Greg Cote

Greg Cote: UM coach Al Golden has no room for excuses this year

Entering his fifth season, University of Miami coach Al Golden finally has an entire team comprised of players he recruited.
Entering his fifth season, University of Miami coach Al Golden finally has an entire team comprised of players he recruited. MIAMI HERALD STAFF

Al Golden and I first met on the last day of 2010, in a suite high up in Sun Bowl Stadium in El Paso. He had just been hired by the University of Miami but was observing, not coaching, as the Hurricanes were losing their bowl game that day to Notre Dame. You could look out at the Franklin Mountains and see nearby Juarez, Mexico, but Golden was thinking about his new team, not the vista, as he gazed down at the field.

“We can work with this,” he told us that day. “I’m excited about what I see.”

He has had a good long look now.

The cloud of the NCAA investigation and penalties have faded into the past and so have the players he inherited, replaced by ones he handpicked. Whatever mess he walked into is a slate wiped clean now. It is time to start judging this man by a starker bottom line no longer mitigated by extenuating circumstances or excuses.

UM’s football boss is about to begin his fifth season still trying to make his hiring and his Canes era live up to the promise of that impossible surname: Golden. He has neither failed nor succeeded yet. We are still waiting for the inevitable tip in either direction — some waiting less patiently than others.

The fan-generated noise around Golden is immense, almost comical in its volume. The noise speaks of the passion for this program, and of the desperate and growing urgency to see it return to the front of the national stage where the Ohio States and Alabamas now preen.

A billboard along Interstate 95 promoting the season pictures a handful of Canes in uniform and the declaration: HOME OF SWAGGER.

UM football used to be that — but earned on the field, not merely claimed as a marketing slogan.

Golden’s job is to get it back. Make it real again. Make it something palpable heard in the ambience at home games, felt in opponents’ fear and respect, and reflected by records and national polls.

Alas, the leap back to what fans so dearly want still seems closer to a work in progress than anything at hand.

On the heel of last year’s 6-7 season — only Miami’s third losing record since 1980 — most Las Vegas betting projections call for only six wins again. That seems low, but it reflects The U’s recent track record of underperformance.

Forty-four schools received votes in The Associated Press preseason poll, but not a single one went to Miami. ESPN’s preseason All-Atlantic Coast Conference team had zero Hurricanes on it.

Everybody is writing off the Canes.

Legitimate hope centers on sophomore quarterback Brad Kaaya, whose 3,198 passing yards and 26 touchdowns as a “rookie” suggest something special, but too many other doubts remain. Will the offensive line be good enough? What about the depth at cornerback? Who will stretch the field in place of departed Phillip Dorsett?

Golden has the even keel you want in a head coach. Even in the face of impatience and fans calling for his job, he refuses to oversell his product. He is realistic.

“We have a long way to go here,” he said after the recent final scrimmage prior to the Sept. 5 opener against Bethune-Cookman. “Everybody needs to improve. Coaches need to improve. Players need to improve.”

At some point, though — probably right now — Golden’s Canes must demonstrate that improvement has been made. Accomplished. That it isn’t some unattained goal.

It’s time for UM to finally exceed expectations, to surprise.

The idea that Golden should be fighting for his job seems unfair and premature to me. But it won’t always be. It won’t be for long.

There are always excuses at the ready if you require them. It was the NCAA cloud. It was defensive issues. It was an inexperienced QB. Now, it could be, “Well, but we lost seven guys to the NFL Draft!”

Time to be bigger than all that. Big programs overcome excuses and plow forward, undaunted. Big programs replenish and don’t miss a beat.

Golden’s record is 28-22 in four seasons, including 0-2 in bowls. He is 3-8 against ranked opponents, including losses in seven of the past eight games. He is 0-4 against rival and ACC nemesis Florida State.

Those are some of the numbers that lead disgruntled fans and boosters to rent the ‘Fire Golden’ banners pulled by small planes.

And these numbers don’t help: Miami in 2014 was 6-3 before ending with four consecutive losses. In 2013 Miami was 7-0 and ranked No. 7 in the nation — the height of frat boys wearing white shirts and orange ties to games, just like the then-Golden Boy — but finished with four losses in the last six games. In 2012 the Canes started 4-1 then withered.

Golden’s Canes have not finished strong and have yet to provide the coach his elusive “signature win.” It might have been 24-6 over No. 17 Ohio State in Golden’s first UM home game, in 2011, except those Buckeyes finished that season 6-7. It might have been 21-16 over No. 12 Florida in 2013, but those Gators would finish 4-8.

Tenth-ranked FSU this year would be a signature win writ big as John Hancock’s in the Oct. 10 meeting in Tallahassee. Storied Nebraska Sept 19 here and No. 12 Clemson Oct. 24 here will be among other big, telling tests.

Golden must find a way to beat FSU and begin to turn around that 3-8 mark against . ranked teams if he is to win back those many fans who once saw his surname as a harbinger of UM’s return to glory but have since strayed in their support.

I believe this coach still has a chance to have a good long run in Coral Gables and be UM’s longest-serving head football coach since Andy Gustafson’s 16-year reign ended in 1963.

But he must start to win big, and soon.

At the very least — no excuses — this season must see the program accelerating unmistakably in that direction.

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