Coach Sol Breaks It Down: Part 1

Thanks to longtime UM coach Don Soldinger, it's time to break things down. Blessed with an opportunity to sit down and talk lots of football with him last week, I quickly realized what makes him such a quality man and a tremendous football coach. A hugely important part of this program's success over the years, Soldinger talked with me about a lot of things that will be quite interesting to read.

Mike Bakas: First, what have you been doing this season, your first away from coaching in a long time?

Don Soldinger: "Really, all I've been doing is working out and traveling. I do a lot of bike riding. I ride quite a bit – 20 to 40 (miles) a day. If I'm not riding, I'm walking -- which I did a lot when I was at Miami. I do a little lifting, stay in shape, a little jogging. I talked to a couple people, talked to (Dr.) Krop (High School) – they wanted me to take the (head coaching) job. I didn't want to jump back in yet though. I went out to Salt Lake City. We did a BFS (bigger, faster, stronger) camp out there in high school. So I went out there for a business meeting. I've been designing weight rooms, too. I helped Miami Springs (High School) install a weight room. I ran a camp this summer for youth league football and I've just been trying to stay busy. I worked a month testing non-English speaking kids to see what their level of English was for the school system."

This is the first time I had a chance to travel in the fall for 38 years because of my coaching career. My mom is 82 and she's still relatively healthy. We want to go out to Truman State (University) -- my godson plays there. I'll watch the game on Saturday and then Sunday, we'll go on and tour Mississippi and then on the weekend, go see the Georgia/Ole Miss game. Then after that, we'll go down to Atlanta on Sunday to see the Falcons and Arizona. I'll get to see EJ and ‘Trel at the Georgia Dome. Then we'll be going back to Myrtle Beach and then Savanna and then hopefully see the Florida and LSU game in Gainesville before heading back to Miami. That's a lot of traveling. It's been interesting and relaxing. I've always been a 7 to 11 guy in the coaching business, putting in a tremendous amount of hours, preparing kids for games, so this is very relaxing for me. It gives me a chance to spend time with my wife and my mom so it's not me just wasting time.

MB: Your first college coaching job was at the University of Miami back in 1984. How did that happen?

DS: "Well it's interesting to me because we had just lost the state championship to Manatee in 83 (as a head coach at Miami Southridge High). UM had just won its first national championship. I was in Dallas at the National (Coaches) Convention. I saw Howard (Schnellenberger) and congratulated him. I had a great team coming back that year. As a matter of fact, Southridge went on to play in the state championship game in 84. I went to Miami in 84. Southridge lost the state game that year. I was working around the house (and) got a call on Sunday. It was early in the morning and it was Coach Schnellenberger. He asked me to come over. (Then UM linebackers coach) Mike Archer was going to LSU. He asked me to coach the linebackers. I wasn't planning on anything. I was focused on Southridge, trying to win the state championship the following year. When he offered me the job, I asked, ‘when do you need to know by?' and he said, '10 o'clock'. So I went home and talked to Phyllis. The next thing I knew, I was on a plane to Pittsburgh for a recruiting trip."

MB: What was it like taking a coaching position on a team that had been so successful the year before?

DS: "I grew up a Canes fan. I was born and raised in Miami and felt it was a great opportunity. I didn't know if it would ever come again. Howard left after spring practice that year and that's when Jimmy came in. At first, I thought I made a bad decision (taking the job just prior to losing the head coach), thinking that (Jimmy) would have a new staff. I thought that I might be giving up a great high school job. But I really enjoyed it. Coaching's coaching. Our first game I coached in was at Auburn for the Kickoff Classic. Bo Jackson and Tommy Agee were the backs we were up against. Auburn was ranked number one in the country. It was a thrilling game for me coaching linebackers. It was a big challenge to start my college career and we held Jackson under 100 yards and won the game."

MB: What was it like coaching under Jimmy Johnson?

DS: "With Howard, I always liked him. He was very knowledgeable. I felt it was a great opportunity when I took the job when he offered it to me. The defense had been outstanding the year before. I thought it was a great opportunity to learn football. He was kinda intimidating to the kids and the coaches. He was a good guy. I learned a lot. Lo and behold, Jimmy comes in that spring and you don't even know the guy. He always referred to me as the high school coach. I felt great about it and really loved Jimmy. I thought he was the best. He was behind the 8 ball that first year. On defense, we had been reading guards, reading backs. We did a multitude of things defensively and he wasn't comfortable with everything we were doing. He came in and was a lot more aggressive. He let guys just lay their ears back and go and our kids responded well to that. As long as you were making plays, he didn't mess with you much. Doing some things we were doing, you had to be pretty disciplined. We started good, winning that game against Bo and Auburn. Then we beat Florida in Tampa with Eddie Brown catching the touchdown in the corner of the end zone. We went to Michigan and lost 22-16 and had a bunch of turnovers. We were playing some big time teams and we were doing pretty good. We started changing the defense some. Jimmy didn't think we were aggressive enough and he was starting to mix his system in with what we were already doing. That was hard to do and eventually, we kinda got nailed late in the season (finishing with three straight losses, as the defense gave up 128 points over the final three games). The defensive coordinator left and we brought in (Jimmy's) guys. We began running his schemes and that's when I got switched over to coach tight ends (which Soldinger did from 85 to 88)."

MB: You guys went undefeated vs. No. 1 ranked teams, a streak that continued even after you guys had left. What was it about those teams that would have them so well prepared to play against the best teams like that?

DS: "One year (1987), the biggest thing is we went 12-0 and won it all. We had played the conference champion in the WAC, the Big 10, the SEC, the ACC – we played ‘em all and we beat ‘em all. We were undefeated. We were pretty darn good under Jimmy. He didn't have a spring that first year and it was rough. We went something like 55-8 during his tenure there. It was exciting. Jimmy was one heck of a guy. He was a bottom line guy. As long as you're getting the job done as a player and as a coach, he was happy. You always knew where you stood with Jimmy, which is very important. Going back to your question, though, Jimmy was a master psychologist – especially in away games. He always had guys ready. He knew how to handle the crowd. Plus, we had some real exceptional guys. We had guys like (Alonzo) Highsmith and (Melvin) Bratton) and Winston Moss. Going back to Howard, all those guys concentrated on getting the best players out of Miami. The guys we had weren't just great athletes – they didn't take crap from anybody. They were very confident guys and they developed unbelievable camaraderie. Those guys walked into a stadium and they controlled it. Jimmy always had ‘em ready. In addition to those big games against the top ranked teams, we had some tight games too. We had some tight games where we weren't very good but for the most part, these guys dominated. When you challenged those guys, even fans or you as a coach, they challenged each other more. It was a very competitive group of kids and that's what made Miami great. They were very competitive with each other and you couldn't intimidate them. They were just that confident."

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