Spectators at Saturday’s University of Miami vs. Nebraska football game can expect to see more banners trailing airplanes above the stadium. They will call for the Al Golden era to end. They will call for Golden’s head to be placed on a kicking tee.
The unfortunate thing is, those banners will continue to fly even if UM is victorious.
Beating Nebraska just isn’t the big deal it used to be. Much like the Hurricanes, the Cornhuskers are searching for a way to return to the glory days, when these two ex-powerhouses were engaged in some of the most memorable tilts in college football history.
While Nebraska is still a brand name, any hype surrounding this game stems mostly from nostalgia.
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All the more reason Golden and UM must win. After amassing 89 points against Bethune-Cookman and FAU, Miami’s season starts now. Judgment will be swift and merciless. A step backward at home against the 1-1 Huskers will be unacceptable. Fans are restless, and rightfully so after the 6-7 underachieving stagnation of 2014.
Miami should win. Quarterback Brad Kaaya is blossoming. Teammates love his patience under pressure as their pilot. Despite the loss of seven NFL draft picks, the roster has been buttressed by two strong recruiting classes from Golden and staff. The much-maligned defense improved to No. 14 overall in the nation last year, and there is hope that the old game-changing aggressiveness of classic Canes Ray Lewis and Sean Taylor might yet come to characterize this maturing squad.
But Nebraska poses problems with a mobile quarterback, fleet running back, silo-sized offensive linemen and savvy secondary. In last year’s loss in Lincoln, UM gave up 41 points and 456 yards, both season worsts. Duke Johnson’s fumble that was returned for a touchdown in the third quarter spelled the end.
“We have to tackle better than we did in the first half last week,” Golden said. “Last year, we helped Nebraska too much. We’ve got to take care of ourselves and be consistent. We’ve got to play our game plan.”
NFL teams can thrive with mediocre head coaches. College teams cannot. The college coach is responsible for acquiring the talent, instructing the talent, keeping the talent eligible and attracting new talent.
And Golden’s got to win, all the way to the ACC Championship Game. Nothing less will suffice in his fifth year here. He’s got a contract that runs through the 2019 season after Donna Shalala eagerly extended it following his first season as a sort of compensatory bonus for Golden getting blindsided by the NCAA investigation of booster Nevin Shapiro’s shenanigans. But the amount required to buy out Golden would not deter UM from firing him. Athletic director Blake James says he has not delivered an ultimatum that UM has to win the ACC Coastal Division or else, but he expects the team to improve. James’ opinion will be heavily relied upon because incoming UM president Julio Frenk is brand new to this simmering state of affairs.
Golden has yet to illuminate his tenure with a spotlight win. There have been victories over Ohio State, Florida, Georgia Tech and Duke, but all those teams finished with unimpressive records. None of the ranked teams he’s beaten finished ranked. He’s 30-22 overall, 18-20 against FBS Power 5 conference teams and 0-12 against teams that finished ranked in the AP poll. He’s 0-4 against Florida State (but don’t forget that Butch Davis was 1-5 vs. FSU). UM has never won the ACC crown.
Vanquishing Nebraska would not qualify as a signature win, but Golden would still have big opportunities against Clemson, Georgia Tech and FSU.
Many fans have already made up their minds, which puts Golden in a no-win situation unless he can lead UM to the ACC finale.
A banner at the FAU game read, “Temple coach, Temple results,” in reference to Golden’s previous job. A UM fan heckled defensive coordinator Mark D’Onofrio, who was then restrained by linebacker Raphael Kirby. It’s gotten ugly for the man in the orange tie.
“I’m used to abuse on the road, but it’s got to stink when it’s your home fans,” UM offensive coordinator James Coley said Wednesday. “But you tune it out; the moment I hit the field I tune it out. I play the game. We do our job. The clock’s ticking here — we don’t think about that. It doesn’t really occur to us.”
There’s a sense that time has passed both UM and Nebraska by. UM fans hold onto the five national titles from 1983 to 2001 and ache for UM to be a contender again. No more excuses; the NCAA investigation is a bad memory and the penalties were relatively light. Fans question why pillars such as Alabama and Ohio State go through lulls but manage to get the coaches who quickly return them to the top 10. What have programs such as Notre Dame and Texas been lacking? A dynamic, commanding leader. There are only so many Urban Meyers and Nick Sabans to go around. Florida State hasn’t missed a beat since Jimbo Fisher succeeded Bobby Bowden. Florida is still looking for the right coach to fill Meyer’s shoes and hoping Jim McElwain will be the one. At UM, Golden was initially embraced but after four years the focus is, sadly, on his deficiencies, which overshadows the potential of a team that could have the breakthrough season Golden seeks.
NFL teams can thrive with mediocre head coaches. College teams cannot. The college coach is responsible for acquiring the talent, instructing the talent, keeping the talent eligible and attracting new talent. The college coach has to be salesman, strategist, mentor. He’s got to please donors. He’s got to be master of his recruiting pipeline. The best at this demanding job — Bowden, Saban, Meyer, Tom Osborne, Joe Paterno, Bear Bryant, Eddie Robinson, Woody Hayes, Bo Schembechler, Darrell Royal, Bud Wilkinson, Knute Rockne — all had an aura about them.
Does Golden possess that “it” quality? When he arrived in Miami the answer was that time would tell. Now, time is running out.