Howard Schnellenberger was able to quickly build a football powerhouse in Maimi by realizing the obvious. There was an incredible wealth of talent right in the University's backyard being cherry picked by the other well-established State schools and by other major national programs. Howard and his staff made it priority #1 to keep the local talent in South Florida, and this was achieved immediately. He was also able to reach out to the Northeast, Midwest, and far West to pluck a small but significant number of talented players to Coral Gables by selling attributes of the city itself. The promise of 80 degree winters, a campus lined with palm trees, and bikini-clad women roaming Miami Beach gave the idea of playing in Miami more appeal than the program's modest football tradition itself.
After coach Scnhellenberger's crowning achievement in the 1983 Orange Bowl and subsequent bolt to the ill-fated USFL, critics and skeptics of the program heralded the arrival of relative unknown Jimmy Johnson as the quick end of Miami's rise to prominence, and relegated the Hurricanes back to mediocrity and obscurity. (This of course, would be a recurring theme trumpeted by the sports media, and ultimately would prove to be a galvanizing force in the continued success of Miami football) Much to the chagrin and surprise of the football world however, Miami football did not shrink back to obscurity.
Instead, Jimmy amassed a surreal amount of talent in Coral Gables, in fact transforming the game by brining the element of superior speed to positions where it was not thought to be a necessity, like defensive end, linebacker, and offensive guards. Among other things, Jimmy's lightning quick and aggressive defenses effectively killed the wishbone offense for major college football programs. (Another aspect of Miami football that upset the old-guard football establishment. Beano Cook will never forgive us) In short, in addition to an undefeated 1987 National Championship team, Jimmy had the Canes within one bad throw (1986 Fiesta Bowl) and one horrendous and stupefying referee's call (1988 at South Bend) from doing the absolutely unthinkable: winning 3 consecutive National Championships.
Regardless of the relative disappointments of two near-misses, Jimmy took his show on the road to Dallas and the NFL where, with the foresight to bring in some of his former Hurricane standouts, (and a little help from the Minnesota Vikings' front office) he quickly transformed the lowly Cowboys into the pre-eminent NFL powerhouse of the early 1990s. To replace Jimmy, UM looked further west, all the way to Washington State in fact, and nabbed a coach with a flare for a wide-open high-scoring offense and a fiery disposition.
Dennis Erickson came in like an F5 tornado: Brash, unapologetic, wearing all emotions on his sleeve, and unsatisfied with anything less than total and complete football dominance. To that end, he was overwhelmingly successful, winning a National Championship his first season as coach in 1989, and yet another in 1991. However with the success came a train wreck of off-field problems and astonishing lack of on-field discipline that helped to further cement Miami's reputation as a "renegade" program and the bane of the college football establishment, a title which they still have not been able to shake, even to this day.
Much in the whirlwind fashion he arrived, in Erickson's wake, when he too bolted for greener pro football pastures, he left a mess the scope of which most fans don't even comprehend. The NCAA nailed the Canes on the scandal with the most distinct paper trail, fudged Pell Grant applications that awarded certain players extra federal money for which they were not entitled. That, and the subsequent lack of "self-policing" deemed to be found by the NCAA, levied probation and a massive loss of scholarships. However, there are many who realize that was perhaps the tip of the iceberg in terms of the misgiving and out-of-control nature of the program under Dennis Erickson's reign.
In essence, Erickson's policy was to recruit and get and keep the best players on the field, period. Therefore, character issues, grade issues, and positive drug tests be damned, Dennis Erickson would cover up what he had to cover up, when he could. The University realized they needed a man for the job who could not only put a new, fresh face and clean up the program, but they also needed a figure who was qualified, came from a winning tradition, and could recruit the type of talent and character to turn the program around.
Enter Butch Davis.
After finding tremendous success following Jimmy to the NFL roaming the Cowboys' sideline as defensive coordinator, Butch came in full of enthusiasm, big talk, and a swagger that bred confidence, but also rubbed some people the wrong way. The task at hand was more daunting than perhaps he, or anyone could have imagined. Dennis Erickson, despite an eye for certain skill-position talent, left the team with a slew of fat, slow, unmotivated offensive linemen, termed once by Art Kehoe as the "dirty dozen." The talent level was also lacking at WR and DB, and this was all before the scholarship hit came in to play.
Davis, already facing an impatient and unrealistic fan base, also faced the multi-pronged task of cleaning up Erickson's mess, restocking the talent pool with the number of scholarships cut in half, and trying to compensate immediately for a present lack of talent at key positions. To make matters worse, racial controversies over the QB position and a front-page article in Sports Illustrated calling for the termination of the football program further inflamed the anti-Miami national rhetoric. After winning, but underwhelming 1995 and 1996 seasons, the Canes hit rock bottom in 1997, enduring their first losing season in nearly 20 years. And the vultures swirled. Fans called for Davis's head. The national media gleefully trumpeted the "end" of Miami Hurricanes football as a national power, some even predicting the Canes would go on to become the 4th best team in the state of Florida.
However, a talented and unheralded group of true freshman including Reggie Wayne, Bubba Franks, Dan Morgan, Ed Reed, and Santana Moss showed signs that the Canes would quickly be back on track, and they were. 1998 was a bounce-back year. Some key wins and disappointing but competitive losses seemed to signal a turnaround, until a humiliating loss at the hands of Donavan McNabb and Syracuse, that once again seemed to confirm that the Canes had perhaps permanently fallen from the ranks of the college football elite. However, only one week later, on a magical rainy afternoon at a 2/3 full Orange Bowl, the Canes pulled off one of the most exciting and surprising wins since their first National Championship in 1983.
