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Shannon leading Miami through renaissance on and off the field


Hey there, Miami Hurricanes. Everything OK? Anything you want to talk about?

From the outside looking in, Miami might appear to be a team in turmoil. After all, the Hurricanes' turnover-laden 36-24 loss to Ohio State on September 11th spawned a flurry of auxiliary headlines:

• In the locker room after that loss, the usually stoic Randy Shannon ripped into his guys, excoriating them for missing a golden opportunity.

• Starting quarterback Jacory Harris, who took full responsibility for his four interceptions (despite the fact that his receivers were to blame for three of them), revealed the day after the game that he'd received at least one racist tweet following the loss.

• In a move he insists was unrelated, Shannon instructed the Hurricanes to shut down their Twitter accounts, citing them as a distraction.

Taken together, what does it all mean?

It means the Pitt Panthers have a problem going into their upcoming game against their former Big East foes.

By Thursday's 7:30 p.m. kickoff at Heinz Field, the Hurricanes will have had twelve days to digest Shannon's philippic and mull over their mistakes in the Horseshoe. This is a disciplined, veteran, mentally tough team with a history of bouncing back from early-season setbacks. Seven days after suffering a 31-7 drubbing at Virginia Tech last year, the 'Canes spotted No. 8 Oklahoma 10 points, then came storming back. The dee stiffened, Harris threw three touchdown passes, and OU went home with a 21-20 upset loss.

The Hurricanes will arrive at The Big Ketchup Bottle desperate to get a bad taste out of their mouths, and that's the least of Pitt's problems. Former Heisman candidate Dion Lewis, who rushed for a jaw-dropping 1,799 rushing yards as a freshman in 2009, has averaged 2.9 yards per carry so far this season. That's not a slump, it's a disappearing act. On September 16th, star defensive end Greg Romeus had surgery on a herniated disk; he's out indefinitely.

The Panthers have had bigger problems off the field. Redshirt freshman tailback and kick returner Jason Douglas was suspended indefinitely after his arrest in connection with a DUI hit-and-run accident. (Riding shotgun with Douglas was starting middle linebacker Dan Mason, whom head coach Dave Wannstedt has since demoted to second-string.) Reserve offensive lineman Keith Coleman's suspension resulted from his arrest for aggravated assault.

Such malfeasance is hardly atypical for a Division I program. Indeed, Urban Meyer's Florida Gators make Wannstedt and the Panthers look like Father Flanagan and the inhabitants of Boys Town. On September 14, Gator running back Chris Rainey was arrested for aggravated stalking. By the Orlando Sentinel's count, Rainey's was the 30th arrest during Meyer's five-plus year tenure in Gainesville.

While that number can be deceptive -- not all arrests result in charges being filed -- it's still embarrassing for the Gators. As we were reminded while struggling to keep track of Tiger's mistresses, once the general public is keeping a tally, you've lost the p.r. battle.

I come not to bury the Gators, but to praise the Hurricanes, who boast one of the more remarkable statistics in all of sport. The erstwhile bad boys of college football, the heirs of a program long known as Thug U, have had one player arrested during the four-year tenure of Randy Shannon. That guy, quarterback Robert Marve, committed the dastardly act of vandalizing the side-view mirror on a parked car. He has since transferred to Purdue.

What's going on in Coral Gables? For one thing, most Hurricanes are in bed when a lot of their classmates are hitting the clubs and bars. For the last two years, Shannon has been starting practice at 7 a.m., with meetings beforehand. "Guys are not going out," he says. The Hurricanes have sacrificed their night lives.

Shannon has placed greater emphasis on recruiting character than any of his predecessors, dating back to Jimmy Johnson (for whom Shannon started at linebacker on the 'Canes' 1987 national championship team). When his assistants are on the recruiting trail, Shannon insists they go into private investigator mode. "We've got coaches doing as much background checking as we can," he says. Players are deputized, put to work evaluating high school visitors. "We tell our players, if they don't feel [a recruit] is the right type of guy for what we're trying to get done at Miami, tell us, and we'll cut him loose. And we've done that."

Job One, obviously, is to restore the program's luster, and Shannon has made steady progress toward that goal, posting five wins in 2007, seven in 2008 and nine last season.

What's remarkable about this renaissance-in-progress is what's going on off the field. Plenty of coaches pay lip service to the importance of graduating players: Shannon's Academic Progress Rate, a metric used by the NCAA to measure the success (or failure) of college teams to move athletes toward graduation, is best among all BCS coaches.

"Coach Shannon wants to win games, but he wants to win with high-character guys," says cornerback Brandon Harris. "We can be tough on the field, but off the field, we should be respectful, and we need to get an education."

Somewhere, Luther Campbell is frowning and shaking his head.

"It was great, those guys being the bad boys of college football," says running back Damien Berry of those Thug U teams of yore. "But we're making a different kind of statement."

While Jacory Harris doesn't deny the appeal and swagger of those dynastic Miami teams, "Our swagger is based on something else," he says. "It's based on confidence, knowing we're prepared, knowing what we're doing."

That swagger was absent for long stretches in the Horseshoe, but should be back in full force against Pitt. This is a deep, talented, veteran, resilient squad that will have a lot to say about who wins the ACC.

They just won't be saying it on Twitter.