Let us not kid ourselves — not on a night when champion former coach Jimmy Johnson and the great old defensive tackle Cortez Kennedy were here to be honored and to remind us of the good old days, no, the great old days, for Miami Hurricanes football.
The less than impressive crowd at Dolphins stadium roared with nostalgia Thursday night as the video screen showed Johnson on the sideline, his tanned, cherubic face busted out in a big grin, making the “U” sign with his hands.
The latter-day Canes were in the midst of ending a three-game losing streak and improving to a 5-4 season record, out of the national polls and under the national radar, with a 30-12 victory over an also-not-what-it-once-was Virginia Tech.
The win meant Miami still has a good chance to play itself into the championship game of the Atlantic Coast Conference — a league not to be confused this year with the mighty Southeastern Conference — against presumed eventual and favored opponent Florida State.
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So, happy days are here again? Not yet.
But don’t go too far in the other direction, either, and think this night didn’t matter or wasn’t special. Because it did, and it was.
Don’t get so wrapped up in the biggest picture, in the end game, that you can’t enjoy the small pleasures along the way.
Nights like this, for this program, at this particular time, do matter. A lot.
The question on the frontal lobe of any UM fan, certainly the question lobbed at me so often, is a variation of, “When will the Canes be back?” When will they be back in the national championship hunt? When will the symbiosis of “swagger” that once coursed between this program and its fans be back in some fully earned way?
Well, the road to “back” doesn’t happen without nights like this.
You can’t conquer the nation without starting in the neighborhood.
You master your conference first, and see where that leads.
“I know everyone wants us to be national champions yesterday, but the path to that is the Coastal,” coach Al Golden said afterward, referring to UM’s ACC division. “You get there by getting to Charlotte [for the conference title game], then you have a 50 percent chance of getting to a BCS bowl game. Our fan base doesn’t always understand that. I’m glad I’m coaching at a place where expectations are high. We just need a little bit of patience because of how young we are.”
Thursday night and the opportunity it allowed were huge because it has become rare, so elusive. Miami last won (actually, shared) a conference title in football in 2003, in the Big East. Since relocating to the ACC in ’04, UM has never even reached the championship game, not a sniff.
So this was progress. A step toward “back.”
UM did not dominate, despite the score. Virginia Tech controlled the clock, and the Canes had only sporadic punch with the ball beyond the marvelous big-play freshman Duke Johnson, who had an 81-yard kickoff return and a 65-yard run.
The play of the game, perhaps, came on defense when Miami’s Luther Robinson recovered a Tech fumble inside the Canes’ 5-yard line as the home team was nursing a 20-12 lead late in the third quarter. (Robinson was the player whose father recently went on local radio to complain his son wasn’t playing enough. Guessing Dad was pretty happy Thursday night.)
But by whatever means or final score, this was an essential win against an old nemesis that had beaten Miami three consecutive times. This was a game that might easily have slipped away and dissolved into postgame excuses.
Instead, this kind of victory, on a nationally televised Thursday stage, is how a program starts to worm its way back into the sports’ broadest consciousness.
It does not erase the bad — which for Miami this season has been an 0-3 record against ranked opponents Kansas State, Notre Dame and FSU by a combined score of 126-36 — but it helps stem the bleeding. It encourages the willing to take another look.
With a 4-2 conference record, Miami is in control now to win the ACC’s Coastal Division, with both its remaining league games on the road but against weaker opponents in Virginia and Duke. Win both and the Canes are assured of being in the ACC title game in Charlotte, N.C., with the winner of that securing an automatic berth in the hometown Orange Bowl Classic right back here in this same stadium.
A top-tier BCS appearance reasonably within reach — that is what Thursday night meant.
Of course all of this is in the inescapable context of looming likely NCAA sanctions related to the mess instigated by disgraced, jailed former renegade booster Nevin Shapiro.
Last season, UM self-imposed a bowl ban, hoping that might mitigate against future penalties.
The same option is in play for the university now, still.
There is no perfect answer, but, to me, the right question is whether this team will have done enough to earn a reward.
A team that slogs to six losses and is nowhere close to its conference finale (that was UM a year ago) has not earned a reward.
A team that plays itself into a major-conference championship game — especially a team this young, playing 21 freshmen, a team not among preseason favorites — has earned that reward.
That is what Thursday night meant.
The Canes might still be a ways from repeating the glory days personified by Jimmy Johnson; lord knows the NCAA will have something to say about that.
But the map there, that road “back,” would never even have a chance without nights like this one.