Coach Sol Breaks It Down: Part 2

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: You returned to UM in 1995 when Butch Davis took over. How much different was the talent level on that 95 team compared to those great teams you coached with back in the 80s?

Don Soldinger: "The second time around, that place was a mess. There was no accountability. We were going on probation and the level of athletes was down. It was a flat out mess. It definitely wasn't the way we left it. The way we left it, Erickson came in and that cupboard was completely full. He won two national championships with the kids we recruited. The team lacked discipline. We were playing with 52 guys the year East Carolina beat us. We were hurting. A lot of people don't realize how short-handed we were and people criticize Butch. Look at the probation to places like Florida and Alabama and see how many games those guys won. We came through at 5-6 and probably could have had a winning record. We could have won a few more games. I thought Butch did some unbelievably creative things in recruiting that helped bring the level of talent back up."

MB: What were some of those creative ways Butch used to bring kids in?

DS: "Well, Santana Moss was a track athlete. Wherever he could pinch it, he would do it. Track scholarships or whatever he could do. If he wanted him, he'd get him in. We were really fortunate in some areas. Butch helped us get a lot of great players to come in when Miami was down."

MB: Going all the way back to his first full class, when something like 4 of those 12 kids ended up being first round draft picks, Butch Davis recruiting classes always seemed insanely good. What do you think the biggest reason for that was?

DS: "We did a really solid job of evaluating kids. It's gotten real different than when I first started. It was a tougher sell the second time around. Butch knew he wanted and he was a good evaluator. When we'd sit down, he'd listen to certain things but he did things his way. There were a lot of guys I thought we should have gone after but didn't. You say there's a drop off now. I don't know. I bet Urban Meyer and Bobby Bowden would love to have a Kenny Phillips now. There are still some great athletes on that team now."

MB: You guys had a lot of recruiting success over the years. Any interesting stories come to mind?

DS: "Rusty Medearis is an interesting story. I was recruiting him out of Missouri. He's living there now, actually, and we keep in touch. Jimmy didn't even want him at first. Rusty was one hell of a football player. He was playing basketball and was weighing about 195 pounds. Jimmy told me to slow play him so I didn't even fool with him. Just before signing day, Rusty called me and said he had visited Washington, Notre Dame, Oklahoma, went to Georgia Tech I think. He said he had some great visits and that he knows where he's going. I asked him where he's going and he says, ‘I'm coming to Miami, Coach' and it kinda caught me off guard. Here's a kid we hadn't really been recruiting all year. I went to check with Jimmy and told him he's ready to commit. Jimmy said, ‘Who's that again?', looked at the board, and said ‘OK, tell him he has a scholarship'. He was a great football player and became a great football player for us. That's how recruiting went at times back then but things have changed so much."

MB: So I see how easy it is to perhaps turn away a potentially great football player. Can you talk any more about that?

DS: "If I go back through the books I use to keep, I'd see a bunch of them. I'd always keep a personal book that was handwritten. It would have all the kids I recruited, both the ones who came to Miami and the ones who went other places. I always wanted to keep track to see how they did. One time we had an open week so we went up to a Lake Mary and Daytona Beach (Mainland) game. I had been watching Buster Davis since his ninth grade year. I loved him. He made 25 unassisted tackles one game. He was aggressive. He was quick. I thought he was a kid we should have taken. Randy (Shannon) thought ht was too short. It's part of the game. Randy does a great job. We wound up getting (Brandon) Meriweather one year and we also had a shot at Pat Watkins, who's a kid I thought we should have taken. We didn't have room for Watkins after Meriweather but I remember Jimmy saying never turn down athletes, even if you're heavy at certain positions. I know Buster would have come. I loved Xavier Lee but we didn't recruit him. That stuff happens all the time. I'm not saying I was right because there are a couple of guys we took that probably shouldn't be there. You're always gonna make mistakes in recruiting. Recruiting is a funny deal. In the pros, you can talk to people, analyze everything, and spend months preparing to take certain kids. They make mistakes and they're as thorough as you can get. Everyone makes mistakes. Leon Searcy wasn't highly recruited. Guys like him and Rust become great football players. A lot of people didn't think Portis was gonna be as good as he was. You just never know. Nobody thought too highly of Kelly Jennings coming out. They had a couple kids in the secondary that year. One went to Florida State (Kyler Hall), one went to Florida (Jarvis Herring). I thought Jarvis was just as good, maybe better. Butch wanted Kelly and Kelly became a number one draft pick. That's why I kept those books. Sometimes you get misled by coaches – it happens. But if you do your homework and know the area and people you're dealing with, you can jack up your success rate. Not every kid's gonna work out. Ryan Moore, I recruited him. You're not gonna find a better athlete. It's the other intangibles that are holding him back. I wish he would get another chance but I don't know the details of what happened. I don't think we made a mistake with him on athletic ability. It was other things that hurt him. That's why you have to put a lot of emphasis on the other things in the evaluations."

