Not only had they paid market value for a top-level coach, but they had also zeroed in on said candidate and then delivered him.
The reluctance to open the pocketbook in the past had been the result of the combination of (1) lack of funds, (2) lack of willingness to spend funds, and (3) past rewards for going the cheap route. Miami won five national championships with four coaches over an 18-year period, while being outspent and out-resourced by most of major college football. There was simply no impetus to spend, because they were winning without doing so.
Fifteen years without a national championship changes everything. Five years of repeated ineptitude and incompetence frayed nerves. A risk was not tenable in the current environment. Not after what everyone just went through.
When The Tender Moment Meets the Right Moment
Luck often plays a large role in how things come together in sports. I don’t know what would have happened had Blake James fired Al Golden when he should have after the 6-7 season in 2014. But the combination of Miami waiting an additional year and Georgia growing impatient (or wanting a shiny new toy) allowed the Canes to land — by far — the most decorated coach in school history at the time of hiring.
Perhaps that fifth year also motivated Miami’s Board of Trustees to open their pocketbooks and finally fork over the amount of money necessary to close a deal such as this. If you want to be unfair to James you could argue he is just the luckiest man alive, benefiting from his own past mistakes.
But where James is beyond reproach is in his financial dealings. The Adidas contract he closed last offseason left the athletic department flush with liquidity. This was never the case before. Having that much extra money made it easy for the Board of Trustees to swallow Golden’s buyout and still pay for Richt.
And however the Canes arrived here, James (1) created the financial stability necessary to allow the school to comfortably spend on a coach, (2) targeted the top candidate available on the coaching market, and (3) convinced him to come to Miami.
He did all of this in a matter of days after the regular season. I have been one of James biggest critics, but in this instance, he handled himself with aplomb.
This is not unlike what happened to the Canes’ basketball program. Frank Haith was terrible but somehow safely employed. We struggled through seven years of mostly abhorrent basketball, where the team finished last in the ACC (twice) more times than they made the NCAA tournament (once). And yet it took Missouri hiring Haith away, and Jim Larranaga essentially hiring himself for Miami to fall ass backwards into the situation they’re currently in, with a sustainable, competitive program.
The difference here is that it took part fortune and part Blake James doing the legwork. But the results are similar. Replacing someone who had underachieved and inexplicably hung on for too long with an accomplished coach should have a similar impact. Except the ceiling for football is much higher.
Culture Change is Hard
As much as I feel ecstatic about this hire, Sports Information Director Tom Symonds managed to throw a wet blanket over the whole thing. Not to really diminish it, but just to provide a gentle reminder that the trajectory won’t always be upward, instead oscillating up and down as the overall trend drifts upward. Such is life and such is change.
ESPN did a feature piece on the WestEndZone.com organizers of the banner campaign to get Golden fired. Most people associated with UM wisely refused to comment. Leave this in the past — a relic of the previous administration. Everyone just wants to move forward, together.
Symonds apparently didn’t get the memo:
“These people,” Miami sports information director Tom Symonds said, referring to the cabal behind the banners, “are just looking for a reaction. If we did them that favor and gave them that reaction, we’d be encouraging this sort of thing. We’d be giving attention to people who crave it.”
“These are people who take time out of their days to put up banners and harass people online. They don’t have anything else to do with themselves. They don’t have jobs.”
In Symonds’ defense, I was just reading in the Wall Street Journal about the rise of the class of people informally being referred to as the bannerati, those who are unemployed yet still have the disposable income to pay for banners to fly over sporting events. Oh wait, of course that isn’t true.
The fans flying banners weren’t craving attention. They were craving a coaching change. They were not losers with nothing better to do. They were people with lives outside of the online community, that were so passionate about their school and the underperformance of the football program that they spent their free time and money voicing that displeasure. And while the school will never admit it, those banners played a major role in amping up the pressure, not allowing Al Golden to continue to fail in peace, and ultimately hastening his exit. Without the circus off the field, the circus on the field would have been allowed to continue.
But Symonds’ real problem is not that he lacked the cognitive ability to realize that insulting fans is detrimental to everyone both inside and outside the program. His real problem is that he reflects the remaining vestige of the Golden Era that still needs to be eradicated.
The University of Miami football program was built largely on a renegade mentality. It did things its own way, everyone else be damned. It embraced the role of villain, overcame all adversity and fostered a bond based on an “us vs. them” mentality. It’s why the U has such a strong name and bond, why it evokes such strong feelings and not just in South Florida, but nationwide.
Golden bastardized that. He made the “us” the program, and the “them” those that criticized the program. That’s what the “#unity” and “#ourteam” slogans were about. And it was completely absurd. The fact that the Athletic Department bought into this notion that the real problem wasn’t the house being on the fire but the people pulling the fire alarm, is insane in retrospect. And it is that attitude that Symonds reflects.
