Underachieving won't do at The U
The question is blunt because there is no other way to ask. Miami is not a place where the subject should be tiptoed around, anyway.
The question to coach Al Golden: "Shouldn't Miami, given its history, its tradition and its location, be a program that wins at least 10 games every single season?"
Golden shoots right back: "In terms of what?"
The question is repeated nearly word-for-word.
"You mean once we stabilize and move forward?" he asked. "Absolutely. That's why I chose the University of Miami and that's why I stayed at the University of Miami. … I think it's fair to say that the standards are high at the University of Miami for sure."
It is also fair to say that Miami has failed to meet those standards for years now, much to the frustration of a proud fan base and an even prouder network of alumni -- players who helped bring the program back from the brink of devastation.
Miami, of course, is not the only big-name program that has fallen on hard times in recent years. Nebraska has. Tennessee has. Their championship droughts have lasted longer. But those two programs never won five national titles over a 20-year period plus playing for five more championships along the way. Those two programs are not in natural recruiting hot spots, where coaches trip over top high school talent without going very far.
Those two programs have not churned out NFL draft picks at the rate Miami has over the past 20 years, either. For the swaggering, swashbuckling, in-your-face Hurricanes, the standards they set and the havoc they wreaked have been too much for even them to reach.
Consider that Miami has yet to play for an ACC championship, after dominating its previous conference, the Big East. Its men's basketball team, living in the long football shadow, won a league title before its gridiron counterpart. Perhaps more important, its football recruiting classes have consistently yielded top-15 rankings over the past eight years, yet many of its high-end prospects failed to pan out. Blame can be spread, save for one place. The recent downslide has little to do with the ongoing NCAA investigation. Yes, that investigation has clouded most of Golden's tenure in Coral Gables. Yes, Miami had to self-impose two postseason bans, including one that cost it a spot in the ACC title game.
But the downturn began before then. Way before then.
In fact, it started after Miami made four straight BCS appearances between 2000-03. Miami has not won 10 or more games since 2003 and hasn't had an All-American since 2005. But every year, the expectations remain the same, only setting up the annual letdown.
"To speak honestly, going to the University of Miami nowadays, it's understanding that where you are going comes with the full expectation you want to win a national championship year in and year out," said Texans center Chris Myers, a freshman on the 2001 national championship team.
Just look at the windscreens that surround the new practice field. They feature photos of former Miami All-Americans. And pictures of all five championship rings. Those championship trophies are now on display for the players to see every time they walk into their new athletics facility. They are meant to serve as reminders of the past, of what can be accomplished here.
But the past imposes its own set of pressures. Players know full well that recent Miami seasons are simply unacceptable.
"I feel like that's a lot of motivation," offensive tackle Seantrel Henderson said. "Losing -- I'm not saying we had losing seasons, but 7-6 and 7-5, 6-6 is just not good. It's not the tradition here, and it's not what we want."
Coaching instability has been a key reason why Miami has failed to keep up with its past. Larry Coker won a national championship in his first season as coach in 2001 -- the program's fifth -- but he could not match himself.
Miami fired Coker in 2006 after the Hurricanes finished the regular season 6-6, their worst mark since going 5-6 in 1997, when they were dealing with the brunt of NCAA sanctions and heavy scholarship losses. In 2006, Miami was not on probation, nor was it dealing with scholarship restrictions.
Ultimately, Miami went the internal route for a second consecutive hire, promoting defensive coordinator Randy Shannon to head coach. Shannon related well to his players, having played at Miami in the 1980s. He had a no-nonsense policy and cleaned up the Hurricanes' image. Under his four-year watch, Miami only had one player arrested and boosted its academic profile, ranking among the top schools in the nation in APR.
He brought in some stellar recruiting classes, too. His first class in 2007 ranked No. 9 in the nation. In 2008, ESPN ranked the incoming Miami class No. 1. As recruiting rankings rose, folks came to expect another round of Miami dominance.
It never happened. Once those projected stars arrived on campus, few panned out. The 2008 class had 12 ESPN 150 members, five of the top seven outside linebackers and Jacory Harris, one of the top quarterbacks in the country.
But that group ended up going 39-23 overall, with zero bowl wins. Of the 32 players who signed in 2008, five were drafted, none in the first round. Miami, which set an NFL record in 2008 with first-round picks in 15 consecutive drafts, has not had a player taken in the opening round since.
Shannon did yeoman's work off the field. But seven-win seasons cannot be the norm at Miami. He was fired in 2010. When Golden was hired from Temple, he became Miami's third coach in six years.
"I don't want to attach everything to that, but when you have different perspectives and different angles in recruiting, that's going to play to the overall aspect with the team," Myers said. "Now with Al Golden being solidified there for a few years, it's his recruiting classes there. He can build upon that. Now that everyone's bought in, it's great. I'm excited."
Miami officials knew they had to go a different route after firing Shannon. Neither he nor Coker had been college head coaches before taking over at Miami. They were convenient hires, made on the relative cheap at a school that does not have deep pockets.
In Golden, they saw an up-and-comer who worked tirelessly to turn moribund Temple from the worst program in America into a bowl team. If Golden could make Temple into a winner, surely he could make the Hurricanes champions again.
Months after Golden took over, the NCAA opened its investigation into improper benefits allegations made by former booster and convicted felon Nevin Shapiro. Golden was blindsided. Rather than run, he stayed and embraced the challenge.
Not only did Miami impose its own postseason ban, but it also reduced scholarships, though the exact number has not been publicly disclosed.
And yet, national expectations have been raised again headed into the 2013 season. The familiar theme has returned.
Miami, despite an unresolved NCAA investigation, currently has the No. 4 recruiting class in the nation for 2014.
Miami, without a marquee victory over a top-10 team since 2009, has an opportunity to work its way back into the Top 25 again -- if it can find a way to beat No. 10 Florida in Week 2.
"The fact that we're even sitting here, despite what we encountered the last two years, and people think that we have a chance to win the Coastal, I think is in and of itself a testament to our student-athletes and everybody that's stood by the University of Miami through all this," Golden said. "This has been as hard as anything that I've ever seen anybody encounter in college football."
Ask any player wearing the U on his helmet, and he will tell you he chose Miami for the opportunity to win championships. Senior safety A.J. Highsmith grew up with Miami helmets on the wall, and Miami jerseys all over his house. His dad, Alonzo, was on the 1983 national championship team. His mom also went to Miami.
Alonzo always told A.J. to make his own college choice, to forget the family history during the recruiting process. But when A.J. came to the Miami campus for a visit, he could not see himself anywhere else.
"As a team in general we wanted to be that class that put the school back to where it's supposed to be in terms of college football and the success they always had," Highsmith said. "Because you want to leave your mark and you want to go out on a high note. So we've been trying to get back to that level because we know we have the players to do it. We just have to put everything together."
Even if Miami wins more this year than it has recently, it will not be enough. Golden knows his team has to do it consistently. The odds of that happening won't truly be known until Miami receives its judgment from the NCAA. The last time Miami was hit with penalties for NCAA rules infractions, following the 1995 regular season, it took four years to get to double-digit wins and five to win a national championship.
It has now been 12 years since the Canes hoisted their last crystal ball. The questions will persist until they win another.
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