Al Golden operates with remarkable composure for a guy with a guillotine over his head. The unrelenting threat and weight of a seemingly endless NCAA probe would have splintered plenty of other college football teams and beaten plenty of other coaches, had them surrendering, running away.
Golden stares unblinking at that glistening blade. He keeps climbing uphill through the chaos and doubt he inherited, and somehow winning.
This is the one man who has most held the University of Miami together under this three-year cloud — what Golden calls “this whole ordeal we’ve gone though.” His players see his we-shall-survive constancy and buy the belief he is selling.
So, apparently, do guys who want to be his players.
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Guys who want to sign on even amid all of the doubts, and all of the ominous predictions and lies cast by rival schools.
We saw that again Monday. That faith in Golden, and in better days.
Trent Harris, a highly recruited defensive end from Winter Park, made official his oral commitment to UM for 2014, and it was significant both literally and, I thought, symbolically.
Literally because the kid is a four-star recruit who ultimately picked UM over Florida — whose colors and mementoes fill his bedroom — and Urban Meyer’s Ohio State, where his position coach would have been recent NFL Patriots star Mike Vrabel.
“I liked Florida since I was little, but I’m not little anymore,” Harris said Monday. “I needed to make a grown man’s choice.”
The 22 schools that offered him a scholarship also included reigning champion Alabama. If Nick Saban wants you, you are really good. You are blue-chip, national-caliber good.
Instead, Harris puts his faith and future in Miami, despite the Nevin Shapiro-related investigation that has caused two seasons of self-imposed penalties and could bring yet more sanctions when the NCAA finally concludes the case within the next two weeks.
Harris’ decision so close to the NCAA decision makes it a symbolic victory for Miami as well, a final verification that Golden has navigated the program through this.
Last season, the Canes played their way into the ACC Championship Game only to remove themselves with a self-imposed ban. All he could tell his 2013 recruits was, “Hopefully, that opportunity won’t be taken away from us this year” — while rival recruiters surely whispered ominous speculation about harsh penalties that might still be in store.
Despite it all, UM’s 2013 recruiting class was ranked a respectable 15th in the country by ESPN.
And the 2014 class that just added Harris looks even better. It is presently ranked seventh in the nation. The 24 oral commitments are tied with Tennessee for the most in the top 30. The 12 four-star recruits are tied for second-most.
Is there a guarantee all of those commitments will stay committed? No.
But I’d bet on Golden’s track record.
On Monday he flew to Bristol, Conn., to spend Tuesday as one of six ACC coaches participating in an ESPN “Car Wash,” jargon for a day of interviews with various network properties. He carried the Harris news in his pocket like a winning poker chip.
Golden has taken the NCAA mess that might have fractured this program, turned it upside down and used it as sort of a rallying point for his team and in recruiting.
“If anything it motivated our guys,” said Golden, whose team opens his third season with UM on Aug. 30 at Dolphins stadium against Florida Atlantic. “During this whole ordeal we’ve gone through we haven’t had one family say, ‘This is too tenuous. We wanna get out of Dodge.’ It speaks to the commitment and the brotherhood that is University of Miami football.”
Golden says “the adversity we’ve endured” has made his team “internally focused and driven.”
Future players such as Harris are electing to be a part of this because UM was smart to take its medicine early with those self-imposed penalties, hard as those pills were to swallow. Though no one can predict what the at-times-dysfunctional NCAA might soon do with possible additional sanctions, Golden is able to tell recruits the worst is over and logically believe it.
Meanwhile, as players like Harris assure the cupboards are full for the future, the present looms more exciting for Canes fans than it has in years.
The team is a preseason favorite to win the ACC Coastal Division, and the opportunity to play in a major bowl game is there (NCAA willing).
Quarterback Stephen Morris and running back Duke Johnson lend star power to what could be a great offense. And the defense should be greatly improved after losing only one player from the unit’s two-deep depth chart.
“There will be more of a poise and calmness factor on defense,” Golden said. “We’re bigger, stronger, and we have a lot more experience coming back. The guys are charged.”
This coach inherited a program that has been confined three years to something of a long, dark tunnel, but the light at the end is visible now at last, and it is getting bigger.
Can you hear it yet?
Can you feel the rumble?
A locomotive is about to blast from that tunnel into daylight.