Barry Jackson

James thrilled as UM rides wave of football momentum

Blake James, Director of Athletics, speaks to the media at the University of Miami on Monday, Aug. 8, 2016.
Blake James, Director of Athletics, speaks to the media at the University of Miami on Monday, Aug. 8, 2016.

The UM football team closed last season by winning five in a row for the first time since 2001, which ended with a national title. The Hurricanes’ 2018 recruiting class is ranked No. 1 in the country and keeps adding gems.

The program, with ticket sales up, is riding such a wave of momentum that UM athletic director Blake James says Mark Richt, in his first 16 months on the job, has been “beyond what I could have expected. I’m beyond pleased. Mark is first class as a person, as a coach, and as an ambassador of our university. The university is very blessed and as athletic director, I couldn’t be happier to have him in that position. I couldn’t be happier where we are at with football.”

James, during an in-depth conversation assessing the state of his program, cited something else, too: The Board of Trustees’ 2015 decision to raise the salary pool for assistant coaches, something James advocated, has made a tangible difference with the quality of this staff, allowing UM to lure coaches it otherwise might not have, from defensive coordinator Manny Diaz to defensive line coach Craig Kuligowski to offensive line coach Stacy Searels, who was pursued by Georgia Tech.

“The staff Mark has put together is first rate and obviously to bring that staff together, it probably required the resources we provided to Mark to lure them,” James said.

Any fear of eventually losing Diaz to a head coaching job?

“What Manny did last year is recognized nationally,” James said. “If the time ever came that Manny felt it was something that was a better fit for him, he would have my full support and I would do everything I could to help him get to that point.”

Some UM fans have expressed disappointment to James that there’s no public scrimmage and no spring game. Hard Rock Stadium was unavailable, so why not return to Lockhart Stadium or Traz Powell?

“It wasn’t the right fit for us right now,” James said.

“We’ve created a lot of excitement around the program and we want to make sure anything we do is going to be a first class experience for all involved, whether it’s students, coaches, fans. We made the decision we wouldn’t have one this year but we will be back [at Hard Rock] next [spring].”

Was this a case, though, of UM simply wanting to conduct the quarterback battle in secrecy?

“That wasn’t something we ever discussed,” James said. “I have never heard that reason before you said that. That wasn’t part of the conversation. People are disappointed they won’t have a chance to see it. But there’s not a large portion of the population that gets to see most of the spring time games anyway.

“Have I gotten emails from people who are disappointed? Yes. Do I understand why they’re disappointed? 100 percent. The thing I will say to them is we’ll be back at Hard Rock Stadium next year having a spring game.”

Here’s more from James, who was elected by his peers as chairman of the NCAA Division 1 Council and one of four winners of the Under Armour Athletic Director of the Year award:

• UM is $3 million short of the $34 million needed to build an indoor football practice facility, and James would not rule out a football ticket surcharge to help pay for it if needed.

“We’re making good progress and I am planning on having us ready for August of 2018.”

Season tickets finished at a Hard Rock-Hurricanes high of “above 42,000 last year. Our goal is to get over 46,000 this year. And I am confident we will be getting close if not exceeding those numbers.”

• The Bethune-Cookman opener will start at 6 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 2. James said he wasn’t the person who booked the following

week’s game at Arkansas State, but UM sometimes needs to play road games at smaller schools because, as was the case with Appalachian State last year, “they weren’t going to [just] come here regardless of any realistic [financial guarantee] number I was going to put there. They needed another home game on their schedule.”

• After originally asking FIU to change the year of its second of two football games, UM has decided to keep the games in 2018

and 2020, with Hard Rock hosting the first and the 2020 venue undetermined…. James wants to renew the FAU series and plans to talk with Richt in the coming months about whether to allow some former players back on the sidelines during games.

• Is the basketball program at the point where it should be top-25 caliber every year?

“I don’t think there’s a program we can’t be top 25 in,” he said. “We couldn’t have a better leader than Jim Larranaga in basketball. He would tell you we’ve made a number of investments. I’m sure he would tell you there’s probably some more we can make as well. We will continue to work on those. I am happy where we’re at but not surprised.

“I’m confident we can have [longterm] success. I look at the team this year. We continue to build that and hopefully have even better results next year.”

• With Miami at 12-16 and in danger of missing the postseason for the first time in 45 years, do expectations for the baseball program need to change because of the very real problem of players being unable to afford to come here on partial scholarships because of the high tuition cost?

“Do we need to acknowledge that the financial aid situation in baseball is different from what it’s been in the past? Yes, it’s important for people to understand there are only 11.7 athletic scholarships for baseball and as a private school that can create different challenges,” James said.

“When you look at the last two years, we were in Omaha and in many ways, it was the same situation. I don’t want to paint a picture of we can’t get to Omaha because of this financial aid situation. Different programs have different challenges. It’s one we’ve taken on and been successful with. The last two years are proof of that. [But] the NCAA needs to continue to evaluate how we award aid in baseball and looks at the times and how does it best fit where we are as an association today. There needs to be some evaluation of baseball….It’s hard to expect Omaha every year. There’s nothing wrong with having that as our expectation. Our goal needs to continue to be that.”