA that it gathered tainted evidence through unethical conduct. There have been enough distractions, not to mention other job openings, during that span to fill Sun Life Stadium. Yet Golden has found even more reasons to stick around.
“We have the good fortune of going to work at a place that, when it’s right, is as good as anywhere you can imagine in college football,” Golden said. “That’s what our job is -- to get it right. Our job is not to complain about what hasn’t gone right, or what has gone wrong -- anybody can do that. Our job is to fix it. To do that, you have to have a vision, you have to have leadership, and in this particular case, you have to have courage and resiliency and a great staff, and an administration that is committed and student-athletes that want to be a part of it. I feel like we have all of that.”
The one thing it doesn’t have, though, is closure. Miami is still arm wrestling with the NCAA, but the case took a major step forward on February 19 when the university received its notice of allegations from the NCAA. Miami has reportedly been charged with a lack of institutional control, and the school’s hearing with the NCAA’s committee on infractions is scheduled for June 14.
“It’s been very trying to say the least, very difficult, to work and recruit and live under that cloud, if you will,” Golden said. “But I don’t think there’s anybody that enters this building today that doesn’t think that finish line is within sight now.”
It’s been a long time coming.
Heading into the 2011 season opener against Maryland, Golden -- in his first game as head coach at Miami -- learned that eight of his players would be suspended by the NCAA for at least one game, including quarterback Jacory Harris. Somehow, Miami still found a way to win six games that season and become bowl eligible. They self-imposed their first postseason ban. After losing 12 starters last year, including the leading rusher, leading receivers, starting quarterback, and three offensive linemen, the media picked Miami to finish fifth in the Coastal Division standings. Instead, it finished 7-5 with a chance to play for the ACC title. See: Postseason Ban II.
During the span of those two seasons, the Penn State job came open. Golden played for the Nittany Lions and was a tight end under the late Joe Paterno. The Boston College job came open, where he was the linebackers coach from 1997-99. But never once did Golden even hint at the whisper of an interest in those jobs.
“That just shows his character, knowing a lot of coaches probably would’ve bailed and went to wherever they were offered, but he didn’t,” running back Duke Johnson said. “He stayed with us and he sees the potential we have and the things we can do. If that means him staying here and going through what we have to go through, we’re here with him.”
Miami defensive coordinator Mark D'Onofrio has seen, and helped, Golden pull programs out of the mud before.
With Golden at the helm, Temple played in a bowl game for the first time in 30 years. It was the first winning season the MAC program had seen since 1990. According to Temple, Golden also led the program through “the greatest academic turnaround in the NCAA APR Reform Era.”
D’Onofrio said their experiences at Temple have helped them at Miami.
“Certainly we had our share of tough moments to go through at Temple, to be honest with you,” D’Onofrio said. “We came in there, I think our first year we had 53 scholarship players. We had to slowly build that program back up. We had the greatest turnaround in college football on the field and off the field. There was a lot to dig in and do there. The last thing the people see are the wins, but the first few years there, they were tough. Those were tough days. We had a few 62-0 defeats in 2006.
“That’s just how we’re built, so to speak, and conditioned,” he said. “You go to work and coach who’s there, and whatever issues come up, you just go in there, don’t make any excuses and go to work. With Al, he sees the long-term vision of what can be done here. That was the reason to come here and take this job. It’s a job that has tremendous potential based on the football players you can get here. Miami has national appeal. From that standpoint, we felt confident that if we stayed the course, we could have success.”
On the field, they’re getting much closer.
Despite self-imposed sanctions that included scholarship reductions, Golden and his staff still landed the No. 15 recruiting class in the country for 2013. The Canes added a pair of top prospects after signing day in ESPN 150 tight end Derrick Griffin -- the No. 1 prospect at his position and a longtime Texas A&M commit -- and ESPN 300 RB Cornelius Edler.
Golden’s biggest recruit, though, was former Florida State assistant James Coley, one of the Noles’ top recruiters who left his alma mater to be the Canes’ offensive coordinator. Like Golden, the NCAA debacle did not scare Coley.
“At the end of the day, there’s a lot of energy here, positive energy, and that starts from the top -- from the president, to the AD, to the head coach,” Coley said. “For the last couple of years, they’ve been a real force, and they’ve fought through a lot, off the field and on the field. It’s good to see this team grow.
“There’s a lot of strength from the president, and from the athletic department,” he said. “I noticed it right away when I got here, what a strong school it is. I think if you’re anywhere else, where there’s not a lot of substance to a particular place, I think people bolt. But if the place is strong and it’s worth fighting for, you don’t leave.”
Golden never intended to.