University of Miami

‘Front and center,’ former Miami Hurricanes return for spring game weekend

Head Coach Mark Richt next to Hurricanes quarterback Brad Kaaya (15) during opening day of the University of Miami Spring football practice.
Head Coach Mark Richt next to Hurricanes quarterback Brad Kaaya (15) during opening day of the University of Miami Spring football practice.

Melvin Bratton loves the University of Miami with every cell, every pore, every inch of his generous former fullback’s body.

That’s why Bratton, a certified NFL agent, is flying from Atlanta to attend the 2 p.m. spring football game on Saturday at Lockhart Stadium in Fort Lauderdale.

“I’ll be in the nose bleeds with my binoculars,’’ said Bratton, who wants to steer clear of current players because of his agent’s status. “I don’t want to miss my Hurricanes.’’

Bratton, 51, is one of more than 200 former Hurricane football players expected to attend the game. And though he won’t be at the Football Alumni Social on campus Friday night, an evening that includes a dinner/social for old and new players and coaches to mingle, Bratton is one of a growing number of old-timers who have returned to embrace new coach Mark Richt and the UM family, so to speak.

“Mark is living a rock star’s life right now,’’ Bratton said of Richt, referring to his immense popularity with UM fans and former players who had grown frustrated with the mediocrity of the past few years with former coach Al Golden.

Golden, fired Oct. 25 after UM’s worst loss in its history, 58-0 to eventual national runner-up Clemson, also tried to embrace “the legacy’’ but ultimately distanced himself as the criticism, along with the losses, mounted.

“Everybody loves each other when it’s going good,’’ said Bratton, a UM Sports Hall of Famer who won national titles in 1983 and ’87 and played just after former UM quarterback Richt. “When it’s not, they throw darts.’’

Fellow UM Hall of Famer Brett Romberg, a 2001 national champion and 2002 Rimington Trophy winner as the nation’s top center, said that Golden was also welcoming, but “near the end of his era he started building that Great Wall of China to keep everybody out and his players in so they wouldn’t hear the outside. But, of course, they heard.’’

Romberg said this week that he knew the minute he sat down with Richt, and then two weeks later when he attended the first spring practice with former fellow linemen Sherko Haji-Rasouli and Joaquin Gonzalez, that Richt was the right man to restore the luster.

“Although there were no pads, it was still very intense,’’ Romberg said. “It reminded me a lot of what was going on with us. Richt is not only getting back to doing it right, but doing it with the most adrenaline you could possibly have in your body.”

Said Gonzalez: “Me and Sherko kept saying, ‘Man, I almost feel like I want to jump into practice.’ It was really cool.”

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Richt, 56, has been pushing the importance of former players feeling welcome since he got hired. UM athletic director Blake James included former players in the coaching search, and Richt has repeatedly made it clear he wants football alumni to visit the campus and interact.

“I want all of our football alumni to feel very comfortable to come back home and be a part of this program,’’ Richt said on National Signing Day. “I want to embrace all of them. As a matter of fact, we’re having an alumni event on the Friday prior to our spring game, just to welcome everybody back, get them in the same room, tell them how much we care about them.”

James said a core value of the athletics program is family, “so it’s important to me that everyone feels welcomed. I’m disappointed if anyone didn’t feel that way in the past. No one is happy when you don’t win. But keeping former student-athletes involved helps everyone appreciate the great legacy we have and who we are.

“I’m sure it will be fun for the former guys to reconnect and the current guys to meet them.”

Even former coaches are invited this weekend.

Howard Schnellenberger, who led UM to its first national title in 1983 and coached Richt, said he attended Miami’s first open scrimmage in West Palm Beach last Saturday because he will be at the FAU spring game this Saturday. Schnellenberger, now an FAU ambassador, founded the FAU program and was its first coach.

“I was so enthralled and impressed and pleased with what I saw out there from beginning to end,’’ Schnellenberger said. “Mark Richt gave an invitation to what has been a downtrodden, demoralized group of fans, and they came out strong. The players had an enthusiasm that I haven’t seen in years. Their defense was like a bunch of wild dogs trying to get to the ball carriers. And their quarterback and receivers made some spectacular plays.

“Richt is smart. He knows what’s needed.”

Former Canes linebacker great Jon Beason, 31, will be there this weekend. Beason, who played his high school ball at Hollywood Chaminade-Madonna, said when current players see the old-timers, “they think, ‘hey, this is attainable. This is real.’

“The mystique of the University of Miami is what we embody. It is a pipeline to the pros. But it’s more than that. It’s a family, not just a team. It’s that next level of love. That’s how you compete. You’re a small university and you may not have as much money or as many crazy facilities, but you have a core group that believes in the university and is vital to the program. When you get out of touch with that, bad things happen.’’

Former Canes safety Ed Reed, 37, now an assistant defensive backs coach with the Buffalo Bills, attended UM Pro Day last month and said he remembers running back Edgerrin James visiting Reed’s teammates after James was drafted.

“It meant something,’’ Reed said. “It showed us the brotherhood and made us work a little harder. I used to walk around here and read those national championship plaques, study who they played and the final scores. Then I’d talk about it to my teammates, motivated them with it.

“Those things matter. They matter.’’

What former Hurricanes would cherish as much as anything is to be able to stand on the sidelines again during games, like they did years ago. James said that “part of the agreement we made with the NCAA” for UM’s three-year probationary period that ends the third week of October is to prohibit former players, donors and trustees from sideline access.

“Until our probationary period is over, there’s no point to a conversation because it’s not something that is possible,’’ said James, who offers two complimentary suite tickets to all former players for each home game.

“The minute we have that window,’’ said Romberg, “we’re going to be front and center like an Army battalion. We’re ready to support.’’