Miami Football: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly of the Al Golden Era

Chris Bello@christianrbelloContributor IMarch 3, 2014

Miami Football: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly of the Al Golden Era

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    Al Golden has had his ups and downs at Miami, quickly learning that the expectation to win is enormous.
    Al Golden has had his ups and downs at Miami, quickly learning that the expectation to win is enormous.Kevin Liles-USA TODAY Sports

    Al Golden made his way to Coral Gables from Philadelphia's inner city just over three years ago. Armed with a 300-page binder and a blueprint for rebuilding "The U," the former Temple coach was a man on a mission—saying and doing all the right things to rile up the fan base and right the ship.

    To Golden's credit, Miami was in shambles upon his arrival. The culture was broken, players were out of shape, losses were piling up and a sense of entitlement was destroying the Hurricanes from within.

    Months later, Nevin Shapiro became a household name, the NCAA launched an investigation and Miami suffered for two-plus years as a result.

    The dust has since settled, with Golden buckling in for his fourth year at "The U"—though some January flirtation with his alma mater, didn't help the former Penn State standout with a Hurricanes fan base that has grown impatient.

    Miami did start last season 7-0, including an upset of then-No. 12 Florida, but finished 2-4 and got whacked by Louisville in the bowl game, ending the year with a thud.

    With year four officially underway and spring practice having kicked off, here are six things Golden has either learned, or must figure out, between now and the time Miami is officially "back."

Pressure to Win at "The U" Bigger Than Expected

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    Al Golden and MIami had a signature win over Florida, but the Gators' eight-loss season took some luster off the upset.
    Al Golden and MIami had a signature win over Florida, but the Gators' eight-loss season took some luster off the upset.Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

    While it should go without saying, let's put it out there—the pressure to win at Miami is light years past anything Al Golden faced at Temple. Taking over a cellar-dweller Owls program that was kicked out of the Big East for being that bad—any progress was deemed good enough as the bar was set so low.

    Temple was 3-31 prior to Golden's arrival and by the time he left, a 17-8 run his final two seasons, including a rare bowl appearance and victory.

    While 9-4 at Temple is considered big time, the same record last year in Miami was considered a full blown letdown—especially after the solid start and the type of games the Hurricanes fumbled down the stretch.

    Golden may have known in theory what he was walking into in Miami, but until one has lived through it, UM's pressure cooker is impossible to fathom.

    Coral Gables isn't Gainesville, Tallahassee, Tuscaloosa or Columbus. As a small private school in a vibrant metropolitan city, there's endless competition for the entertainment dollar.

    Supporters of the Gators, Seminoles, Crimson Tide or Buckeyes will stand by their respective programs win or lose, because in most cases, college football is the only show in town.

    Hardly the case for "The U," which always has the Miami Heat, an inviting Atlantic Ocean and the allure of South Beach nightlife breathing down its neck—a lethal combo for a program with a small alumni base—especially when on-the-field efforts have been sub-par.

    6-6 was understandable in 2011, with Golden and his Canes blindsided by the NCAA investigation, and 7-5 was a step forward a year later as the dark cloud continued to hover.

    A nine-win season still deserves credit, but a few embarrassing losses in November, coupled with Golden's Penn State-fueled drama, certainly have the clock ticking much faster now than it was entering year three.

    Five national titles in under two decades set the bar, while Butch Davis proved he could bring Miami back from the dead.

    Fair or unfair, Golden is expected to do the same, and anything less will be deemed a failure based on all that's been invested the past three-plus years.


Recruiting South Florida Well Is Ultimate Key to Success

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    Duke Johnson was a great get in 2012, but Miami has let too much local talent slip away the past several years.
    Duke Johnson was a great get in 2012, but Miami has let too much local talent slip away the past several years.Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

    Miami's coaching staff has done a yeoman's job on the recruiting front since December 2010. Al Golden managed to salvage a 2011 class that only had four verbal commitments upon his arrival, and has continued building properly every February since.

    In year two, Golden convinced running back Duke Johnson, cornerback Tracy Howard and safety Deon Bush to stay home, despite Miami not being the popular choice amongst other top local talent. 

    The Hurricanes also reeled in defensive lineman Tyriq McCord from Tampa, Georgia linebacker Raphael Kirby, as well as a Johnson's teammate, offensive lineman Ereck Flowers, helping lay a foundation that continues being built upon.

    Still, for all the solid pickups, Golden and staff have taken heat—and will continue to—as long as quality local recruits wind up elsewhere.

    Florida State was an understandable destination for the class of 2014. Fresh off a national championship and with a Heisman-winning quarterback, the Seminoles cleaned house on national signing day—poaching some of the tri-city area's best.

