As Urban Meyer raised the national championship trophy skyward, University of Miami football fans watching the confetti blizzard on TV pondered how far the Hurricanes are from such heights.
The optimists examining the parallels between UM and Ohio State since they met in the 2002 national championship game say Miami’s program is on the verge of a turnaround.
The pessimists don’t see parallels, only divergences. While Meyer grinned and spoke of a repeat for his young team that rolled over Alabama and grounded Oregon’s Ducks, UM’s disgruntled followers braced for another season with the ACC Coastal division title as the meager goal.
The optimists say it seems like only yesterday that UM was among the elite and would have been among the top four of the College Football Playoff.
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The pessimists say it’s been more than a decade of stagnation and, in 2014, regression to 6-7 after an inexplicable, inexcusable 0-4 finish. UM isn’t just out of the picture, but out of focus, a program lacking identity and ambition.
Recall that in 2011, scandal-ravaged Ohio State, coached by placeholder Luke Fickell, lost 24-6 to UM on the way to a 6-7 record. It was Al Golden’s first year as coach, following the Randy Shannon era, and UM finished 6-6.
Then Ohio State did exactly what one would expect of Ohio State: The powerhouse program hired a powerhouse coach. Meyer had won two national titles at Florida while simultaneously wearing body and mind down to the nub. After a healing sabbatical, the revamped coach revamped the Buckeyes. He did it in three seasons — a year sooner than he foresaw — with a third-string quarterback, after losing seven starters to the NFL and as the fourth-seeded playoff team. After his success playing Tebowball in Gainesville, Meyer was successful again, this time playing bulky Big Ten Powerball.
Meyer has suddenly transplanted Nick Saban as the game’s genius and is being mentioned in the same breath with Bear Bryant. Meyer is only 50, and he’s at a school that sets its sights on No.1 year in, year out.
“You come here wanting to win — wanting to win championships,” said OSU running back Ezekiel Elliott, who rushed for 246 yards and four touchdowns in the 42-20 victory over Oregon. “Coach Meyer is a winner. That’s what he is, and I’d say this won’t be his last one.”
Miami has made a different set of decisions since losing to Ohio State in the 2002 title game and since beating Ohio State in 2011. Miami has stuck with what was a proven formula when hiring its coaches — go for the less expensive up-and-comer, and let him make his name at UM. It worked with Jimmy Johnson, Dennis Erickson and Butch Davis. There was no reason to believe it wouldn’t work with Shannon and Golden.
UM will never be as massive nor as wealthy as Ohio State, or any of the other football factories. Meyer earns close to $5 million, up there with what Alabama, Texas and Oklahoma pay their head coaches. Golden is in the $2 million bracket. He doesn’t have Meyer’s résumé.
But the difference since Davis left is that UM’s coaches have not fully capitalized on what sets the tip of this peninsula apart from everywhere else in the country. Howard Schnellenberger recognized the gold mine and placed an orange and green flag on it. Johnson customized and revolutionized positions to take advantage of South Florida speed. Erickson knew how to evaluate talent and Davis honed it into the greatest collection of NFL-ready players ever to grace college football.
Shannon took some gambles, made some whiffs and wasn’t a terrific tactician, either. The most valid criticism of Golden and his staff is that his players don’t improve as they should. They don’t fulfill their potential. They are a reflection of the team’s recent records: Can’t win the big one, can’t get over the hump.
Now, as National Signing Day approaches, Golden faces another annual test: Can he sign the local stars UM must keep at home in order to compete with Ohio State and aspire to something bigger than an ACC title? Can he coach them to greatness?
Golden is swimming against a tide of negativity. He needs more outliers like Killian High’s Jaquan Johnson and St. Thomas Aquinas’ Jordan Scarlett to turn down opportunities elsewhere because they want to get something going here. Only two of the 16 Miami-Dade and Broward players who played in the major national all-star games have committed to UM so far. Ten others have pledged to go to Florida State, Alabama, Texas and, you guessed it, Ohio State.
Golden has to beat Meyer in his own backyard before the Hurricanes can beat the Buckeyes again.