Florida-Miami game adds twist as Jimmy Johnson helps Canes coaches get their minds right
How an unplanned meeting with a Hurricanes coaching legend helped Miami's staff prepare for Florida
Manny Diaz had an idea to cold call Jimmy Johnson. One Miami coach to another. Except it wasn't even as intimate as picking up the phone.
"We went down on a weekday night," Diaz said of February's Miami staff retreat in Key Largo, Florida. "We rented some jet skis. We were having a dinner, and I had gotten Coach Johnson's contact information. I sent him an email. We were going to be down there ... because he lives right there."
Separated by age, experience and eras, that impersonal email was enough. Johnson agreed to meet a first-time coach and his staff for "a couple of beers."
The casual meeting turned into a tutorial.
"What was supposed to be an hour turned into two hours," Johnson recalled. "He's so sharp, his recall of situations. We were like kids in a candy store [talking to a coach with] a national championship ring and a couple of Super Bowl rings. … We were literally a bunch of guys looking at the ocean talking football."
That's one of the implications to Saturday's season-opening Florida-Miami game in Orlando. The rivals haven't met since 2013. In the time that has passed, the Hurricanes have changed coaches twice. The Gators enter Year 2 under Dan Mullen with perhaps their most momentum since the Urban Meyer days.
Overall, both are just trying to get back.
Neither Florida nor Miami is necessarily considered College Football Playoff material, though the Gators do begin the season ranked No. 8 across the board, including in our CBS Sports 130.
When the meeting of the two Florida powerhouses was picked to kick off the 150th year of college football, it meant something more than flattery: two recognized brand names on the rise with enough history in their past to attract the casual viewer and make a nice anniversary party.
Cue the introduction of a living Miami legend into an infrequent rivalry. Johnson, better known as a Fox NFL analyst these days, hasn't coached in 20 years. His days at Miami (1984-88) were more than three decades ago. Diaz and the Canes staff should have felt special in February.
Johnson helped set the foundation following Howard Schnellenberger, establishing a golden age of Miami football.
"If you're just trying to live off the results of the history, that's hollow and shallow,". "It's the 'why?' What we've really tried to unpack in the last nine months is the why those teams won.
"You hear the word 'culture' thrown around all the time with coaches, but it's still true. What's great about the University of Miami is that the culture here, the plan to win has been set in place long before I got here."
When not pontificating on TV, Johnson likes to fish out of his home in the Florida Keys while entertaining a who's who of football royalty.
"Please," Johnson began. "I've had four NFL owners. I've had [general managers], head coaches. Kliff Kingsbury. I took Urban Meyer and his son fishing. Bret Bielema. Bill Belichick comes almost ever year. He wants to talk football. I want to fish and drink beer."
No wonder Diaz and his staff felt so humbled. The Miami coach said the meeting progressed so well he took his phone out.
"'Coach, just so you know, I'm not texting,'" Diaz said. "'I'm writing this down [in my phone]. I want to remember it in the morning.' I wanted him to know I wasn't playing 'Words With Friends.'"
A backdrop continues to develop for Saturday's game in Orlando. Florida is coming off its first 10-win season since 2015. Miami is making its latest attempt to recreate that dynasty that Johnson helped manufacture.
"I really like Manny," Johnson said. "I was just elated when they hired him. It's going to be hard [to replicate the dynasty]. I don't know if you'll ever see it again. Alabama's got it going, but that's Alabama. They've got a little bit more revenue than what Miami has. Clemson is doing a great job. Can Miami compete for a championship?
Diaz is as Miami as any coach who has led the Hurricanes. He was born there 45 years ago. His dad was the city's former mayor. He was a three-sport athlete at Miami Country Day. As one of the most respected defensive minds in the game, Diaz was hired by Mark Richt as defensive coordinator in 2016.
"You never know when you're being evaluated," Diaz said.
The Diaz connection on the Fox set came first between Johnson and Terry Bradshaw. The Pittsburgh hall of fame quarterback who played at Louisiana Tech paid attention to Diaz when he was defensive coordinator there for one season there in 2014.
"There was a connection [for me] already there," Diaz said.
When Richt retired on Dec. 30, 2018, Diaz had been Temple's coach for 20 days. What followed was one of the smoothest awkward transitions in the history.
Diaz said goodbye to his first head coaching job in less than three weeks. Few could blame him for going to Miami.
"[I had] that sort of inside knowledge," Diaz said. "Maybe it was an understanding of things that were ailing us in the last couple of years, an easier diagnosis of the patient."
Meanwhile, Florida has its own ailments. The Gators haven't been a true SEC factor for about a decade.
"I've always wanted to be a person with confetti [falling on me]," Florida quarterback Feleipe Franks said. "I've never been a guy out there you see … with confetti falling on them."
Coming off a Peach Bowl beat down of Michigan, that confetti could fall again for the Gators.
The teams haven't met in six years. The coaches and players are inexperienced in the rivalry's intricacies. Diaz last faced Florida as a Mississippi State assistant in 2010. Mullen was Urban Meyer's offensive coordinator in the 2008 Miami game, played in Week 2 of a national championship season.
"You know what I remember both most about that game? We only scored like 20-some points," Mullen said. "As the offensive coordinator at the time at the University of Florida, it was like, 'Eww, only 20-something points? We really want a lot more points being scored around here.'"
That night, Florida outgained Miami 345-140, winning 26-3 and setting the tone for what would be the Gators' second national championship season in three years. Miami won the last meeting 21-16 in 2013. Florida turned it over five times in each in those games.
Good news for the Turnover Chain in 2019?
There is definitive news for the rivalry. The teams have a home-and-home series scheduled for 2024-25.
Florida-Miami used to define the state in football long before Florida State hit the big time and UCF asked for a spot at the adult table. The teams met each year but once from 1938 to 1987. Florida's 28-3 win in Gainesville in 1983 was the only blemish on Miami's first national championship season.
"We were not a blueblood of college football," Diaz said. "We kind of crashed the party defeating teams that had greater resources and stadiums and facilities. That chip on the shoulder made Miami, Miami."
"Florida fans take it extremely serious," Gators defensive lineman Jabari Zuniga said of Canes rivalry. "It's embedded in their heart."
Tim Tebow has already called it the biggest opener Florida has played in the last 10 years. Well, duh. Since 2009, the Gators have kicked off the season with likes of Miami (Ohio), Bowling Green, Toledo, Eastern Michigan, New Mexico State, UMass and Charleston Southern (twice). (Florida did open the 2017 season against Michigan at AT&T Stadium, however.)
This is a throwback to the old "state championship days" when the Gators, Hurricanes and Seminoles all played in a round robin. Both Florida and Miami also play Florida State this season.
"To me, growing up in the 1980s and 1990s, winning a state championship in Florida was as hard, if not harder, than winning a national championship," Diaz said
Happy anniversary, college football. Back to the rivalry, Florida and Miami.
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