    Running back Dalvin Cook and wide receivers Ermon Lane and Travis Rudolph each had Miami on the radar, but trekked to Tallahassee when all was said and done. The Hurricanes also lost wide receiver Johnnie Dixon to Ohio State, while defensive tackle Travonte Valentine chose LSU over Miami at the final hour.

    While Golden and staff don't deserve blame for kids having a change of heart or signing on with the flavor of the month, the fact remains that until Miami is keeping players like Cook, Lane, Rudolph, Dixon and Valentine home, the Hurricanes' on-the-field struggles will continue.

    Credit to Miami coaches for realizing that and hitting the ground running for next year. Golden and the Hurricanes have already offered 150 players—including 26 from Palm Beach, Broward and Dade counties, as reported by The Miami Herald.

    The Hurricanes have also rehired Tim "Ice" Harris, who stepped down from his head coaching position at Booker T. Washington to take over Assistant Director of Football Operations at "The U." Harris will be the primary liaison between UM and high school coaches nationwide—which should greatly help in the recruiting of top local talent. 

Proper Assistants Must Be on Board and Buying in

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    Al Golden took some heat this offseason for not making any staff changes after a 2-4 finish to the year.
    Al Golden took some heat this offseason for not making any staff changes after a 2-4 finish to the year.Rob Carr/Getty Images

    After a 2-4 finish to the 2013 season, and another year where Miami's defense broke more than it bent, fans clamored for change. That said, Al Golden stuck to his guns and kept his entire staff intact.

    The decision puts Golden in a "live by the sword, die by the sword" scenario, where he'll either find success his way, or will be proven wrong—resulting in another huge rebuilding process setback.

    Defensive coordinator Mark D'Onofrio has been by Golden's side as a coach since the former Penn State teammates recrossed paths as assistants at Virginia a decade ago. From there, they teamed up to rebuild Temple and trekked to Miami together in late 2010.

    D'Onofrio is shouldering the blame for the Hurricanes' woes on defense, but truth be told the longtime coordinator is running Golden's scheme—so the buck must stop with the head coach.

    On the other side of the ball, Miami took a huge step back when Jedd Fisch left for the Jacksonville Jaguars last January. James Coley was poached from Florida State—for his recruiting prowess, as much as coaching upside—but the first-year offensive coordinator struggled at times last season.

    Quarterback Stephen Morris notably regressed, while running backs weren't featured in the passing game, and overall play-calling was much more vanilla than Fisch's schemes.

    Now Miami must break in a new leader under center, find a quality second string running back and replace three key offensive line pieces—as well as its most productive wide receiver. Will Coley and the offensive coaches prove up to the challenge?

    The Hurricanes staff seems to be on-the-ball recruiting-wise and working to lock down the best local talent, but when it comes to developing said talent and showing up ready on game day, there are still improvements to be made.


Canes' Fan Base Can Be Hardcore and Unforgiving

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    Miami's struggles started well before Al Golden arrived, but the fourth-year coach is still feeling the heat.
    Miami's struggles started well before Al Golden arrived, but the fourth-year coach is still feeling the heat.Kevin Liles-USA TODAY Sports

    While there's been talk about a sense of entitlement within the Miami program prior to Al Golden's arrival, the same applies to a fan base that got way-too-used to winning ways.

    The Hurricanes became a force in the early 1980s, lasting for a solid decade before NCAA troubles hit. Over a 10-year span, Miami won four titles, officially lost three and were a few regular season setbacks away from playing for two more.

    By the late 1990s, the Hurricanes were rebuilt—courtesy of Butch Davis. Davis loaded the cupboard, which sparked a 44-4 run—complete with four BCS appearances, two titles games, one national championship and a boatload of talent sent to the NFL.

    Davis lied his way out of Coral Gables in January 2001, and was NFL-bound and took over the Cleveland Browns. In six seasons at Miami, his coaching was oft criticized, with fans flying a banner over a home game at the Orange Bowl— blaming the then-third-year coach for his predecessor's mistakes.

    After leaving the program unexpectedly, Davis was Public Enemy No. 1 for years to come—until Miami slipped drastically under Larry Coker and Randy Shannon, while Davis found success at North Carolina.

    Based on the mess he walked into—record-wise, as well as the NCAA scandal—Golden spent his first two seasons as a savior and sympathetic figure: A good guy who signed on to turn things around, blindsided by a disaster that didn't happen on his watch, yet headstrong and committed to cleaning things up.

    The narrative shifted for Golden after Miami lost four of its final six games, followed by January's discussions with Penn State.

