|Fans are no longer packing Sun Life Stadium, but that hasn't dampened the Hurricanes' spirits. (US Presswire)|
CORAL GABLES, Fla. -- While Al Golden is in the process of confronting harsh realities, did you know Miami hasn't been to an ACC title games in eight years?
As if the Hurricanes don't have enough sobering reminders about the difficult task of reviving a once-proud program.
But Golden still throws the ACC title nugget into a large bin of troubles, which already includes potentially crippling NCAA sanctions looming after claims of improper benefits ponzi schemer Nevin Shapiro gave to players, the revolving door of athletic directors, the spotty game-day attendance (which is nothing new), the 17 wins since 2010.
Saturday’s 33-20 loss to Florida State was Miami’s third straight in the rivalry and third straight of the season. The Hurricanes were delivering hits like it was 1987 early in the game, but as Florida State gradually pulled away and the crowd got restless, Miami (4-4) showed once again it’s just not ready yet.
And the football facilities. Oh, don't get Alonzo Highsmith started on the facilities. The former Hurricane running back and first-round pick in 1987 is now a personnel executive for the Green Bay Packers, and on his tours to football programs across the country, he says even McNeese State has better facilities than the U.
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"I've got coaches coming up to me like, 'Man, Miami is a dump,' " said Highsmith, whose son, A.J., is a Hurricanes safety. "I don't like that. I don't want to bang on Miami. I love Miami. But we need to upgrade."
All obstacles facing Miami beg the fundamental question fans of every program might ask during down times: Can we really come back from this?
That answer isn't so clear since being "back," in this case, would be asking for five championships in 19 years. That was Miami's standard when it blanketed college football with green and orange from 1983-2001. The Canes were flushed with talent at the right time and with a little luck (who else gets a walk-on like Santana Moss and grabs a talent like Ed Reed out of Louisiana?). Even NCAA probation in the 1990s didn't thwart the Hurricanes from stockpiling NFL players.
Maybe the better question is, what should be the new standard? And what can be done to get there?
Golden, the second-year Hurricanes coach that many alumni feel is the right guy for the job, believes Miami can still be a place to chase championships. But he wants to embrace smaller, incremental goals.
Win the ACC Coastal Division. It's a start.
"It's been eight years. That's just the truth," Golden said. "So we just have to keep building our culture, and execute on a daily basis, and do that without regard for any external pressure. It's a vicious cycle when you're looking for external affirmation."
Taking stock of Miami's program shows Golden has something to work with in Coral Gables, but there are limitations.
The on-field productControlling the fence. Miami was known for it. Keep elite South Florida talent in South Florida. And at least last year, it seems Miami did just that.
According to Rivals.com databases for top in-state recruits, the Hurricanes signed seven of the top-14 players from the South Florida area (Fort Lauderdale and below) in 2012.
In 2005, Miami signed five of the top-17 South Florida players in the in-state top 50.
Last year's efforts resulted in a top-10 national recruiting class for Golden, but that doesn't offset the lack of first-round picks since 2008 for what was once known as an NFL factory.
In his search for the "right 20" recruits per year, Golden said development will be crucial. The Hurricanes have at least 21 freshmen who have seen the field this season, Golden said, and it showed with losses to Kansas State and Notre Dame by a combined margin of 93-16. In five games against KSU, Ohio State and Notre Dame since 2010, Miami is 1-4.
"It's about changing the culture, putting the right pieces together," Golden said. "We're trying to couple speed and athleticism Miami has been known for with the toughness and discipline of today's game."
Melvin Bratton, a former Hurricanes running back in the 80s who's now an NFL player agent, said losing several recruits to Louisville in recent years -- including breakout quarterback Teddy Bridgewater -- hurt, especially when trying to transition from the erratic Jacory Harris era.
"That's a basketball school," Bratton said of Louisville. "We have to keep those kids."
But Bratton added he's noticed some entitlement from Hurricanes teams in recent years, something he believes Golden is changing. That will help mold elite talent, he says.
"You never own a starting job at the University of Miami, and that's the way it should be," Bratton said. "Nobody's bigger than the program, and you're never out of a game. Al understands that."
Larry Coker, Miami's coach from 2001-06, said possibly more important than landing top South Florida recruits is combing the area for unheralded talent, which has become increasingly harder in the last decade because of recruiting services and relentless opposing coaches.
"It takes a lot of work, and maybe a little luck," Coker said. "I don't see any reason why they can't get it turned around."
For sustained success, Miami will need an athletic director interested in sticking around longer than a few years.
