Earlier this month, Miami's true believer stood on a high school field watching the next generation of recruits try out for his old seven-on-seven team. Randy "Duke" Johnson wasn't difficult to spot. The Miami Norland High tailback wore a custom Miami hat emblazoned with DUKE above the iconic U logo. It's one of three hats Johnson has made at a local store. In fact, it's rare to see Johnson without the U somewhere on his person. Even though he has signed his National Letter of Intent, the pied piper of the 2012 class hasn't stopped advertising.
After convicted Ponzi schemer and former Hurricanes booster Nevin Shapiro tried to drop an atomic bomb on Miami's football program in an exhaustive Yahoo! report last August, the Hurricanes needed a spark. First-year coach Al Golden, who never had dealings with Shapiro, already knew he would need to sign an excellent class that could contribute immediately because of his senior-heavy roster. But with every talking head predicting NCAA doom for the Hurricanes, Golden needed help. He and his coaches could sell the program all they wanted, but only a trusted, familiar voice could reach recruits. They found that voice in Johnson, who committed to former Miami coach Randy Shannon in September 2010 and never wavered. The major recruiting services loved Miami's 2012 class, ranking the Hurricanes in the top 10 in the nation. Golden and his staff deserve most of the credit for recruiting despite a brutal predicament, but some credit belongs to the local high school star who made it his mission to bring the Hurricanes back to national title contention.
"[Miami assistant] George McDonald was my recruiting coordinator," Johnson said. "And I was his."
Johnson's salesmanship helped Miami woo Miami Columbus High safety Deon Bush away from Alabama and Auburn. Johnson also never stopped plugging Miami as Miramar (Fla.) High cornerback Tracy Howard considered Florida, Florida State, USC and others. "They weren't way out of the picture," Howard said of Miami. "But they were out of the picture." Howard, considered a long shot to sign with the Hurricanes as late as January, decided during an official visit to Miami the weekend before National Signing Day that he would play his college ball at home. "I can take credit for putting a bug in their ears," said Johnson, who rushed for 2,087 yards and led Norland to a Class 5A state title as a senior.
Miami may have NCAA issues, and it may lack the fan base and facilities of most schools at its level, but the one advantage it has is an annual bumper crop of homegrown players. In 2012, Miami didn't get all the most sought-after players from Dade and Broward counties, but it got most of them.
"We did a good job holding serve down here in Broward and Dade," Golden said. "We're going to continue to do that. We're going to be tough to beat down here, and we should be. ... It's time we start thinking about acting like Miami Hurricanes and stop having an inferiority complex."
Golden, who rebuilt Temple from nothing into a respectable operation, has faced difficult recruiting situations before. When the Shapiro allegations hit, Golden knew his job immediately became that much tougher. Coaches from other schools painted nightmare scenarios for Miami recruits. "I'm not going to sit here and tell you that we didn't get absolutely crushed by our opponents in this," Golden said. "But we fought back."
They fought back by explaining the situation as clearly as possible. Miami coaches are hopeful that the NCAA will remain faithful to its new goal of punishing actual perpetrators rather than future generations. (It probably also didn't hurt that USC, laboring under serious sanctions, has managed to succeed in spite of the penalties and provided a blueprint for other programs in similar situations.) Miami recruits also understood that no matter what happened with Shapiro, Golden had nothing to do with it.
"I'm not going to hold them back for that," said Miramar High receiver Malcolm Lewis, another Miami signee. "They weren't really there. It wasn't really their fault. I just see a group of coaches trying to turn the program around. I want to be a part of that history."
These Miami recruits were at their most impressionable when the 2001 Hurricanes ruled the college football universe. They idolized Andre Johnson, Willis McGahee, Ed Reed and Sean Taylor. They hope they can take a program that has gone 41-35 since 2006 back to those lofty heights.
Of course, everyone thought Shannon's 2008 haul -- loaded with the best players South Florida had to offer -- would do just that. It did not. The class, which featured quarterback Jacory Harris, linebacker Sean Spence and defensive tackle Marcus Forston, produced some good players but some mediocre teams. These young Hurricanes, many of whom will have to play immediately because of the loss of a large senior class and several early defections to the NFL, will have to do more.
The players believe Golden can cultivate their talent and turn Miami back into a winning program. "He's got a plan," Howard said. "You've got to have a plan before you succeed in life -- before you succeed in anything. And he's got a great plan."
That plan starts with finding great players close to home. Golden has said he prefers to recruit players he has seen in camp. That way, his coaches can trust what they see in the flesh rather than a player they have seen on film. "We've never been catalog shoppers," Golden said. Fortunately, Miami doesn't have to work too hard to get quality athletes into camp. Hundreds of future FBS-level players live within a few hours' drive of Coral Gables.
Several of those players in the classes of 2013 and 2014 already know about Miami thanks to the unpaid recruiting coordinator in the custom Hurricanes hat. Johnson has spread Golden's gospel at his school, at sporting events and throughout South Florida that Miami won't be held down by the Shapiro allegations or by a few years of mediocrity. Golden couldn't have constructed a more perfect ambassador.
"He understands," Golden said, "what it means to be a Miami Hurricane."