The defining moment in Randy Shannon's heralded coaching career at the University of Miami came not on the playing field but during a dinner conversation in December.
Shannon was sharing his philosophy about coaching with university president Donna Shalala, hoping to become the next head football coach of the Hurricanes. At one point in their talk, he stressed how he always tells his players that "nothing good happens after midnight."
That was the instant when Shalala knew he was the right man for the job.
The architect of the Hurricanes' hard-nosed, nationally acclaimed defenses - a survivor of Miami's mean streets with a link to the program's tradition of excellence as a standout linebacker for the Hurricanes in the 1980s - would be the one tapped to bring discipline and order to a team in need of both.
One day later, Shannon was introduced to the press as the successor to Larry Coker. Coker's last year was marred by the death of senior lineman Bryan Pata and a much-publicized Orange Bowl brawl with Florida International University.
Shannon's arrival marks the dawn of a new era of no nonsense for the Hurricanes, and has made history as well. He is the first African-American head football coach at the school, only the second in the history of the ACC and one of only six black head coaches at the Division I-A level. But he plays down the social significance of his hiring, focusing instead on the enormous expectations that come with the Miami job.
"We won't ever say we'll just be good enough," he said in a recent interview with the Times. "We're looking to win every game that comes up each week, and if you don't have a game, win that damn practice."
Shannon, 40, knows that to win, distractions must be minimized. And he also knows personally about the pitfalls that can happen after midnight. A Miami native, he grew up only 15 minutes away from Miami's Coral Gables campus amid the hard-edged surroundings of Liberty City, where his father, a construction worker, was murdered in a brawl when Shannon was 3. Three of his siblings - two brothers and a sister - fell into the abyss of cocaine addiction and died of AIDS complications, and another brother created all kinds of havoc for Shannon by stealing his identity.
But Shannon, with guidance from his mother Dorleatha, who worked as a nurse's aide, developed a strength and determination forged in adversity.
"You have to grow up fast,'' he said. "The things I've been through with my family - my brothers (and) my sister passing away from AIDS, and there were drugs always around, and my mom worked two jobs, from 3 in the afternoon till 7 in the morning. So it was basically I was on my own, by myself.''
Shannon's mother, however, taught him how to be accountable - lessons that guide him to this day, lessons he hammers home to his team.
"She just told me you should get good grades, and on the weekdays make sure you come at 10 o'clock after basketball or football practice, and on weekends you come in at 12,'' he recalled. "And I did. (As long as you're) following the right things and doing the right things, you'll be successful.
"And I think these guys are doing the right things.''
From player to coach
Shannon certainly did. He became a fixture as a Miami player - recruited by Howard Schnellenberger, who guided the Canes in 1983 to their first national championship, and a four-year letterman who started for coach Jimmy Johnson on the 1987 national title team, winning the Christopher Plummer Award for most inspirational player as a senior in 1988.
After a brief stint in the NFL, becoming the first rookie ever to start at outside linebacker for the Dallas Cowboys - playing on Johnson's 1-15 Cowboys in 1989 - he returned to his alma mater as a coach.
In 1991, Shannon began as a graduate assistant under Dennis Erickson, becoming part of the program's fourth national championship. He moved to defensive line coach in 1992 and supervised the linebackers from 1993-97 (the last three of those seasons under Butch Davis). Then came a three-year stint with the Miami Dolphins, two as a defensive assistant and the third as linebackers coach. In 2001, Shannon rejoined UM as defensive coordinator for Coker - a job he held the past six seasons, helping mold some of the toughest, highest-ranked units in the nation.
Now it's Shannon's turn. A father of four, he declines to talk about his family for privacy reasons. But he loves talking about the school that has shaped him and the challenge that awaits.
"It's incredible the way it's worked out," he said. "It really is. I've been here through it all - when we were on probation, when we were up, when we were down. I've been through all the facets of it, so I see a lot of things that have happened and how we can change things for the better. And that's my goal."
