"We're South Florida's team," said first-year coach Al Golden. "We have to get back to being that, when kids come up in sixth, seventh and eighth grade, when their fathers come back from work or when we meet with guidance counselors, teachers or coaches at schools, that they're all talking about the University of Miami in that capacity."
The Hurricanes have won more national championships in the past 30 years than any other program, but in fair-weather Miami -- where South Beach will always be a more attractive destination than Sun Life Stadium -- Golden still must sell his program much the way he did long-suffering Temple. "It seems like a drought around here," said the smiling 41-year-old former Penn State tight end. "Miami played for a national championship in 2002. There are some teams that are traditional powers that haven't won national championships in 25 or 30 years, and some have only won one in the same period that Miami played for 10 and won five. So let's keep it in perspective."
Perspective is hard to come by in a city that can barely maintain interest in the star-studded Heat. When Butch Davis left Miami for the Cleveland Browns following the 2000 season, the school opted for stability in promoting offensive coordinator Larry Coker. It paid off in the form of a fifth national title the following season, but Coker's tenure soon descended into an ugly state of mediocrity and player misdeeds. The school went with familiarity upon Coker's firing, promoting former player and defensive coordinator Randy Shannon. He cleaned up Miami's tarnished off-field image, but couldn't get the 'Canes over the hump from good to great.
This time Miami brought in an outsider. In five seasons, Golden lifted Temple from the dregs of Division I-A to records of 9-4 and 8-4 his last two years. The decision to hire a coach from a MAC school met with skepticism from fans and former players, but Golden has begun to win over the doubters with a well-polished persona developed over the years while working for old-school mentors including Penn State's Joe Paterno, Boston College's Tom O'Brien and Virginia's George Welsh and Al Groh. With his ability to switch from buddy-buddy jokester to tough-guy taskmaster in the blink of an eye, Golden can seem almost like a less abrasive Urban Meyer; or, for those who have been around the sport longer, like one of Miami's own forefathers.
"I was fortunate to be here one year under Jimmy [Johnson]," said former Miami and NFL standout Micheal Barrow, now in his fifth season as the team's linebackers coach. "Coach Golden, he reminds me of what I was brought up on. He's old school. His demeanor, his style, the things he's implemented here really fit what we did in the past here in terms of the work ethic."
Despite the players' attachment to Shannon -- and despite a grueling winter conditioning program -- the customary attrition that often accompanies a coaching change has yet to occur. In contrast to previous staff transitions he's experienced, Golden has been pleasantly surprised to see Miami's seniors enthusiastically welcoming the new regime.
"Chemistry is at an alltime high," said quarterback Jacory Harris. "We're behind Coach Golden, we're supporting him 110 percent. We just want to come together and be great."
Harris, a senior, was one of 12 Miami natives in Shannon's much-lauded 2008 recruiting class, a group many thought would bring the program back to glory but has thus far gone a modest 23-15, including three straight bowl losses. The 'Canes started last season ranked 13th in the polls and remained ranked into late October before losing four of their last six to finish 7-6. Playing under interim coach Jeff Stoutland in the Sun Bowl, Miami was crushed 33-17 by Notre Dame.
As the initial enthusiasm generated by Shannon faded, so too did interest from those in Miami's routinely fertile recruiting backyard. Two years after landing that top five class in '08, Shannon signed a class that failed to crack the top 30 and, not coincidentally, included just five players from Miami-Dade and Broward counties.
Hence, Golden's spring outreach tour. Miami boasts veteran standouts in defensive lineman Marcus Forston, linebacker Sean Spence, offensive linemen Tyler Horn and Brandon Washington and receiver Travis Benjamin, but Golden is frank about his squad's deficiencies -- particularly in the younger classes.
"[I'm] really worried about our depth on defense," Golden said. "We have three corners that went to the combine, [so] we have a void at corner we have to address. Our defensive line, most specifically our defensive tackle situation, is grave. We're going to need help from freshmen coming in, there and at linebacker."
Golden perks up a little when talking about the offense. Throughout the spring, he's raved about Miami's talented trio of tailbacks, junior Mike James and sophomores Lamar Miller and Storm Johnson, who combined for 210 yards on 34 carries in last weekend's scrimmage and whom new offensive coordinator Jedd Fisch employed frequently in the passing game. USC transfer Blake Ayles joins a group of promising tight ends. And Horn, Washington and Seantrel Henderson form the nucleus of what should be a solid offensive line.
"One of the most improved positions on our team this spring has been at tight end," said Golden. "One of the most talented positions on our entire team is our running backs. And the offensive line is probably the one position at Miami that looks the way it should look in terms of symmetry [by class]."
The personnel is in place for Golden to run his preferred run-first style of offense, but his primary focus this spring has been quarterback. After emerging as Miami's brightest star early in 2009, Harris endured a stunning regression over the past two seasons, throwing 32 interceptions. After Harris suffered a concussion in the eighth game of last season, freshman Stephen Morris took over but didn't fare much better. Harris relieved Morris in the last two games only to throw a costly late-game pick against USF and three against the Irish.
Harris is currently engaged in a three-way competition with Morris and senior Spencer Whipple, but most expect Harris will regain the starting job. The 34-year-old Fisch, who was an NFL assistant for nine of the past 10 seasons and who worked as Minnesota's offensive coordinator in '09, is working closely with Harris on his mechanics.
"Getting my feet lined up, pocket presence, instead of escaping when I really might not have to, step up and maneuver in a tight space," said Harris. "[Fisch is] one of the coolest guys I've met. We joke around, we laugh. He's just an energetic guy. Basically, he brings my confidence back."
The Miami program as a whole seems to need a fresh dose of confidence, a mystifying reality considering the 'Canes rose to prominence in the '80s as the brashest team in the land. Like many former Miami standouts, Barrow likes to romanticize "the UM way:" NFL alumni returning to campus in the offseason to work out with the current players under the unrelenting Miami sun, passing on the tradition to the new arrivals.
"I don't know when it started, but somehow, someway, over time, the thing that made us special was kind of lost," said Barrow. "I believe with my heart that with Golden, we can find that missing ingredient and get it going."
One notable missing ingredient of late: fans. The last time Miami played a home game, on Thanksgiving weekend, more than 30,000 seats were empty. In between practice days, Golden has been squeezing in speaking gigs and community appearances. He's on Facebook and Twitter. At his alma mater in State College and in other football-crazy towns, 100,000 still pack the stadium to see a 7-6 team. In Miami, even the recruits need to be reminded the 'Canes still matter.
"I know this -- we have a better chance of filling our stadium than Gainesville has of putting an international city right outside its city limits," said Golden, in full recruiting-pitch mode. "The expectations here are high, but if you're a coach, you want to be associated with a program that believes in winning national championships. That's what fuels us as a staff right now -- the yearning, coming to work every day knowing there's something absent."
Since joining the ACC in 2004, the 'Canes have yet to win even a division title. Harris, Spence and their fellow seniors would etch a redemptive farewell by pulling off that feat this fall. In the meantime, Golden and his staff will keep canvassing South Florida in search of the next Jonathan Vilma or Ray Lewis, selling the program to recruits and fans alike.