What a long, strange journey this season was for the Miami Hurricanes.

We are but a few months removed from fretting over the hiring of Manny Diaz as defensive coordinator. And a year removed from rank incompetence the likes of which should never be inflicted on a major college program.

Yet there the Canes were, dominating a Top 15 team to win a bowl game for the first time in a decade. Beating them not only on the scoreboard, but physically.

For the first time since 2005 we can actually make a coherent argument that the program is headed in the right direction.

Unwavering violence

The biggest sign of optimism going forward is the complete overhaul on defense. While this was a joke (and a hell of a joke)…

…it’s not that far off from how the Canes defended over the past five years under Al Golden and Mark D’Onofrio.

When Diaz came in, he demanded “unwavering violence.”

I was skeptical. Diaz had famously been fired at Texas and had a mixed track record. It took a turn for the worse when Jermaine Grace and Al-Quadin Muhammad were dismissed from the team before the season started.

All of a sudden, Miami’s defense would have to rely on a lot of freshmen, which is a recipe for disaster and losses. It also often involves a team simplifying schemes, playing conservative, and limiting damage.

But Diaz was not having it. From literally the first possession of the season (where the Canes registered a sack and a quarterback pressure resulted in an interception)…

to the last possession of the season (featuring a “suplex”)…

…the violence never wavered. Diaz was true to his word.

After years of bluster with zero substance, the Hurricanes’ defensive coordinator stepped into an extremely difficult situation, outlined a clear philosophy, and implemented consistently and successfully over 12 games. 

That this immediately came on the heels of the most incompetent defensive staff in school history makes it even more impressive. It doesn’t take long for us to forget that we have been waiting patiently while being told that it takes years to do these types of things and that in fact, Miami’s defensive philosophy and program was essentially dead. Diaz had every reason to make excuses, “slowly” build, not expect greatness… but he did not. Instead, he took no prisoners this year.

Diaz replacing D’Onofrio reminds me of this scene from Band of Brothers when they take the town of Foy (not to equate college football with World War II).

Gone were the days of inept schemes. Replaced with better athletes, going downhill, and winning. Perhaps we should go farther back into our history, to look at Abraham Lincoln, commenting on the lack of aggression by one of his commanding generals during the Civil War:

“If General McClellan isn’t going to use his army, I’d like to borrow it for a time.”

Sometimes, football is a complicated game. We as laymen often do not understand the depth of what is happening on the field. But certainly, we understood that defensive tackles couldn’t cover wide receivers, and there was no point in having superior athletes if you were going to deemphasize their athleticism.

And that probably is what is so refreshing about the Diaz takeover. A football coach can always blunt fan criticism by simply saying that he knows more about the game than those criticizing him, since that will always be the case. When criticism reached a fever pitch under the previous regime, this was the last refuge of the holdouts, often aided by some (not all) local media, sarcastically questioning how fans could know more than the coaches.

I said it at the time, and I’ll say it again, we do not know more than the coaches. Not more than Al Golden, not more than Mark D’Onofrio. Our criticisms were rudimentary and simplistic. We knew enough to see the house was on fire and shout “fire!” while the staff pretended it was just the South Florida humidity causing the heat.

But actually fixing things is nuanced and complicated. And it should take a lot more than a summer.

But it didn’t because Diaz is THAT good.

And it was not a simple fix. Our schemes are not simple. What Manny Diaz has done so seamlessly and expertly is taken a simple philosophy — “we have better athletes, let’s emphasize athleticism” — and translate it into a complicated defense (which I won’t even pretend I understand all the nuances of) that somehow manages to confound offenses while also allowing several freshmen to shine.

The difficulty in accomplishing this task cannot be understated. Miami finished in the Top 25 in total defense and sacks, Top 15 in scoring defense, and sixth in tackles for a loss.

It’s easy to bolster negative yardage stats by taking risks and getting burned. This defense managed to be aggressive, smart and solid with freshmen all over the field. 

Credit must extend a bit beyond Diaz, both up and down the food chain. The team was hit with a lot of injuries, yet continued to play through it, sans excuses. That is a testament to Mark Richt’s leadership.

He never complained about the previous regime’s recruiting or philosophy setting him back, instead praising the existing roster. It was a stark contrast to the previous regime, where we learned that once you start making excuses for poor play, there is no going back. He also attracted top assistant coaches (due to his reputation) like the finest defensive line coach in the country in Craig Kuligowski.

The defensive side of the ball has gone from Death Valley to Mount Everest in one offseason. Perhaps West Virginia Coach Dana Holgorsen, an offensive guru who produced a Top 20 offense this year, said it best:

About that four-game losing streak…

I want to be all rosy, but that does not accurately reflect what happened this year. There was an awful four-game losing streak in the middle of the season.

Now we can come up with reasons (or excuses) if we want to:

  • There were a lot of injuries
  • The schedule was brutal (FSU, UNC, VT in a 12 days)
  • Three of the four losses could have gone either way

But this is a new era, and we should take our lead from the head coach and not make those excuses. He doesn’t. There were several systemic breakdowns on the offensive side of the ball, mainly with the playcalling and the offensive line.

Perhaps the single most underachieving performance by a unit the Canes had this year as a team was putting up only 13 points against a UNC defense that allows almost 25 points per game. The single most underachieving performance as a whole was losing to Notre Dame. That loss was indescribably bad. Notre Dame only won four games, against Nevada, Syracuse, Army… and Miami.

