We have seen Al Golden master the skill of a steady hand, the art of moving forward. “How to put your head down and keep going,” as he called it Monday.
Without question he possesses the generalship to lead a major-college football program through adversity. We saw that as he guided the Miami Hurricanes through the lengthy NCAA investigation that he inherited and that “eclipsed everything,” he reminded. That cloud finally lifted, but the challenges have not relented. More recently Golden has dealt with losing his starting quarterback to major knee surgery, two players booted from the team after a sexual assault on campus, his linebackers coach abruptly quitting, and another QB facing a game’s suspension reportedly over a failed drug test.
All the while we have seen from Golden only blinders-on focus and defiant optimism steadying a program that without his compass might have lost its balance and direction.
Now it’s time we saw even more from the coach.
It’s time to start to see what’s next.
It’s time to start to see the arc of his aim, more evidence of how good he is as a recruiter and coach, clear signs of how great his program might become.
Golden has managed tough times off the field. Now his Canes must take the next step on it as he begins his fourth UM season with Tuesday’s first preseason practice on the Coral Gables campus.
We have seen steady progress, from a 6-6 record his first year, to 7-5, to last season’s 9-4.
What we have not yet seen is a program ready to compete with its two greatest opponents:
UM’s own daunting history.
And its current Atlantic Coast Conference rival and roadblock, Florida State.
Golden had the former in mind Monday, showing all due respect to Miami’s five national championships won between 1983 and 2001 but understanding it’s time for UM football to stop living on past glories and to start creating some new ones.
“We have one of greatest traditions in college football, and we’re proud of that. We respect the heck out of that,” he said. “But I want to see this [team] translate to our brand, our identity. It’s their time. It’s their time to show what kind of team they are, what they’ve become. ‘This is who we are. This is who the ’14 version of the Canes are.’ That’s what I want to see starting [Tuesday].”
Fans of The U might wince to recall Miami was riding high at 7-0 and in the polls’ top 10 last season before the harsh reality of a 41-14 loss at Florida State to the eventual national champion Seminoles. That left Golden 0-3 vs. FSU and led to a late tailspin that ended with a 36-9 bowl loss to Louisville.
“If we didn’t learn from the bowl experience, if we didn’t learn from being in that setting in Tallahassee, we’re not doing our job,” Golden said Monday.
It’s getting over the FSU hurdle that has become the coach’s litmus test and gauge.
The Seminoles are to UM what the New England Patriots are to the Dolphins. Daddy. The puzzle you can’t seem to solve. It will be hard for Miami to compete for a national championship until it starts being the best team in its own conference, a status presently owned unequivocally by the Noles.
I asked Golden on Monday to assess the gap between FSU’s program and his own and how he plans to narrow it. He wasn’t in the mood. It didn’t fit the all-about-us optimism of a new season.
“I’m not worried about them,” Golden said. “They had a great team last year, but we’re on a different focus. We’re excited about the direction we’re going.”
Golden then detoured to extolling the leaps UM has made in facility upgrades the past year. His news conference was held in the new $18 million Schwartz Center for Athletic Excellence. A sports-medicine performance center is being built.
“A year ago we sat here and didn’t know what the future held,” he said, alluding to the then-lingering NCAA cloud. “As bleak it was a year ago, we’re equally excited now about the direction we’re going. Everything will be in place by ’16. The transition has been awesome, and the kids see it.”
That is why, Golden reasoned, “I don’t have time to worry about anybody else’s program.”
Nobody knows better, though, that UM getting back to the sport’s top tier starts with solving its greatest conference obstacle.
Golden was more honest last week than Monday when, during ACC Media Days in Greensboro, N.C., he said of FSU: “For us to get back to where we want to be, we’ve got to win that game.”
This year UM hosts FSU on Nov. 15, the 10th game of a season that opens Sept. 1 at Louisville.
“Now we have to take a big step,” Golden said.
The recruiting/talent gap between the Seminoles and Hurricanes remains wide. That starts most glaringly at quarterback, with FSU led by reigning Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston and Miami still sorting itself out thanks to Ryan Williams’ injury and Kevin Olsen’s reported suspension leaving transfer Jake Heaps the apparent opening-night starter.
The overall talent gap is just as wide. Example: Miami placed two players, running back Duke Johnson and linebacker Denzel Perryman, on the preseason All-ACC team. FSU had nine.
UM had the same two make an ESPN.com list of the 100 top players in college football — Johnson 24th, Perryman 35th. The Noles have 11 on the list — 11! — led by Winston at No. 1.
Golden has done everything right off the field to earn the trust of Canes fans.
Now, to maintain that faith, he must begin to erase that recruiting and talent deficit to FSU and achieve a level playing field with the one team he hasn’t beaten but must.