    As year four gets underway, the pressure on Golden has been ratcheted up a few notches—especially after no offseason staff firings. Golden is sticking to his guns and his scheme, as well as riding out another year with "his" guys.

    Find success and the boo-birds will pipe down. Continue struggling and the heat will be like nothing Golden has seen in his two-plus decades roaming the sidelines.

Proper Depth at Quarterback and Running Back a Must

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    Clinton Portis led the charge in 2001, but had Frank Gore, Willis McGahee and Najeh Davenport helping support the cause.
    Clinton Portis led the charge in 2001, but had Frank Gore, Willis McGahee and Najeh Davenport helping support the cause.Jamie Squire/Getty Images

    While no one will ever debate that defense wins championships, Miami needs to make sure it's stacked at key offensive positions in order to succeed. Keeping the chains moving and putting points on the board is a surefire way for a defense to remain motivated—as well as off the field.

    All great Hurricanes teams had stellar quarterback play, as well as depth and talent at running back. The 1983 national champions boasted freshman Bernie Kosar under center, while Melvin Bratton was unstoppable running the football. Behind him, Alonzo Highsmith was waiting in the wings and a force a year later.

    Two decades later, it was Ken Dorsey putting up Heisman-like numbers, while the Hurricanes' 2001 running back depth included Clinton Portis, Frank Gore, Willis McGahee and Najeh Davenport.

    Al Golden and Miami were looking good in 2012 when Stephen Morris appeared to be the Hurricanes' next great quarterback, while Mike James and freshman Duke Johnson were a solid one-two punch on the ground.

    A year later, Morris regressed, James graduated, Johnson got hurt and Miami didn't have the depth, talent or experience to endure—which helped account for the 2-4 season finish.

    The Hurricanes will break in a new quarterback in 2014, while Johnson has no solidified No. 2 behind him. Coupled with some turnover on the line, Miami's offense looks like it could endure some serious growing pains this fall.

    To Golden's credit, Miami added Brad Kaaya and Malik Rosier at quarterback, while picking up Joseph Yearby at running back. Brandon Powell chose Florida late, while Dalvin Cook—Yearby's high school teammate—wound up at Florida State. Both running backs would've had an instant impact at "The U."

    The Hurricanes didn't hit on all their targets this year, but Golden and staff are well aware that quarterback and running back are huge components in Miami's overall resurgence.


In the End, Winning Will Cure All

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    Best way to beat the heat in Miami—find a way to turn the Hurricanes back into winners.
    Best way to beat the heat in Miami—find a way to turn the Hurricanes back into winners.Robert Mayer-USA TODAY Sports

    The worst thing that comes from upwards of a 10-year down-cycle and fifty losses: Too much free time and a huge social media platform for fans to vent their frustrations.

    Miami's drought in the 1990s lasted half as long, while the online communities were in their infantile stages, keeping fans' opinions relegated to sports talk radio and letters to the local newspapers' editor.

    Toss in the rage of high-defintion, flat-screen televisions and an array of Saturday games, and fans have taken to staying home on Saturdays—watching from the couch, airing their disgust online in real time.

    To the credit of Miami's staff, it's been a head-down mentality for three years—working tirelessly, blocking outside noise and rebuilding from within.

    That process was set to continue for at least one more fall, due to the long-running NCAA investigation finally coming to a head last October. Instead, the heat is on after Al Golden's handling of the Penn State situation months back.

    Those who felt the fourth-year coach was a bad fit have some fuel to add to their fire, while the pro-Golden crowd is hard-pressed to not feel a bit jilted.

    The upside for Golden? Proof that in Miami, winning literally cures everything.

    Fans tried to run Butch Davis out of town for half a decade. If successful, it would've thwarted a six-year rebuilding project. Davis was persona non grata for years due to the way he bolted, but time—and winning—healed those wounds, as the former Hurricanes coach left the program a boatload of talent.

    Conversely, Davis' replacement Larry Coker was a fan favorite early on, but support faded.

    An all-around swell guy that won a title and kept things rolling for three seasons—12-0, 12-1 and 11-2—things drastically changed for Coker when the wins stopped coming with such ease.

    Coker backslid to 9-3, 9-3 and 7-6 his final three seasons and was fired late 2006—a "what have you done for me lately" mindset fully in play for the University of Miami and its supporters.

    Sub-par defense, late-season losses and a head coach's intentions have dominated the headlines in Miami for years—and will continue doing so until the Hurricanes turn the corner.

    As Proximo told Maximus in the film Gladiator, "Win the crowd and you will win your freedom." For Golden, the path is similar. Get Miami back to winning ways and the fan support will soon follow.

    Until then, the outside noise will continue to mount.