To reach it, Shannon has instituted strict rules by which players must abide.
First on the list, no guns. A violation will get the player booted from the team, permanently.
"Zero tolerance," he said. "On or off campus, there are no firearms allowed on the team. Even though the state of Florida says you can register a gun, I've told the players no guns, period. Some of the players have kids. And I say, let's not put your sons and daughters in situations where they could get hurt. And let's not get caught in a road rage situation. So if you get caught with a firearm, you're done."
That's just part of the change. Then there's his "nothing good happens after midnight" mantra. "What we've established here is that the distractions are the worst thing that can happen to a team," he said. "The No. 1 downfall. So we made this a team policy: after midnight, I shouldn't get a phone call from any law enforcement about any of my players. Usually, the No. 1 thing that happens is that somebody wants to challenge an athlete. We tell them to just walk away."
Should Shannon's phone ring in the wee hours with word that a player is in trouble with the law, the rule is clear.
"One game suspension," he said. "That way, it's not a deal where you have to wonder what might happen. They already know ahead of time. Some people think I'm too strong about it, but it's best for the team."
In addition, players can't move off-campus until they have lived on-campus for two years, maintaining a minimum 2.5 grade-point average during that time. What if a player's grades slip? "If (grades) are slacking off and the first of game of the season we're missing five guys, that'll be a big problem," Shannon said last week at an ACC media summit. "So he's going to be held accountable to make sure that doesn't happen. It's the same thing in the training room."
On the field, there's another change. Shannon has had all the names removed from the jerseys. Only the numbers will be displayed this season. "I'm trying to build a team, trying to get away from individuals."
Will the names return next season? "That depends on how they develop the team mentality," he said.
Shannon, who was in Tampa Saturday for a Florida Sports Writers Association event, has also declined to name a starting quarterback between Kirby Freeman or Kyle Wright, saying the decision won't be made until the week of the first game. "What we're doing is letting those guys be quarterbacks," he said. "I was here when Bernie Kosar was here, and I was here with Vinny Testaverde. It was always whoever was the best guy was the one who played. It wasn't a controversy. Right now, they're working together, studying film together and always talking. That's what I like most."
Credibility with players
Paul Dee, UM's athletic director since 1993, is a Shannon fan.
"He's been affiliated with our program through all stages of his career and frankly we've had the chance to see a young man come from a hard life to getting a scholarship, playing, getting his degree, and then coming back to working his way up to head coach," Dee said. "So his life story is really a success story."
Dee believes part of Shannon's success derives from the immense respect he has among the players. "First of all, they know he's truly part of this university," he said. "Second, they respect him because they do know his background and that his life was a lot like some of theirs. They understand and understand him and it gives him a tremendous level of credibility among our players."
"He doesn't really talk about it," said sophomore offensive guard Derrick Morse, "but everybody knows that he didn't have it easy. And a lot of guys on our team haven't had it easy, either, so he can relate to that. Really what he went through was terrible. I can't even imagine. But just to see how great a person Coach Shannon is, how strong he is, makes us really look up to him."
Morse says practices have been tough and intense, but are run with a sense of efficiency and purpose by Shannon.
"There's a big difference," he said. "Last year, we might have 20 offensive plays, and no matter how long it took to run them, that's what we took. But Coach Shannon will say, 'Okay, we have 15 minutes, and we have to get this 20 plays done.' He really keeps the tempo up. After the play, we hurry back into the huddle and we're always sprinting. He's like get it done fast and get it done right - it's a more game-like tempo."
Junior defensive end Calais Campbell is equally enthusiastic. "He makes sure we all do the small things," he said. "He's a great motivator and obviously he's big on discipline. And that's important, because we have a lot of talented players here. He's the perfect guy to come here and turn the program around.''
Information from ESPN.com and the Orlando Sentinel was used in this story. Dave Scheiber can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8541