Sunday, May 20, 2018
Colleges

Golden guides Hurricanes on path back toward football elite

We love our dynasties in college football.

You know, Notre Dame, Oklahoma, Alabama, Nebraska and so forth. We put them on the pedestal, then wait for them to fall.

And when they do fall, we look for them to rise again.

We carefully check in each season, watch every game and look for any little sign that the program is about to return to past glory. We study each victory, look for a signature win and then ask, "Are they back?''

That's where we are now with the University of Miami.

Are the Hurricanes back?

Well, there's a lot to like here. The 'Canes are undefeated. They are ranked seventh in the country. They knocked off Florida in what many Miami fans want to believe is the signature win that proved the Hurricanes are once again among the nation's elite.

I don't know about that. I'm not quite ready to say they are all the way back, but they are headed in the right direction thanks to a dynamic young coach and an NCAA investigation that has finally been put to rest.

This weekend the Hurricanes play their biggest game in recent memory, going to Tallahassee to take on third-ranked Florida State.

Win that game, then I'll say they are all the way back.

Yet even if the Hurricanes take a pounding — and that would not be surprising — the program is starting to look as if the future can resemble the glorious past.

For most of the 1980s and 1990s Miami was the program everyone loathed but everyone wanted to be.

They talked the talk and walked the walk to five national championships from 1983 to 2001. They consistently finished in the Top 10 and almost always showed up on your television on New Year's Day. The Orange Bowl was the most feared football field in the land.

They cranked out Heisman Trophy winners and All-Americans and NFL stars. Even their coaches — Jimmy Johnson, Dennis Erickson, Butch Davis — parlayed their successful stints into NFL jobs.

Larry Coker won Miami's last national title, during the 2001 season, played for the title again the next season and finished fifth in the final Associated Press poll the season after that.

And then everything just fizzled out.

Back-to-back 9-3 seasons were followed by 7-6, and Coker was out. Former player Randy Shannon lasted four seasons, going 28-22, and he was out.

That's when Al Golden, a former Penn State star who turned Temple's sickly program around, was brought in to revitalize the Hurricanes. That was after the 2010 season, just about the time the NCAA began what proved to be a 2½`-year investigation because of activities former booster Nevin Shapiro engaged in with the program.

Golden could have bolted and no one would have blamed him. The Shapiro mess didn't happen on his watch. Instead, he stuck it out and was somewhat rewarded when Miami, after a self-imposed two-year bowl ban, found out last week the NCAA was giving it a slap on the wrist: nine lost scholarships over three years and no bowl ban.

The best part is the waiting is finally over. The dark cloud over the program has been removed. When I asked Golden about it this week, he was so giddy that he laughed before answering.

"As I said for the last 28 months, you can't quantify the impact and the negative repercussions associated with that,'' Golden, 44, said. "Well guess what? You can't quantify how excited we are about moving on. That's how we feel. It gives us an opportunity to move our program forward and just get on level footing again.''

Led by senior quarterback Stephen Morris, running back Duke Johnson and a defense that is giving up only an average 17.7 points a game — 11th-best in the country — the Hurricanes have racked up a 7-0 record. But — and Miami fans won't want to hear this — it's a wobbly 7-0. UM's best victory is over a Gators team that is clearly down and still dominated Miami statistically.

The Hurricanes then needed last-minute touchdowns to narrowly escape upset losses to North Carolina and Wake Forest, teams with a combined record of 6-9.

"Certainly our guys feel they have the opportunity to finish games and to win,'' Golden said. "There are a lot of things we have to fix. The wins down the stretch can't mask what we have to fix. And we're going to have to get better to have an opportunity this weekend.''

Ah, yes, this weekend. Frankly, with the way the Seminoles and quarterback Jameis Winston are playing, this game could turn ugly on Miami. But it shouldn't ruin what feels like the start of something good again in Coral Gables.

"We want to be in these types of meaningful games every year,'' Golden said. "It's great to be a part of it. We're just going to keep checking boxes and focus on the little things and, obviously, get ready for a great opportunity, and, really, approach (it) in no other way than looking at it as an opportunity.''

It's an opportunity that has been a few years coming. And, you get the feeling with Golden in charge, the opportunities will keep on coming until someday soon we'll look up and say, "The Hurricanes are back.''

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