Barry Jackson

UM’s sports chief addresses state of football program, cloud over basketball and more

Head coach Mark Richt, right, walks with athletic director Blake James after practice as the Miami Hurricanes held practice in September at ESPN’s Wide World of Sports at Walt Disney World.
Head coach Mark Richt, right, walks with athletic director Blake James after practice as the Miami Hurricanes held practice in September at ESPN’s Wide World of Sports at Walt Disney World.

UM athletic director Blake James isn’t sure what anyone can do to remove the cloud over UM’s basketball program, believes the football program is closing in on elite level, and hopes not to have to wait to put the finishing touches on the Hurricanes’ $34 million indoor practice facility.

James addressed several issues this week in a conversation at UM’s annual Sports Hall of Fame bowling tournament at Splitsville at Sunset Place in South Miami:

▪ On his level of satisfaction with the 10-3 football season, factoring in the three consecutive losses to close the season: “Hugely successful. When you look at where we’re at, our first trip to the ACC championship game, our first Coastal championship. To win 10 games and that’s with one game missing [because of Hurricane Irma forcing the cancellation of the Arkansas State game].

It could have very easily been an 11-win season, which is the first time we’ve done that in a long time. Year two under Mark [Richt] was another step in the direction we want to go if we want to talk about winning ACC and national championships.”

▪ Watching Alabama and Georgia in the national championship game, how far is UM from that level? How big is the gap still?

“The gap is getting closer with every passing day,” James said. “We signed an outstanding group of young men. Eleven of them are already on campus. A great class that will continue to elevate us. I’m confident Mark will have us competing with whoever is the best in the country. Whether it’s Alabama or Georgia, time will tell if those are the teams at the top [down the road]. I do know that’s the direction we’re going and confident we will be in that conversation in the coming years.”

Miami Hurricanes coach Mark Richt speaks to reporters about how his team did on National Signing Day at the University of Miami's Schwartz Center in Coral Gables on Wednesday, Feb. 7, 2018.

▪ On the UM basketball team heading into the ACC tournament: “Overall the guys have had a great year. Obviously, losing Bruce Brown was a blow to the team but I think the team has stepped up, played big. The win [against Boston College] was huge and positioned us well for an opportunity to play in the postseason.” (James made these comments before UM beat North Carolina on Tuesday.)

▪ Since the FBI rarely publicly clears anyone, how can UM remove the cloud over its program generated by an initial leaked FBI report?

There is no evidence of UM wrongdoing — and UM’s Jim Larrañaga has denied wrongdoing — but the cloud has hurt UM, which hasn’t signed any basketball recruits in the early signing period and faces the loss of three players (Ja’Quan Newton to graduation and possibly Lonnie Walker and Bruce Brown to the NBA).

“It’s in the hands of our attorneys and I trust what they’re doing,” James responded. “I believe in Jim and he’s made very clear all along that he said he’s done nothing wrong. I have full confidence in him as a head coach and have no reason to believe anything other than what Jim said has happened.

“We have a great coach and a great men’s basketball program and one of the best institutions in the country, and I don’t see any reason why anyone wouldn’t want to pursue the opportunity to get an education at a world class facility and play in the best college basketball league in the country.”

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▪ Is James frustrated by the early departure of several UM football players not projected to go in the first round of the draft?

“Those guys came to the school to earn their degree and have an opportunity to go to the next level. Obviously I want to see them get their degree. But if right now is the right time for them to go and take that opportunity of the NFL, they have my full support. We will do all we can to hope to have them ready to go for their pro day or Combine or whatever it is. My only hope is that they finish their degree.”

▪ The UM indoor football practice facility is set to open Aug. 1. But what happens if UM cannot raise the final $1 million needed for the $34 million project?

“We’re adding in the things that will make it among the best facilities in the country,” James said. “Maybe some of the things that aren’t necessary to practicing, we hold off maybe on a video board [for example]. A video board we want to use in there for all the different events we have going on; that might be something we hold off because we don’t have the funding. That’s why it’s important we have everyone step up and do what they can to help with the facility because we want to have it done and ready to go by the start and I’m confident we’ll be there.”

Here’s my post with Thursday Heat notes, including an injury update, lineup decisions and the Heat’s penchant for allowing late-quarter baskets.

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