MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. -- The 15-minute cooling-off period had come and gone, but Al Golden had not cooled off just yet.
He walked into the interview room wearing an orange Miami polo shirt, a quick change from the shirt and tie he wore during the game. Yet he had already sweated through his new shirt, and sweat still poured from his red face.
Every few seconds, he wiped his brow with a white towel as he answered questions about Miami’s 21-16 win over No. 12 Florida on Saturday afternoon.
You understand why Golden was still so worked up after the game ended. Golden was the coach with the most to lose on Saturday, given the raised expectations in Coral Gables this season. Miami has not lived up to its high standards for years. And the Canes had consistently struggled against ranked teams -- especially last year, going 0-3 against Kansas State, Notre Dame and Florida State.
Golden himself faced questions about his record in big games, too. Never once have his teams -- at Temple or Miami -- posted winning records against squads that finished the season above .500. Going into the Florida game, Golden was 8-31 against teams with winning records, 2-8 against ranked teams in his career.
Players saw a different Golden last week leading up to the game. So did reporters. He tightened up a bit. There was no time to relax. This game would serve as a benchmark for Miami. Everybody knew it.
Florida and Miami might not be bitter rivals on the field anymore, but they are in their home state and on the recruiting trail. Golden has to compete against Florida for fan interest, national pub and, most importantly, recruits across the state. That includes South Florida, where the top prospects are no longer locks to throw up the "U.” Miami invited a reported 115 recruits to the game, underlying its importance.
The Gators had surpassed Miami in just about every way -- in the rankings, in recent championships, in NFL prospects and in recruiting class rankings. If Miami had any designs on beginning its climb back, it had to beat Florida.
So when the Canes did, Golden sprinted across the field like a giddy player and celebrated with his players and fans. In between the coachspeak in his postgame comments, you truly saw how much this win meant to him and to a program that has been in the headlines for major NCAA problems, not major NCAA victories.
His celebration resonated with his players, who feed off his passion and enthusiasm. Linebacker Tyriq McCord pointed to one Golden moment from a game against USF in 2011 that essentially made his decision to play for Miami. The Canes got ready to line up for a field goal to win with seconds left in the game.
“Usually the kicker has to be poised, nobody needs to be around him, they’re trying to ice the kicker and everything,” McCord said. “Coach Golden was standing there right in the middle with Jake Wieclaw, jumping around and everything. That’s the main reason why I came here. Coach Golden is like one of us, and that’s what I love about him.”
With 24 hours to reflect on the victory, Golden admitted he was completely shot after the game, having expended so much energy in preparation time and on the sideline. To celebrate, he hung around his house Saturday night with family.
It was back to work Sunday. His team came into the facility to lift and watch tape. Golden made no mention of its rise to No. 15 in the AP poll -- the first time any of his teams has ever been ranked. The giddiness was gone. The focus cannot be on the rearview; it must be ahead, especially with a week off before Savannah State on Sept. 21.
Golden says they cannot “let this turn into Mardi Gras. We don't need a week's celebration here. We all know the corrections we have to make. We're happy about the win, but we have a lot of things we have to get fixed this week.”
Still, there is something to be said for what the win can do for the team moving forward. Last year, Miami simply was not mature enough to win a big game like this. Now, it is, and that can only lift spirits and raise confidence. What Golden saw on the sideline was a team that enjoyed being in a slugfest, that did not get down when mistakes were made.
Golden saw a much more physical team. It has been years since Miami looked as physical as it did against the Gators. He also saw a more unified, team, too. Golden credits the work his players put into the offseason program.
“Nobody was complaining, there was no infighting,” Golden said. “We're in better condition than we were a year ago and markedly better than two years ago. Our mental errors are down because of it, and our tackling is up because of it. ...
“The last thing anybody sees is what you do between the lines, but that confidence started way back with what this team has done in the weight room. We’ve had great leadership. Now we go and have that win, you're right there in confidence there. The way to gain confidence is to do it.”
And the way to build a program back up is to take small steps toward a bigger goal. This was not a small step, though. It was a giant step for Miami and Golden. They now know they can win a big game without playing their best game.
But they also know they cannot allow one win to define their season. Ten games remain, including the entire ACC schedule. For Miami to get where it wants to go, this game must serve as a beginning.
Not an end.