MIAMI — Al Golden is digging in. He is just getting started. He isn't quitting and he isn't running, and he could have done both and hardly been blamed.
“You walked into a s - - -storm,” I said to the University of Miami football coach.
“That's safe to say,” Golden replied.
This man signed on knowing nothing of the massive NCAA cloud looming over the football program from the Nevin Shapiro scandal because Miami never told him. Golden got blindsided. He could have said, “This isn't what I signed up for,” and walked away. He had the right. More than that, he had the chance.
“I think that's fair,” Golden said.
The coach has a master's degree in sports psychology, but no mind games should be needed to inspire his Canes as they set out on the 2012 season. The lessons of not quitting, of persevering, of rising above, are right in front of them in the man who has endured more in the past year than any sitting coach in major college football.
As he begins his second season here, Golden is aimed forward and understandably won't talk much about what could have happened, but any Miami fan concerned that Golden isn't in this for the long haul should know that other schools came at him like vultures last season, believing he must be so frustrated or angry that he was ready to walk. He didn't.
I asked Golden why Miami fans should believe he's all in on seeing the Hurricanes to a return to glory.
“I voted with my feet,” he answered — meaning the feet that are firmly planted in Coral Gables today, the feet that didn't run elsewhere. “Obviously, things were tough the first year. It's still tough. It's been difficult. But despite all the things that occurred we wanted to make the decision to stay for all the right reasons. Despite the challenges that have been unearthed, we made a commitment.”
They came calling
I can tell you UCLA came after Golden last year and so did his alma mater, Penn State, after the Shapiro mess broke like a pitcher full of toxic waste, spilling the likelihood of future penalties. Those weren't the only schools.
Except the potential suitors failed to understand that Golden meant what he said when he accepted this challenge and called Miami his “dream job.” He wasn't going to let the nightmare he inherited stop him from fighting through what he calls “the cloud or the malaise” and getting back to the dream.
Golden calls Miami “the most recognizable brand in college football.”
Alabama, Notre Dame and others might argue, but Miami's five national championships, NFL pipeline and close-knit tradition of “The U” family are assets the coach uses like protective shields against his recruiting rivals to help parry claims of looming NCAA penalties.
‘Mediocrity is done'
“Other teams have an Achilles' heel to attack right now,” Golden admitted . “It's understandable. I get that. If I was on their end I'd probably do the same thing.”
Golden is hellbent to overcome that and restore a brand that has been badly battered. A brand that has been off the national marquee a long time now.
Miami's last national title was in the 2001 season. The last major bowl win was 2003. There has been no Atlantic Coast Conference title since Miami joined the conference in 2004. The school's long streak of first-round draft picks ended in 2008.
Miami since the 2006 season has been 41-35 overall and 22-26 in the ACC, with only one season better than 7-6 since then.
“The mediocrity is done,” junior starting quarterback Stephen Morris recently declared.
And that's fine. You want confidence from your QB. Morris' mindset is mirrored by Canes fans who still wear those T-shirts that proclaim Miami “invented swagger.” But swagger is something neither teams nor fans inherit. Swagger does not begin with attitude. It begins with results.
Golden inherited not just the NCAA cloud but also a wheezing, out-of-shape roster. Conditioning had eroded. Golden won't comment because previous coach Randy Shannon is a member of The U family. But another member of the current football staff told us only 11 Canes players in Golden's first spring practice could bench press 225 pounds (the NFL Combine standard) 20 or more times, and zero could do 30-plus. This past spring, one year into the Golden era, 41 Canes did 20-plus reps and 11 topped 30.
There has been little time for Golden to reflect.
Last season was all about dealing with the hand he'd been dealt. Eight players, many in key roles, were suspended at least one game and as many as eight games related to their involvements with Shapiro. A disappointing 6-6 season played out. Miami self-imposed a bowl ban even though it was bowl eligible.
The university hopes the suspensions already served and the bowl ban will mitigate against the severity of future sanctions but nobody knows. All Golden can do is recruit his tail off and move forward.
He has a young team that will likely have more true freshmen than senior starters in significant roles. No college experts predict the Canes can win the ACC, expected to be led this season by Florida State.
Golden, though, concedes nothing and wants no excuses from his players. NCAA shadow? No excuse. Young team? Doesn't want to hear it.
“If we want trap doors and we want excuses, we can do that,” he said. “We can hide behind that. Or we can rise above that and rise to our standard. That's the challenge. And that's the only standard anybody will be measured by here. We've encountered some resistance in the beginning in the way of external adversity. But I have no doubt we will be back on top very soon. No doubt.”
I proposed to Golden that, between the youth of his roster and the possibility of reduced scholarships in the near future, Miami football seemed to be in a transitional stage. He didn't want to hear it.
“I'm not into setting goals for transitional seasons,” he said. “Why can't we compete now? Why not? Batten down the hatches as a team, forget about the external, block it all out. Get back to a work ethic, a consistency.”
I think an improvement over 6-6 is possible. I see Miami as a likely underdog in at least five games including three on the road at Kansas State, at Georgia Tech and against Notre Dame at Soldier Field.
But Miami will be home against its two best opponents, FSU and Virginia Tech.
Golden looks beyond this season to better days, to a time not far off when his improbable surname will reflect Miami's return to its former stature.
He peers out his campus coach's office and sees a $16 million project under way to build a new training room, locker room and academic support center.
He, himself, is foreman of an even greater project: Building Hurricanes football back up to where it once was.
“This is where I want to be,” he said.
The proof is that the mess that blindsided him last year didn't make Al Golden cave, quit or run. It made him dig in for a fight.
Distributed by MCT Information Services