Former Miami cornerback Tolbert Bain – “Liberty City born and raised” – watched with pride as first-year Hurricanes coach Mark Richt traveled to six youth-league parks in two days last week, stressing the virtues of good grades, good character and, naturally, football savvy to the Overtown Tornadoes, Liberty City Warriors, Gwen Cherry Bulls, Bunche Park Cowboys, Miami Gardens Ravens and Miami Gardens Chiefs.
“Just imagine you’re a kid playing youth football and the Miami coach stops at your practice,” said Bain, 52, who won national championships in 1983 and ’87. “These kids are always going to remember. Mark Richt is ingenius. He’s genuine, too.”
Bain’s buddy and former roommate Alonzo Highsmith, now senior personnel executive with the Green Bay Packers, likewise relished how Richt is forming a program to connect adult Hurricanes with employment opportunities after their playing days end — a program he started at Georgia in the aftermath of Bulldog Paul Oliver’s post-NFL 2013 suicide.
A new network
“I’ve been a proponent of that for years,” Highsmith, 51, said of the new “U Network,” adding that “nobody wants to be given anything. People just want an opportunity. For years the players give so much of themselves to the football program that they don’t have a chance to network with the rest of the school.
“It’s a different era at Miami now.”
Preseason camp opens Thursday afternoon at Greentree Field, but Richt’s relationship with former players and the South Florida community will continue to flourish. Richt plans to keep visiting South Florida’s youth football teams during the season. He foresees little guys blooming into future Hurricanes fans — or better yet, actual Hurricanes.
Richt told reporters last Wednesday at Betty Ferguson Park in Miami Gardens — an extended touchdown run from the Hurricanes’ stadium — the importance of reinforcing to the young children there “the habit of doing things right.”
“Just the simplest things [such as] paying attention, being respectful and taking care of your grades,” the coach said that night in a video posted on the Hurricanes’ Facebook page. “But from a selfish point of view, I know there are a bunch of future stars out here, too, and I want them to fall in love with the U.”
Richt recently spoke of the clinic in Plantation he and his staff ran for 300 youth league coaches. “I’m trying to make it every single Thursday that I can get into two or three parks in the tri-county area to see the 8, 9, 10, 11 year olds,” he said. “I want those guys to be excited about Miami. … I want them to know that they can accomplish all their dreams right here at the U.”
Bain, among those with whom Richt conferred about his plan to visit youth programs, said the coach answers every question, takes photographs with the children and their parents, and seems happy to be there.
“Kids in high school have never seen Miami win anything,” Bain said. “He’s not only caring, he’s drawing our fan base back.”
As those kids become young adults, and inevitably some of them UM athletes, the giving will continue through the U Network program.
“The U Network is going to be designed to help guys find work when their playing days are over, whether it’s right after college or after their pro days,” Richt said during his visit to Betty Ferguson Park.
“My wife is going to be the person kind of facilitating everything — you know, all of the paperwork and all of the things it will take to connect people with events and connecting guys with employers basically. It’s also going to be about reunion. It’s going to be about connection, but the main goal is to be finding work for these guys…
“They’ve got to do their part, but sometimes all they need is just a little bit of help and guidance, a little connection, a little networking.”
At Georgia, the Paul Oliver Network is run independent of athletics and facilitated out of student services.
“It’s a great program,” Georgia senior associate athletic director Claude Felton said, “because it has bridged a gap between former players and the university. Especially for those who have played professionally, you’re hearing more stories about athletes a little lost when the cheering stops.”
Gerard Daphnis, a former UM tight end (1992-96) who runs a nonprofit outreach organization called Canes4Life, said he has essentially “been trying to do the same thing for years without adequate backing.”
“I always knew it could be bigger and much more inclusive,” said Daphnis, 41, who works ground operations in Fort Lauderdale for Jet Blue. “There was always this thing about UM guys not giving back. But if you help these guys basically get their manhood back, so to speak, there’s no question they’ll be willing to give back. It just takes someone to grab them by the hand and guide them.”