At the very least, you would expect the events to dictate here. For the past year, there had been a very vocal portion of the fanbase calling for Golden’s firing, while the Athletic Department vociferously defended him. There are absurd quotes dating back a year from now from James on down claiming that Golden was the right man for the job, that we’re seeing growth — just give him time and he’ll prove his worth.
And then they had to fire him midseason. There was essentially a year-long debate over Golden, and the “crazies with the banners” were RIGHT, while the Athletic Department was wrong. Now, I’m not saying the Athletic Department has to apologize to fans or anything. It serves no purpose. But how about a little humility after you were so brazenly incorrect while the people you were insulting were right?
I can’t imagine anyone wants to continue this discussion. I considered leaving it out of this article. But it is worth noting that while the coaches will change, many of the people in the Athletic Department will remain. Their attitude must change even if the personnel doesn’t. The way of Golden was the wrong way, destructive not just to the team, but to the program and community as a whole.
Blake surely has evolved and I can’t credit him enough not just with the coaching search but with his overall conduct post-Golden firing. He is growing into the role of Athletic Director. Now it’s time for the rest of the Athletic Department to follow his lead.
The Measure of a Man
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. once said: “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.”
And it is in that where we see that Golden was lacking, and where Richt shines like a thousand points of light.
I’ll never forget how last year, rather than host an end-of-the-year press conference, a perfunctory task for any coach, he went AWOL. He was trying to avoid getting hammered with questions about why the team underachieved. He eventually did talk to the media, through interviews and a National Signing Day presser, but a strong character would have stood up to adversity and faced it head on, not tried to avoid it. It’s no surprise we haven’t heard from him since his firing.
Contrast that with Richt, who the day after being fired following what can only be described as an outstanding 15 years at Georgia, not only faced the media, but did so while seated next to the man who fired him. It was a measure of the man Miami is getting. Mark Richt is the best export from Athens since R.E.M.
This is a coach who will be straight, understand the enormity of the task, and tackle it head-on. He’s won everything but a national championship, and aims to do just that at Miami. At the very least, he will bring a professionalism and candor that has been sorely lacking. The Miami program is in good, steady, competent hands for the first time in 15 years. The native son has returned home to lead his school back to glory.
Are We Who We Thought We Are?
As the Canes prepare for Saturday’s Sun Bowl, they’ve come full circle. They were last seen in the Sun Bowl losing to Notre Dame with an interim coach. Five years of Golden has yielded zilch.
There is value here. We all know the lofty standards of this program and if Mark Richt has this team in this bowl game 2-3 years from now, it will justifiably be seen as a disaster. But Miami has not won a bowl game since the 2006 Micron PC Bowl when Kirby Freeman quarterbacked a team coached by an already-fired Larry Coker to a 21-20 win over Nevada. If nothing else, it would be nice if the Canes could get that particular monkey off their backs, so they can move forward clean.
But after that? It’s time to get down to the business of restoring the program’s glory. There is one legitimate knock on Richt related to his struggles in big games and his ability to win a national championship. He was already at a major program for 15 years, and came close but never got over the top. If he couldn’t win a national championship at Georgia, why will he at Miami?
And that question gets to the fundamental core of the University of Miami program. We’re constantly told that we shouldn’t be as successful as we’ve been. That a small private school in a pro sports town should not be able to win on a national level. That the championships are somehow undeserved.
I find that to be a bunch of nonsense. This program is special. And it is special because everyone, from Clemson to UT-San Antonio, has to fill out their roster. And when Miami fills out their roster, they do so with South Florida kids. And that’s what makes the difference. It’s at that margin. Miami has had many great players from all over the country. They’ve competed nationally for the best. But when push comes to shove, and Miami has to take kids, they take them from South Florida. And the average South Florida player is simply better than the average player from anywhere else, including “recruiting rich” areas. The ineptitude of the last 15 years cannot change that.
It’s why Miami has won five national championships since Georgia last won one.
So the fundamental question about the Mark Richt hire is not whether he is a good hire — he is. Not whether he is a capable man to lead Miami out of the current doldrums — he is. Not whether he is a good coach — he is.
No. The issue at hand is whether or not Miami Exceptionalism is something we say to sound cool, a marketing gimmick, or whether we actually believe in it. Because if we truly believe Miami is a special place, a place that struggles at many things, but is undoubtedly elite when it comes to winning national championships, a place where a good coach will fundamentally succeed, then surely a coach that succeeded just up to the National Championship-level at Georgia will go over the top at Miami.
Do we still believe in the dream of Miami? The greatness of the program? Or have the past 15 years beaten that out of us?
I believe. And I believe in Mark Richt.
The time has come for the sleeping giant to wake up, to remind everyone of what a fully functional Miami program looks like. When the Canes show up in all their glory, there is nothing in college football quite like it. And that moment of rebirth is upon us now.
Follow Vishnu on Twitter @VRP2003