CORAL GABLES, Fla. -- Al Golden went to that first players meeting armed with an empty notebook.
Not an edict. Not a mandate. Not an attitude. Sure, he was young and hot and made up of all that stuff they say about hot, young coaches. But he was not going into the den of what was left of The U's swagger on his first day with all the answers.
"I did my research, just like everyone else," defensive tackle Marcus Forston said. "Like when your mom brings in a new guy, a new stepdad, you want to know everything about him."
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Maybe that's the best label for Golden. Stepdad. Miami's dynasty -- whether you believe it still exists or not -- has not been known for lasting marriages. None of the coaches responsible have stayed for more than six years.
Howard Schnellenberger, the patriarch, bolted for the USFL. Jimmy Johnson, Dennis Erickson and Butch Davis went to the NFL. Larry Coker won the last national championship and seemed never to be totally accepted, to the point that his behind-his-back nickname was "Grandpa."
A native son and loyal 'Cane didn't work out. Randy Shannon lasted four years, a stint during which no one is really sure what happened.
Why not a stepdad? Golden might be inheriting someone else's issues but also a program's soaring triumphs.
"I want all the issues right now," he told that roomful of players. "I want to know all the problems. What do I need to fix?"
Who knows how long Al Golden is going to stay/last, but in that moment Miami's new coach had just drawn up the best opening series of his career. That approach unleashed a flood of emotions.
What did he need to fix?
Start with a quarterback, Jacory Harris, whose interceptions threaten to outstrip his confidence.
A collective ego deflated by an embarrassing loss to Notre Dame in the Sun Bowl.
A national program whose last conference title was eight years and one conference ago.
Defensive back Vaughn Telemaque, among others, spoke up that day: "I hope you're not here to build a championship. We're ready to do it this year."
At that point, Telemaque had stolen Golden's script. This son of Penn State, captain of Joe Paterno's Nittany Lions, fixer at Temple, wasn't going to BS his new team. An immediate championship is exactly what he wanted, what he expected.
"Everybody was sitting there [saying], 'Wow, that's amazing,'" Forston said.
|Al Golden was a Penn State captain for Joe Paterno before becoming a rising coaching star at Temple. (US Presswire)|
"That was the first day."
In the 180-odd days since, the mood hasn't changed. Golden is riding high in CBSSports.com's annual Coaches' Hot Seat Rankings. A program has formed around him. Golden created a handout -- "Uphold the Legacy" -- that guides coaches and players on how to live their lives as Hurricanes.
Some of that old Miami swagger is creeping back, which isn't altogether a bad thing. Receiver LaRon Byrd was asked about the new rule that will take points off the board if a player is flagged for celebrating on the way to the end zone. It is a rule that traces its roots back to those old gum-flapping Hurricanes.
"It's going to cost [a team] a game or two," Byrd said. "I hope it isn't us."
You want swagger? Golden was wise enough to hire Art Kehoe as offensive line coach. If it ever comes to such a thing, Kehoe could replace Sebastian the Ibis as the Hurricanes' mascot. A member of the Miami Hall of Fame, he is the school's only coach who has all five of those championship rings. Kehoe had been away since 2006. Until then he had been with the program since 1979 as a player and coach.
During his first meeting with his players, Kehoe called it "Burger King University" because too many players -- wait for it -- had it their way.
"I don't know what you're used to," Kehoe told the players. "But it's all about to change. He's [Golden] backing us all up. He is empowering us all. I said, 'Take the numbers off your chest and put a Whopper. Take the numbers off your back and put OK,' because that's what your are -- OK."
As you can see, motivation will not be a problem.
Six months into this Golden era, Miami truly believes it can win right away under a former MAC coach at his first major-college head coaching gig. It's a big step up, but so was going to Virginia as Al Groh's assistant following the popular George Welsh in 2001. So was taking his first full-time job at Boston College in 1997, following a crippling gambling scandal.
Then there was Temple, a program so bad it got kicked out of the Big East. The Big East.
"To be honest with you, they didn't care where I came from or who I was," Golden said of Temple. "We were 1-16 in my first 17 games. We were getting blistered."