MB: What's different in recruiting now?

DS: "Well, in the late 80s, video was just coming in. There was no Internet. These kids are now constantly badgered by everyone. There are text messages and everything. There was none of that back in the 80s. I put a lot of stock into what the high school coaches say. You get kids who are always getting hounded. Anyone can pick up the phone and call these kids. It bothered me as a coach back in the 90's because kids were being badgered. It's a lot worse now. You'd end up losing games because some of these kids can't handle the pressure of dealing with recruiting and focusing on everything they need to focus on with their high school teams. It would bother me now. College coaches, and I'm not talking about Miami, don't really care about high school and what the teams of these kids are doing. They care about getting the guy, which is why I have a great relationship with the coaches in my areas. I know what they're going through. I had a different approach. I would recruit in a different way but it's all the text messages, kids at school looking at the Internet. I don't go on the Internet. I don't know how valid it is. Perception, it's funny – coaching is funny. If you're a heart surgeon, would you listen to people tell you how to do your job? It's the same with college coaching when evaluating these kids. It's a tough deal. If you don't text the kids now, they might not fool with you. I was recruiting Ryan Hill last year and I'd text him quite a bit. I'm doing it with EJ (Edgerrin James) now. He never really answers or returns calls during the season but he'll text you in a minute. Sometime text was better than talking on the phone. Now, your can text a kid without it counting as a call. That's the problem for high school coaches. They're trying to win games with all these guys pestering their kids. I talked to (Chaminade head coach) Mark Guandolo about it. He likes to control some of that stuff with his kids and I think that really helps."

MB: How tough was it walking into a kid's home after, for example, the 97 season when the team went 5-6 and was in the middle of a probation era when Florida State and Florida were playing for national championships?

DS: "I'm very straight forward with guys. I'm not a used car salesman. I was straight up with them. Always was. I tell them you're here for two things – one is education and one is to play football. That's why you'll be here. I made my own son go back and get an education. He quit school, was struggling with it. I sold them on that aspect. If you wanna find out how good you are, come to Miami. You'll be in a competitive situation. It's not for everyone. If you want that, you've come to the right place. This is and always has been a super competitive place. Every day the practices are gonna be harder than your games. That's what I told Ryan Moore when I was recruiting him. I told him if he wants to find out good he is, then come to Miami and you'll find out real quickly. You've gotta have the work ethic, the right character, (and) everything else. Nothing's guaranteed. The only thing we can guarantee is an opportunity. Even in the probation years, I believed we were just a couple years away. Everyone said we were in a downward spiral. I told them we were still pretty damn good. Last year we lost to LSU, that was a disappointment the way the season ended but we played well at times. Only three teams had eight-game winning streaks in major college football last year – only USC, Texas, and us and two of those played for the national title. I thought the LSU game was fluky."

MB: How much of that momentum do you think carried into this season?

DS: "I'm not exactly doing flips about being let go and I don't know if they brought in the right guys. I don't know them. I've run into a couple guys. It's hard to nurture new kids as new coaches. We would have been a year better. Now those kids, they're getting used to a new staff. I think you'll see them get better as the year goes on."

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