University of Miami director of athletics Blake James, who has had a rather interesting past week or so, planned to attend Monday night’s Alabama-Clemson national championship football game in Santa Clara, California.
It wasn’t pleasure. It was business. A scouting mission of sorts.
The man whose job priority is to help guide Canes football back to an elite national level needs to know first-hand what the competition looks like, what the goal is, and this was it.
UM also is believed to have an interest in Clemson’s Jeff Scott or Tony Elliott as its new offensive coordinator, and, although he wouldn’t say so, I believe James and one or both of the Tigers’ co-coordinators might manage to bump into each other at some point after the game.
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It is interesting — and telling — the names that have emerged most prominently as Miami and new head coach Manny Diaz search for someone to make the Canes offense everything it wasn’t this past 7-6 season.
Larry Fedora is a veteran college head coach. The fabulously named Major Applewhite was Houston’s head coach as recently as this past season. Scott and Elliott run the offense for the Atlantic Coast Conference power that is Miami’s largest and most immediate obstacle to a return to greatness.
These guys wouldn’t come cheap. That mattered once in Coral Gables, or at least mattered a lot more than it does now.
“We had to decide what we wanted to be. What market we want to be in,” James told us, meaning financial wherewithal. “After Al [Golden} and we brought in Mark [Richt], we knew we wanted to compete with the best and what it would take. Are we at the top? No. But we’re in the market now to compete.”
Richt’s $4.1 million salary put him just outside the national top 20 in the sport, where Golden’s $2.4 million did not make the top 40.
Diaz’s $3.1 million will escalate gradually during his five-year deal and — if you include the $4 million buyout it took Miami to get him from Temple — UM’s expenditure on Diaz, a first-time head coach, and on Richt, an accomplished veteran, would be similar.
Miami, a private university, still is not able to match the standard of the $8.3 million deal Alabama pays Nick Saban, but it is making up ground., Especially in its willingness and ability to now pay seven-figure salaries for top assistants.
That $4 million buyout attached to getting Diaz back alone might have been a deal-breaker in the past. Imagine: Having to pay $4 million to hire back a man who had been at Temple so briefly (two weeks) that he wasn’t even sure how to navigate the campus yet.
“Our Board Of Trustees recognized that the landscape is changing,” James said of the quick OK for the buyout. “If we want to compete at the highest level we have to be in the market at the highest level. That requires us to make an investment whether in [Diaz’s] salary or to get him here.”
As we spoke James was less than one week removed from a weekend he called “unbelievable,” and “chaos,” and “a whirlwind.”
Last Sunday morning Richt dropped the bombshell that he was immediately resigning after three seasons. UM football was thrown into immediate, panicked upheaval — especially because the one guy on Richt’s staff with the heft to take over, the defensive maestro Diaz, had just left to be Temple’s head coach.
Within hours (and at great cost) Diaz was back as UM’s new head coach, with no hesitation that both sides wanted the other.
By the end of the day a sense of order and continuity had replaced the upheaval.
“This wasn’t something that could be spread out,” James said. “We needed to move.”
Richt’s Sunday morning resignation stunned James because the two men had met for three hours the day before, the coach expressing his angst but the AD seemingly having talked him off the ledge.
“I felt based on our conversation that he was going to continue on,” James told us. “We discussed the changes he was going to make on offense and I agreed to that. I felt there were things he could take off his plate [such as play-calling duties] to better position our program with him as the head coach. He wants what’s best for the program, and he didn’t want to go through the grind it would take for us to be the very best. I pushed back [at him retiring]. I said think about all the things we talked about, and what a better experience it’ll be for you next year. But you have to be all in.”
I wrote that I thought Richt quit on the Canes, but the good he did also much be acknowledged. The spike in enthusiasm and fund-raising he inspired led to facility upgrades including the completion of a new indoor practice facility. UM was in the top 10 again. ESPN’s “College GameDay” was on campus.
What he leaves for Diaz is a better situation than what Golden left for him — partly because the administration and Board have come to understand even private universities must spend big if they are to aspire high.
James calls Richt “a great ambassador for our university” and does not rule out some future role if the two sides can agree one one.
Meantime Diaz, born and raised Miami, has his dream job.
“I feel great about where we’re at,” says James.
Especially considering the way he felt, and things looked, a week ago Sunday morning.