Mark Richt building foundation for future Hurricanes’ title run

Mark Richt takes over his alma mater with an eye toward the future as the Miami Hurricanes look to return to national prominence and reestablish their dominance in the ACC.
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Before a small crowd in a hotel ballroom Thursday, Mark Richt declared that the return of the Miami Hurricanes to national prominence has begun, in part, as a walk in the park. The previous day, his players visited with several youth league teams from parks near campus. On Monday and Wednesday of next week, Richt plans on visiting three parks and their respective teams each day. And every Thursday during the fall, once the morning practice is over and the film work and recruiting calls are done by mid-afternoon, he aims to visit another two or three parks, putting the new face of football at the The U before the wide eyes of 8-to-11 year olds.

“I want those guys to love Miami,” Richt explained. “Why would I be seeing 8-year-olds if I didn’t plan on sticking around a while?”

A plan to rejuvenate this program that revolves around the future, instead of an obsession with the past. How refreshing. Based on the sunny testimony from the Hurricanes contingent here at ACC media day, Richt has it right thus far in his return to Coral Gables, because reestablishing the long-term viability of Miami requires reshaping perspectives within and without. And if that doesn’t exactly render 2016 beside the point, it is simply not worth overvaluing what happens this fall, as tempting as it will be with a new coach and golden-armed quarterback converging in a standardly conquerable Coastal Division.

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The most intriguing, meaningful parts about Year 1 of the Mark Richt regime are what Richt is doing to ensure his alma mater’s success in Years 4 and 5 and beyond. It was worth heeding the words of an old coach, echoed by Richt on Thursday, to put this project on its proper trajectory. “Coach (Howard) Schnellenberger, by Year 2 is when he came in for me,” Richt said. “He would always say, ‘We’re on a collision course for a national championship. The only variable is time.’”

He then joked that he and his teammates were just young and dumb enough to believe every syllable of that. But that blind faith put the program on track for its abundant successes in the 1980s. Coming anywhere near that again requires a similar big-picture buy-in, followed by patience as it takes root.

As interesting as it was to hear Brad Kaaya discuss how Richt has helped him better understand blitz pickup, or how Richt has coached him to speed up his feet while throwing certain routes, nothing was more consequential than hearing the Hurricanes’ star junior quarterback talk about his alarm clock.

Richt decreed that off-season conditioning would be done in small, intimate groups—no more than three or four players to a strength coach. That meant spreading the many groups out through the day. And that meant some players had to be in a 6 a.m. group. Kaaya was among the players given a choice of when he’d do his work. And he nevertheless chose to be in that first group, opting into a life of 5 a.m. alarms and hitching a ride to the football facility with kicker Michael Badgley, eating a nutritionist-approved snack at 5:30 and then doing 300-yard shuttle runs with the sun barely up in South Florida.

“I don’t have anything else better to do this summer beside class and football,” Kaaya explained. “May as well. Just get ahead on people.”

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He was joined by senior Stacy Coley, the team’s leading returning receiver. He was joined by running back Mark Walton, the team’s second-leading rusher in 2015. He was joined by Chris Herndon, a junior tight end who caught 18 passes last fall. He was joined by linebacker Jermaine Grace, the team’s leading returning tackler. Richt noted that class schedules and other responsibilities dictated when some of his players could show up for conditioning. But to have important performers volunteer for the most obscene workout time is auspicious, a sign of discipline and responsibility not to be cast aside after Miami committed 1,094 yards worth of penalties last fall.

 Not all parties were so willing in every way, and for them Richt had solutions, too. “We had some reports here and there that kids were being a little disrespectful, or they’d fall asleep in class,” punter Justin Vogel said. “Coach is like, we need players to hold the other players accountable. If any of the players messes up, everyone in that class will have the same punishment as that guy. So the players need to make sure the players are behaving. That’s the way it should be on the field.”

More tangibly, Richt has helped campaign for a new indoor practice facility; on Thursday, he speculated that the school was “close to having an announcement to talk about a lead gift.” In the current college football climate, it is absurd to demand national titles while a team is forced to escape the weather by practicing in a student rec center. Kaaya recalled a week during his freshman season when the Hurricanes were relegated to three straight walkthroughs in that venue to prep for Georgia Tech and such a project would bring Miami into the current century. Which brings us to the very surest way to win over time: Signing really good players, which Florida produces in abundance. Richt’s staff averted chaos due to the regime change and signed the nation’s No. 21 class, per the composite rankings, a group that included 10 four-star prospects.

Here, too, Richt espoused something of a long view. “There is a lot of great talent in that tri-county area, and a lot of that talent is not as developed as some places around the country,” he said. “Some guys just aren’t use to eating the way we begin to feed them when we get them on campus. They start learning how to take care of their bodies. This skinny kid who’s 175 pounds all of a sudden turns into a 215-pound gazelle of a wide receiver. I mean, how many great three-star players come out of south Florida? A bunch… There’s a bunch of gems in there that may not have the ratings, which I’ve never been too concerned about anyway.”

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Even his decision to call plays is meant to have a butterfly effect. “It’s important for the staff to see me compete, it’s important for the players to see me compete,” Richt said. Whatever offensive ingenuity he brings will comingle with nine returning starters and the potential to get even more out of Kaaya, who threw for 3,238 yards and 16 touchdown as a sophomore. And that, assuredly, is intoxicating enough that sectors of Hurricanes faithful will dismiss the gaping potholes on defense and consider it crucially important that a return to glory arrives this fall, or sooner, if there is a way to bend time and space and make that happen.

“Everybody’s hungry for success,” Richt said. “There are always some fans like, it’s national championship or bust. But there’s a lot of them that want to see us get after people and play Miami football.”

Miami’s new coach has not won 74% of his games by being indifferent to the talent on hand. Squeezing every bit of goodness out of Kaaya before he becomes a first-round draft pick is, naturally, one way to ensure The U is once again cool to all those preteens Richt plans on visiting, something more than just a standard-definition relic in television documentaries.

But the most elemental parts of Richt’s plan for a revival aren’t relevant to 2016 alone. What is important to a new coach with ties to Miami’s great history is what lies ahead. On Thursday, Kaaya almost winced at a question about rediscovering that old Miami confidence, that old Miami swagger, which everyone but Miami seems eager to see. “That swagger is different nowadays,” the quarterback said. “That’s one thing that coach Richt said, ‘Swag is just beating people. Swag is doing the right thing to where your team is in position to win the game.’”

So begins the Mark Richt era at Miami, where apparently the cool thing to do is the right thing. The past is definitely the past.