The reminders are everywhere you look now around the University of Miami football program, and more unmistakable than ever.
Al Golden is embracing past success so that it might be repeated. He is utilizing UM’s heritage in the sport as a guiding hand to help shape the future.
The marketing theme might be “Full Speed Ahead” — a subtle, hopeful allusion to leaving NCAA matters behind once and for all and charging forward unfettered — but the homage to what’s behind in that rose-colored rear view mirror is clear.
New mesh windscreens around the campus practice field are embossed with the images of every Hurricane to make an All-American team, ghosts distant to recent, constant reminders of the bar set for the current Canes.
Visitors to Golden’s head coach’s office walk past a glass case housing the school’s five national championship trophies, from 1983, 1987, 1989, 1991 and 2001. (Conspicuously, there is room for another one.)
Seldom does Golden let an interview go by without finding a chance to mention the school’s number of Heisman Trophy winners or first-round NFL draft picks, reciting them the way a car salesman might mention the horsepower under the hood or a restaurateur a five-star Michelin rating.
Now the program will mark the 30th anniversary of its maiden ’83 title by honoring that team at halftime of the Aug. 30 season opener at Dolphins stadium.
To Golden, in both recruiting and in the culture he has worked to reestablish into his third season here, the past is a huge asset. This program and its fans always like to think “The U Invented Swagger,” as the T-shirts say, and this coach acts like.
This coach covets that good swagger like no Hurricanes coach since Jimmy Johnson and that perfect sweep of hair of his preened in from Oklahoma State in 1984 and continued and grew UM’s halcyon days. Golden is the school’s most dynamic, forceful young coach since J.J., and Golden, who has a master’s in sports psychology, also coaches minds like no UM football chief since Johnson.
Some coaches would shy from embracing a heritage filled with other people’s championship rings. This coach believes the first step to being a part of elite company is to act like you belong. To believe you do.
Speak to Golden and get an unmistakable sense he believes a corner is turned and that the Canes’ full rebound to national prominence is coming soon.
Finally, Golden was able to approach this season feeling as if he’d come out of a treacherous black forest into a clearing full of sunlight.
As I wrote this, the NCAA still had not issued its final sanctions against Miami in the three-year investigation related to renegade booster Nevin Shapiro. But there was optimism the school’s self-imposed penalties to this point — featuring back-to-back postseason bans encompassing two bowls and an ACC championship game — should and would lessen any additional penalties.
The beleaguered NCAA has a notorious history of inconsistency in its penalties, and its own internal corruption during the UM probe has robbed it of the moral authority to judge anybody. Having said that, all the Canes can do is hope subsequent sanctions will be relatively minor.
Golden has a talented team predicted to have a great chance to play for the conference title and a spot in the Orange Bowl game – and be allowed to this time. The Canes lurk just outside the preseason Top 25 polls but perhaps not for long.
“It’s been so long since we’ve been able to talk about anything but that four-letter word,” Golden said, meaning the NCAA. “We’ve been through hell and back the past two years. But I’m a football coach right now. I’m not a litigator; I’m not a researcher. I’ve had 15 different jobs the last two years. This has been as hard as anything I’ve seen anyone encounter in college football.”
He meant his program, not just him, but it was Golden who inherited the Shapiro/NCAA mess. Walked into the firestorm. What didn’t kill him made him stronger, though, and maybe worked that way on his team, too. Two consecutive seasons robbed of bowl games has this team hungry, a good kind of angry. Golden thinks the NCAA onus — what quarterback Stephen Morris calls “the cloud that’s been looming” — has been a rallying point that his knitted his team closer together.
Some of Miami’s great ’80s teams put an us-against-the-world mentality to good use, back when critics harped on off-field issues and battle fatigues and Sports Illustrated even called for the program to be disbanded.
This team seems to have adapted some of that circle-wagons/close-ranks mentality over this ponderous NCAA investigation. “Bunker down,” is a phrase Golden uses. So is “anchor in and close the doors.”
He calls Hurricanes football — from past champions to his current team — “a brotherhood.” There is a lineage, a continuity.
The culture of “The U” has embodied family for 30 some years now. When you join this program it’s as if you are welcomed into a secret fraternity. Your big brothers, your blood brothers, include the likes of Michael Irvin and Ray Lewis, and every other past All-American looking out for you from those new windscreens.
Other programs have former players. This one has evangelists.
“It’s a Canes thing. You wouldn’t understand,” as Warren Sapp said in his recent Pro Football Hall of Fame acceptance speech.
Al Golden understands.