An athletic director and coach need cohesion and a long-term vision to make it work. And Golden is going on his third athletic director. Kirby Hocutt left for Texas Tech two months after hiring Golden, and Shawn Eichorst left for Nebraska in early October, after less than 18 months on the job.
The small private school has become a springboard job for athletic directors.
Golden acknowledges he'd prefer stability up top, and it's his understanding he'll have input in the hiring of the new athletic director.
"An appreciation for the University of Miami and South Florida, someone who's process-oriented," said Golden about what the school needs in a director. "We need to negate our deficiencies and highlight our assets."
Interim director Blake James, who was elevated from senior associate athletic director of development and ticket operations, could garner serious consideration for the job. The former Maine AD spent most of the 1990s on Miami's administrative staff.
Maybe he'll become a UM lifer.
"I cherish the opportunity to come in each day and serve as director of athletics," James said.
As for Golden, who's extended through 2019, he cites his mom's Italian immigrant roots and his father working two jobs day and night in Jersey City as driving forces for the reasons why he doesn't want to "retreat," but instead fight through Miami's reclamation.
"We want to see this through," said Golden about his family.
How painful that process becomes could hinge on the NCAA.
Claims by Nevin Shapiro in a Yahoo Sports investigation in August 2011 that he showered dozens of athletes with impermissible benefits has spawned a lengthy NCAA investigation. Yahoo reported in July that Golden was aware of a former equipment manager circumventing NCAA rules to recruit Miami-area players.
When the hammer drops -- and how much the ground shakes when it does -- is still unclear. Golden and James declined comment on questions about the probe. Loss of scholarships and postseason bans could be a formality at this point.
John Infante, a former Division I compliance director and author of the Bylaw Blog, said the end of November would likely be the earliest the school would receive an NCAA notice of allegations, followed by definitive sanctions in the spring or summer.
That most of Miami's administrative staff wasn't directly connected to Shapiro could help the school's cause, Infante said.
"The biggest thing that has not popped up is delayed presence under new enforcement that will come into effect in August 2013," Infante said. "If the notice of allegations is received after that, the penalties could be worse."
The university has "run a few things" by ACC officials during the investigative process, conference associate commissioner Jeff Elliott said.
"We've gotten commitments from their administration and their board that this is something they are putting behind them, expecting to move forward and be completely compliant," Elliott said.
Despite not commenting publicly, the vibe in the athletic department is such that the program believes it can navigate the sanctions and still be competitive in future years.
But the details of Yahoo's reporting and the NCAA's unpredictable nature make the severity difficult to forecast.
Facilities, game-day attendance
The tweets of a half-empty Sun Life Stadium for Miami home games can be a little misleading. Attendance hasn't been stellar for years.
The 2001 national title season drew 46,162 fans per game in the now-defunct Orange Bowl. This year's attendance is at 52,557 through five games, down from last year's 56,207.
While fans and alumni plead for an on-campus stadium, James said such a move is unrealistic right now.
"What makes the most sense is to be in Sun Life," James said. "There are always talks, but right now we're in agreement with Sun Life."
Highsmith and Coker agree Miami's football facilities aren't on par with other storied programs.
The school is constructing a $13.6 million Schwartz Center, a two-level, 30,000-square-foot multipurpose athletics facility that will serve as the focal point of the football program. School officials aren't ruling out future enhancements to the program.
Highsmith's argument is Miami football needs its own facility, not one that houses all the school's athletes, in a "new era" where recruiting competition is fierce and players need every resource they can get.
"Everyone knows there are athletes. We'll always have that," Highsmith said. "Beautiful place and great academic school, good town. It's a great place we have to make better. We can't keep living off legacy."
Though James agrees that Miami doesn't want to stay stagnate, he acknowledges some limitations when it comes to concerns over the stadium and facilities.
"We're in a large stadium as a small private school," James said. "A lot of people lose sight of that and equate Miami's success on the field with those programs that have maybe had that kind of [additions]. A 10,000-student private school is a much different equation."
The Golden effect
Undoubtedly the most important navigator through Miami's turbulence is the man who built a once-dormant, independent Temple program into a bowl team.
Golden still clings to those heady days in Ambler, Pa., how he played nearly all freshmen in 2007, the same players who comprised the school's winningest football class.
This is his blueprint, his assurance that his plan will work in Miami. Not much of the press was positive back then, and he admits it's not much different now.
"You really had to learn to be a callous team, control things you can control," Golden said. "I still believe the execution of the process, on a consistent basis, is what's going to deliver us out of this."
Golden still sees mistakes all over the field with his young team. He also sees fight.
Now that's something to work with.
"I have no doubt," said Golden about whether he has enough time, resources, talent to make it work. "I'm proud as heck of our guys for competing the way we're competing."