Al Golden’s epitaph as University of Miami football coach was written on the scoreboard at Sun Life Stadium on a dismal Saturday afternoon.
The numbers didn’t lie. The 58-0 dissection of UM by Clemson was the worst loss in the history of the program. It could have been uglier if Clemson hadn’t inserted its third-string players.
UM athletic director Blake James stared at the scoreboard and the empty seats. Fans fled starting in the second quarter with a dismissive sort of haste. The Hurricanes, again playing with a curious lack of ferocity or hustle, seemed to echo the sense of surrender.
In stadium suites, UM board of trustees members were steaming. Boosters thought their designation as Golden Canes had become a sick joke. Embarrassed former players were heaping insults on their alma mater in cutting tweets.
The final straw for Golden after four and a half seasons here wasn’t just losing to No. 6 and undefeated Clemson. It was losing face. A program that was a dynasty a dozen years ago had turned into a laughingstock.
Patience, like UM’s defense, evaporated under the scorching sun. Instead of giving Golden a chance to win his last five games following the blowout to Clemson, the feeling shifted to panic: What if he loses his last five games? Instead of playing out the string, staying the course and hoping against hope that Golden could somehow achieve his stated goal and win the ACC Coastal Division, the consensus changed: amputate before the gangrene spreads.
James didn’t want to fire Golden on Sunday, but the Hurricanes’ wretched performance forced his hand. It was a re-run of the same failures by Golden, his assistants and his players, and nobody wanted to watch anymore.
James and former UM president Donna Shalala should have let Golden go after the 6-7 regression of 2014. The timing would have been a lot cleaner. Now UM has to cope with the awkward interim-coach scenario under Larry Scott through the guts of the schedule. UM lives in limbo at least until December.
But waiting to fire Golden until after the season would have risked further alienation of fans, donors and recruits.
Two weeks ago, after the 29-24 loss at Florida State — which UM in its current state would accept as a moral victory — James reiterated that nothing would be decided on Golden’s future until the season was finished. A week ago, UM defeated Virginia Tech to improve its record to 4-2. Shortly after the Clemson loss, James said nothing would happen to Golden in the immediate aftermath. But within two hours, he seemed to backpedal. When asked about Golden’s status, he told the Miami Herald: “We are all disappointed with today’s outcome. But we have another game next week, and we need to make sure we continue to support our team.” Not only did he not endorse Golden, he didn’t mention Golden’s name.
Hours after James fired Golden on Sunday, he wouldn’t specify “the factors in the decision” other than to say, “I didn’t feel we were where we needed to be at this point in the process and this was a decision that needed to be made.”
Golden, 46, who came to Miami from Temple in 2011 with buoyant hopes of bringing UM back into the elite title contender circle, is a good man. Like recently fired Dolphins coach Joe Philbin, he led with integrity and class. He steered UM through a lengthy NCAA investigation that was a drag on the program. As he promised, UM players were “champions in the classroom and the community.”
But he also promised they’d be champions on the field, and they were not. Although Golden leaves with a 32-25 record, he never beat a team that finished in the top 25, never had a signature victory, never won the ACC, never met the big expectations for UM’s revival. Some of that blame has to fall on the players, who too often couldn’t tackle, couldn’t block, couldn’t stop making senseless penalties. On Saturday, they couldn’t play with the type of urgency necessary to save their coach’s job — which also cast doubt on whether his team still truly believed in him.
James and the trustees couldn’t help but notice how Dolphins interim coach Dan Campbell reanimated inert, underperforming players. They noticed the turnaround at Tennessee, the 44-26 rout of the Texans on Sunday and the newfound fire on defense.
In the long run, Golden will be remembered as another coach who couldn’t lift UM out of its swoon. James begins his search for the next coach who might do what others have done at programs that were down. Butch Davis would be an excellent choice. Steve Spurrier is available. Mike Shula, Rob Chudzinski, Greg Schiano and Mario Cristobal will be on the list.
James wants someone who understands “where we’ve been in the past and where we want to be in the future.” As Golden discovered, glory days are hard to recover.