And the things that lead to that loss, and the four-game losing streak in general manifested themselves again in the Russell Athletic Bowl.

That was the most fascinating part of the bowl game, in general. It was the Canes’ season summed up in four quarters. Amazing defense, periods of completely inept offense, and ultimately, an athletic explosion that ended up with everyone feeling really positive about the program’s direction.

But about that inept offense… it stems from the offensive line. Miami has elite running backs, but failed to run the ball (not for the first time) because they struggled up front. The difference between this ultimately comfortable victory and the four losses is that Miami started getting the ball out quick, and Brad Kaaya, who was on fire, ripped open the defense (after struggling through the first quarter). Once Miami got the players they needed in space and enough time to get the ball to them, it was over.

As it has always been at Miami. Get the ball in the playmakers’ hands and they’ll beat the opponent. But those playmakers include the running backs, and the one thing that must get better, either through recruiting, scheming, offseason work… whatever, is that the offensive line must be able to consistently win up front. That is the difference between what the Canes were this year and what we hope they are in the future. 

A new context

As Miami moves forward as a program, what did we gain in 2016? Yes, it’s nice that Mark Richt won a bowl game for the first time in a decade. Yes, it’s nice that the Canes had three wins this year (Georgia Tech, Pittsburgh, and West Virginia) that were better than any during the Al Golden Era.

But in a bottom-line business, Richt merely equaled Randy Shannon and Al Golden’s best season. Are we overreacting to 9-4 simply because 4-4 turned into 9-4?

I believe the answer to that is “no,” and what we’ve gained is far more important than anything another win could have produced.

What the 2016 season gave the University of Miami program was a reframed argument of what the program is and could be. Over the past 10 years, the Canes have not been close to accomplishing anything. But for the first half of that span, we never questioned what the goals of the program were. As Randy Shannon flailed around futilely trying to unlock a door he had no key to, he still talked about winning championships, employed defenses that looked like Miami, and at the very least, we never had to question what Miami was supposed to be or trying to be.

That all changed in the Golden Era. He attempted to redefine Miami. Not to restore it, but to fundamentally change it. The program went from one that was struggling to get back to where it was, to one that was trying to go somewhere else. All while we were being told that this change was necessary because the way we won five National Championships was no longer possible, that too many people plundered South Florida, that Miami football was antiquated, that Shannon failed not because he was a first time head coach ill-equipped to go straight from coordinator to rebuilding the program, but because the “Miami Way” was dead.

How did Miami, as a program, respond to this? By doubling down on Miami, bringing in an alum for a head coach, who then proceeded to bring in assistants who are philosophically consistent with what works as Miami. Seemingly overnight, Miami was back to its roots. 

Miami is not “back.” The team didn’t even win the ACC Coastal (which is not even a real goal if Miami is “back”). But what they did get “back” is the sense of a program. This is how we play at Miami, it’s what works for us, it might not work anywhere else, and what works at other places might not work here, but it works for us and we’re going to live and die with this. 

And we also got back to a point where the goals of the program are aligned with the history of the program. The contrast is especially vivid when comparing Golden’s postseason interview in 2013, particularly about the continuing inept defense, (after going 9-4) to Mark Richt’s this year.

Golden talked about the positives (as all coaches would), and talked about how some things needed improvement (as all coaches would), but his overall summary of the past season was, we’re “much better than the previous one, stay the course.” — the infamous trending up:

“All of those things, for me, are positive trends. We definitely need to fix some things, there’s no question about it. The first thing to do is look at our personnel and what we need to do better. Everything for me, right now, as I look at it, is positive.”

Richt did some similar things, talking about positive momentum and the like but the tell was when he was asked about his feelings on the season:

“I wish we would have made an extra point early in the year. That would have been nice. Who knows how things might have changed then, but you know that’s part of life. We didn’t get it done.

“The games we lost, we’re mostly in every one of them. The Virginia Tech game got away pretty much mid-fourth quarter. We had a chance to score and get it within seven at one time with maybe five minutes to go in the game. We might have made it a game, but we didn’t score and then they did. They were up 14, went up 21 or whatever it was. But other than that we were battling it in every game. We fought hard. We’ve got to learn to win the close ones. So that will be important.”

Richt could talk about the three quality wins, the first bowl win in a decade, the significant progress made–instead, he is grating over the four losses. He had the most successful season this program has had in a decade, has the whole fan base behind him, and a lesser (Golden) coach would have tried to leverage the situation, to buy him more clout, to rest on his laurels, and take a victory lap. Richt was mad about the losses. 

That’s our man right there. That’s the man we need leading this program.

I don’t know if Mark Richt ultimately will win National Championships here. No one does. But if this season was about one thing, it was about defining what the Miami Hurricanes football program should be. And for the first time in five years, the coach, the fans, and most importantly the community are in lockstep on that.

Richt will be good at Miami. The low bar of competence has been removed. Twisting stats to feign progress is gone.

Mark Richt will win a National Championship, or figuratively die trying. Because that’s what’s driving him here. 9-4 wasn’t the end of that journey, but the beginning and more than any single win, or gut-wrenching loss, that’s what we may remember the 2016 Miami Hurricanes for.

This was the year the program settled the question of what Miami should strive for and try to be, and now we can move forward to the much tougher task of actually getting there.