Larry Scott, who began his second day as interim coach of the University of Miami football team on Monday, is the right choice at a critical moment.
Players who seem vulnerable after three emotionally draining days need a gentle hand on the shoulder rather than a hard push. Scott should be able to provide the former now, the latter once they are able to take a deep breath and collect themselves to confront the remainder of the season.
While it’s easy to regard this as a lost season for UM following the 58-0 humiliation by Clemson and the firing of coach Al Golden, Scott must regard turmoil as opportunity for a turnaround. UM is 4-3 overall, 1-2 in the Atlantic Coast Conference with five games left to make a run at its goal of winning the Coastal division or at least earn a decent bowl bid and improvement over last year’s 6-7 record.
Golden’s gone, but there’s a long way to go.
The Hurricanes were battered by more bad news Monday when cornerback Artie Burns’ mother, Dana Smith, 44, died of complications from a heart attack. Smith, a former track star at Northwestern High and a force for good in her community, was like a team mother. She invited players over for meals.
“You take a mentor away, and mix in death — that’s a tough combination,” Scott said. “I challenged the coaches…to really tap into the reasons you choose to be a coach. It’s going to be about far more than the Xs and Os and getting this from a standpoint of corrected football. It’s going to be about being able to reach these young men and help them through a rough period in their lives.”
A different type of grief hit the team Sunday, when Golden met with his players to say goodbye.
“It was a hard experience,” safety Deon Bush said. “Coach recruited all of us. He has been there since high school. He teaches you a lot of lessons and has seen you grow up into a man. It hurts because he’s a good person. It really hurts.”
Seven games into his fifth season, Golden ran out of time to revive a dormant dynasty. He was 32-25 at UM but failed to win an ACC title, defeat a team that finished in the Top 25 or beat Florida State. Two years ago, Golden led UM back up to No. 7 briefly, but had backtracked since. UM athletic director Blake James decided after the awful performance on Saturday before a dwindling home crowd that he couldn’t wait until the end of the season to let Golden go.
Scott has decided to spare defensive coordinator Mark D’Onofrio, who has taken so much criticism for schemes that don’t work and players who can’t tackle. Golden was extremely, perhaps self-destructedly loyal to D’Onofrio, who is also hurting.
“My heart goes out to Al and his family; he did everything he could and I’m proud of him,” he said. “We have a team, we have unity, we’re together and we’re going to rally.”
UM has to prepare for a road game at No. 21 Duke on Saturday without starting quarterback Brad Kaaya (concussion) and top receiver Rashawn Scott (shoulder), who are out indefinitely.
Scott, 38, a native of Sebring, Fla., was hired by Golden in 2013 as tight ends coach and run game coordinator assisting offensive coordinator James Coley after eight seasons as an assistant at South Florida, where he had been an offensive lineman and a member of the original football team. His younger brother LaVaar was a defensive end at UM from 1998 to 2002 under coaches Butch Davis and Larry Coker.
Scott realizes his resume and youth probably won’t make him a contender for the permanent job.
“It’s not about me,” he said with a laugh. “No matter how it works out, it’s about the kids. I think it comes down to one thing — relationships. We have a system in place. We have to make sure we have their hearts.”
While Dan Campbell was chosen to wake up the somnambulant Dolphins after Joe Philbin was fired, Scott was chosen to counsel the downtrodden Hurricanes.
“We love coach Scott,” safety Dallas Crawford said. “We’ve always respected him. We’ll do anything for him. He keeps it real. He’s 100. He’ll praise you when you need to be praised and he’ll tell you about yourself when you need to pick it up.”
Sometimes a fresh voice with an invigorating message is all it takes for transformation. The therapy Scott ordered on Monday was for players to get back out on the grass and treat it like a playground at recess.
“We don’t want to make this seem like there’s some magical potion we’re going to throw out there, or gimmick words that are going to make it heal,” he said. “You’re talking about two extremes – from a low-low to trying to get them to be as high and energetic as you can. It’s going to take some work, but you know what? We have to bring it every day. We have to create an atmosphere of guys who are disciplined and smart but having fun.”