When he arrived in 2006, the Owls hadn't gone bowling since 1979. When Golden left following last season Temple had won 17 of 22 games and played in the 2009 MAC Championship Game. It was Bill Snyder's "Miracle in Manhattan" in miniature. Only faster.
"Not knocking Temple," Byrd said, "but if he can take a program like that to a bowl game, I know he can take the University of Miami, with a lot of talent, to a BCS game."
That is essentially the foundation of the Golden administration: If Auburn can go from 8-5 to a national championship; if Temple can go from joke to MAC title game, then why not the 'Canes? Why not now?
"At Temple it was zero to nine wins [in four years]," Golden said. "Here, you want to go from seven wins to 14."
So, what's harder?
"That remains to be seen."
That's the issue here. It is a place that continues to pull South Florida talent and continues to win, just not nearly enough. It is no longer a program that runs itself, no matter who is coaching. That's what made the dynasty unique. Some have suggested that recently it has been a lack of discipline, a lack of desire. Golden wanted to find out himself when he brought in a series of speakers. Jimmy Johnson came. So did Sean Taylor's dad.
During his visit, former Miami safety Darrell Fullington not-so-politely asked the members of the 2008 recruiting class to identify themselves. It was that class that was ranked No. 1 in the country by at least one outlet and now stands 23-16 going into the senior season of those players. No bowl wins. Not even a single ACC Coastal Division title.
"Miami has always been a college powerhouse," Fullington said this week, recreating his speech over the phone. "People think you're in decline. You're not in decline. Ya'll haven't made up your mind to work. You've got the talent but you ain't used to working hard. Ya'll don't hold each other accountable."
"I may have mentioned a few player names," he added, "but I didn't call anybody out. I said, 'Why did you come here?'"
"To be a first-time head coach here is really hard," Golden said. "It's tough because it's not just coaching. You can fill in the blanks. There are a lot of head coaches in America that can focus solely on what happens on the field."
That's what earned Golden some immediate cred. The administration recognized he not only had worked in the ACC, but also had recruited inner-city Philly to get a lot of those Temple players. The foundation of Miami is those local players. That 2008 class featured eight players from nearby Northwestern High.
Forston is one of them, a likeable kid from a family of 18. It is an unconventional family that is made up of five siblings from his mother and 13 from his father, according to Forston. He was raised in nearby Liberty City, which he called "one of the deadliest projects."
Forston still values an etiquette class that taught him which one is the salad fork and how to place a napkin in his lap. The criminology major, on track to graduate in December, would be the first college graduate in his family. Now he has to get past the dinner table and into the opposing backfield more often.
Having won over the existing team, Golden had six weeks to put together his first recruiting class. His ability to turn things around is evident in the last week of June. Miami already has 15 commitments for the class of 2012. It is a recruiting philosophy Golden calls "Guerilla Warfare."
"By that, I mean use any means necessary," he said.
Guerilla warfare certainly worked on Jedd Fisch, the tennis bum who doubles as Miami's offensive coordinator.
"Jersey guy," said Golden. That was all the credentials Fisch initially needed for a boss from Colts Neck, N.J.
Fisch, 35, recently was bedridden for three days with a back problem after playing some competitive tennis. That's part of his background that immediately comes up. Fisch has never played organized football. He did play No. 1 singles in high school and attended the Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy.
"Every article, every time," Fisch said of his lack of a football-playing background. "I don't get it from the players, ever. Never gotten it from another coach."
Didn't matter to Golden, either. There was no previous relationship, but Fisch came highly recommended. He had a pro-style background and a definite plan to help Harris (39 interceptions in 36 career games).
Fisch got his break running errands for Steve Spurrier as a student at Florida. His résumé now includes nine years in the NFL having worked under Dom Capers, Brian Billick, Mike Shanahan and Pete Carroll.
Fisch came to the 'Canes from Seattle, where he was quarterbacks coach under Carroll. Shortly after taking the Miami job, Fisch had an unexpected decision to make. The Seahawks' offensive coordinator's job opened up. Was Fisch interested?
"Very," he said.
Carroll lobbied. Fisch wavered, then made a decision that endorsed Golden, Miami and what is going on here.
"I felt we had a great chance to win a championship," Fisch said. "A lot of jobs you take for the job. You come to Miami and say, 'I don't care what the job is, I want to win a championship.'"