This is where the winning starts in college football and when the best coaches separate from the pack. It isn’t once the season starts. Isn’t during spring or fall practice. It’s on National Signing Day, when recruiting culminates and the nation’s best high school talent has been divvied up.
Success starts when you win the living rooms, charm the moms and inspire the teenagers who hold your future in their capricious hands — or you have no shot.
That came clear the first time I ever sat with Mark Richt in his coach’s office at the University of Miami and asked how he’s going to make the Hurricanes great again.
“We have to be a team that year-in year-out recruits well enough over time to survive attrition due to graduation, guys turning pro, guys getting in trouble,” he said. “There is attrition in college football, and without depth you won’t be a great program. We’ve got to put [big] recruiting years together to sustain excellence.”
We are seeing it. We just saw it again Wednesday as National Signing Day culminated a Hurricanes recruiting class ranked No. 7 in the nation by ESPN.
“If we keep recruiting like this there’s going to be a lot of happy Hurricanes fans,” Richt said. “We’re probably one more recruiting class away from a roster of 85 guys who can all really rock ’n roll and play championship football.”
It isn’t fast or easy, this process. Building something big and that lasts seldom is.
But it is happening, by degrees, in Coral Gables.
“We knew we had a great class brewing,” Richt said. “If we stumbled mightily [last season] and didn’t give anybody anything to get excited about, it could have gotten shaky. But to have the success we had was big. The back-to-back Virginia Tech and Notre Dame night games, the [ESPN College] GameDay on campus. We showed the fan base, we showed the nation, we showed recruits, we showed ourselves, what Miami can look like when we hook it up in our stadium. We’ve battled our way back into the nation’s consciousness.”
This recruiting class is another win in that battle. The website 247sports.com, which uses an algorithm to compile rankings and ratings of major media recruiting services to create a respected consensus ranking of incoming college players and teams’ overall recruiting success, had Richt’s first UM recruiting class in 2016 ranked No. 22 in the nation, but he had been hired in the midst of it. His first full class in 2017 was ranked No. 12. The one that rolled out Wednesday for ’18 is No. 8. And UM’s 2019 group, based on earliest commitments, is No. 2.
The trend confirms what we always knew: Richt can flat-out recruit, and so can Canes assistants such as Thomas Brown, Ephraim Banda, Todd Hartley and Stacy Searels.
UM was recruiting in the midst of three consecutive ill-timed losses that ended the recent season, but Richt would not let it overshadow that Miami also once was 10-0 (its first 10-win season since 2003) and angling for the College Football Playoff in a watershed season marked by the phenomenon of the Turnover Chain. Incoming Canes were sold on The U being close enough to All The Way Back that they can be the difference. That a sixth Canes national championship and first since 2001 is not far off.
That was the pitch to this incoming 23-man class that includes six of 247sports’ top 100 players and 13 of its top 300.
National Signing Day was less climactic than it used to be starting with this year’s class thanks to the onset of an early signing period in December. Twenty-two of the nation’s top 25 recruits and 84 of the top 100 already had committed before Wednesday. Miami reeled in 19 players in December, adding only four Wednesday.
Plantation American Heritage’s “AH4” all made their announcements live on ESPNU Wednesday. Miami lost out on top cornerbacks Patrick Surtain Jr. (to Alabama) and Tyson Campbell (Georgia) and saw defensive end Andrew Chatfield choose Florida. Surtain would have been a huge get, but wasn’t expected. Losing Campbell to Richt’s former school hurt. Richt had the final visit from Campbell but couldn’t close that deal.
Keeping defensive tackle Nesta Silvera, though, saved the day and put a bow on UM’s class.
Silvera, the 54th-best recruit in the nation via 247sports, had orally committed, but it wasn’t official until Wednesday when he pulled on that ‘U’ cap.
“Miami’s home. It’s the crib,” Silvera explained his decision. “I could go to Alabama or other schools and make them great, but why not make the crib great?”
UM’s program turnaround in two years under Richt, the ACC coach of the year, impressed Silvera, who also saw in The U his cleanest pipeline to the NFL. That’s why he called choosing Miami “a 30- or 40-year decision,” meaning he thinks it will lead to an NFL career and in turn to life-changing financial stability for him and his family.
Silvera is UM’s third-highest-ranked incoming player, after five-star running back Lorenzo Lingard (25th in the nation) from Orange City and tight end Brevin Jordan (33rd) from Las Vegas. Other top 100 Miami recruits via 247sports are receiver Mark Pope (67th) from Miami Southridge, quarterback Jarren Williams (77th) from Lawrenceville, Georgia., and cornerback Al Blades Jr. (97th) from Fort Lauderdale St. Thomas Aquinas and continuing a long Blades/UM family tradition.
Eight of Miami’s 23 recruits rank in the top 10 nationally at their positions.
In fairness there are two caveats to UM’s latest bounty and Richt’s understandable enthusiasm.
First, in recruiting you can do really well but still lose ground. And Miami just did, to Clemson — the ACC hurdle it must clear for a realistic shot at championship contention. Clemson pounded the Canes 38-3 for the ACC title. The recruiting score was closer, but still favors the Tigers. ESPN’s team rankings and 247’s both have Clemson’s 2018 class No. 5, two spots above Miami’s. (Clemson also has five five-star recruits to UM’s one).
Second, a highly ranked class is no guarantee. Miami had the nation’s No. 1-rated class in 2008, but the next five seasons produced an ordinary combined record of 36-27. Even blue chips must be coached up for the next level. Then again, bet big on Richt and staff continuing to get that done in a way that Randy Shannon and Al Golden never could.
Richt called this Canes recruiting class “one of the best I’ve ever been involved in.”
One or two more of those and The U might finally have a shot at creating some new glory days.