With only the hardcore Cane faithful in attendance, a hopeful but wary crowd watched perhaps the biggest upset in Canes history, as the Canes knocked off Cade McNown and #1 ranked UCLA in a near-100 point shootout, behind Edgerrin James, who cemented himself among all-time Cane greats with a 300 yard rushing performance.
1999 was a similar year, albeit disappointing on some levels, as the Canes didn't seem to take a major step forward from the previous season. However a new leader would emerge in the form of a tall, skinny kid from California who brought back memories of former Cane QBs that led Miami to greatness. Ken Dorsey got his break when former super-recruit Kenny Kelly was injured midway through the season. It became clear immediately that the Canes had found their man at QB, even to Kelly, who realized his best bet would be to pursue a career in pro baseball rather than back up Dorsey for the next 3 years.
Finally, the true turning point arrived in 2000, when after 5 years of futility, the Canes knocked off FSU at a sweltering Orange Bowl in a thrilling come-from-behind win behind the efforts of Ken Dorsey and a then unknown Juco TE transfer by the name of Jeremy Shockey. The message was clear. The Canes were back. And with talent abounding in the freshman and sophomore ranks, they weren't going anywhere anytime soon. Unfortunately, thanks to a disappointing early-season loss at Washington and some strange BCS computer hijinx, the Canes were left out of a chance at the National Championship, the Washington loss their lone blemish of the 2000 season. With a decisive win over hated rival Florida in the Sugar Bowl (and legend having it that Canes were also victorious in the infamous "Bourbon Street brawl"), Butch Davis had completed a journey, that only a few short years prior seemed an impossible task.
Some fans still criticize Davis for his game day coaching attributes, his occasional ornery style, and his penchant for making excuses and glossing over the shortcomings of himself and his football team. However, no one can criticize his ability to recruit. He was able to re-establish Miami as destination #1 for local talent, was able to lure top national recruits despite glaring problems with the program, and showed a keen eye for talent that by most accounts went "under the radar" as far as scouting reports were concerned. However, the ire of fans toward Davis stems from one simple act. The time and the manner in which he left town.
Like Schnellenberger, Johnson, and Erickson before him, the lure of big money and the prestige of pro football were too much to resist, as Davis bolted to take over as coach as the lowly Cleveland Browns. The fact that Davis left wasn't so much the issue. It was how he left. There were many who felt Davis had the makings of a "lifer." A coach who would grow old on the Orange Bowl sidelines, leading the Canes year after year to the top of the college football hierarchy. Moreover, in the days and weeks prior to his announcement, he gave every indication that he was indeed returning to Coral Gables.
Although it can certainly be argued that the manner in which Davis flew the coop was disingenuous, what he was able to accomplish and salvage for Miami football is incredible and undeniable. He took over a football program rocked by scandal, a roster riddled with players of questionable character, and a talent pool severely lacking at key positions. Moreover he had to endure the punishment of his predecessor's indiscretions by a crippling loss of scholarships, faced a national media hungry to disparage and even bury the football program, and a local fan base who demanded winning here and now, despite the mess left for him to try to clean up and the rebuilding process that was clearly hard to fathom at the time. In 5 short years, he not only accomplished everything he set out to do, but he left the program at the very top of the football world in terms of talent, buzz, and despite claims to the opposite, a roster of student athletes that boasted graduation rates among the highest and off-field incidents among the absolute lowest in all of college football.
It can be argued, that Miami Hurricanes football was at its apex entering the 2001 season. Paul Dee now faced an interesting dilemma. Many of the star players, shocked and dismayed by Davis's sudden announcement, threatened to leave early for the draft or even transfer. Another priority for Dee was to try to keep as much continuity as possible in the foundation laid by Davis over the past 5 years. Stepping forward to nominate himself for the job came Davis's offensive coordinator for the last 5 years, Larry Coker. Buoyed by the support of the players, many of whom came in to see Dee individually to lobby for him to get the job, Dee decided that in order to maintain the continuity he valued above all, that Coker, well liked for his laid-back demeanor and casual style, was the right man at the right time.
Joining Coker to round out the staff came former Cane greats Randy Shannon, Rob Chudzinski, and Greg Mark. Coker's job in 2001 was simple. Don't get in the way. Don't screw it up. Let the team's natural leaders like Ed Reed, Ken Dorsey, and Jon Vilma lead by example and with their words. It worked. Other than one close call at BC, the Canes coasted, throttling foes big and small alike. With talent superior to any and all college teams, (and some would argue even some pro franchises) the Canes rolled over the grossly overmatched Nebraska Cornhuskers (another BCS oddity) in the Rose Bowl to officially claim the pinnacle of college football once again, with Coker accomplishing the rare feat of winning a national title in his first year as a head coach. Butch paved the way. Coker did the honors.
With returning talent abounding, and the media incredulously having to admit there was little to dislike about this present bunch of Cane juggernauts, Miami was firmly perched atop the college football world, and another national title in 2002 seemed possible, if not likely. Like the season before, the Canes rolled through their schedule once again, amassing points in record numbers, and making pro scouts drool and shake their heads in wonder at the amazing talent on display week-in, week-out wearing orange and green. A close call against the Noles notwithstanding, the Canes seemed ready to achieve the ultra-rare accomplishment of back-to-back undefeated National Championships, facing a feisty but seemingly overmatched Ohio State team, who had clawed their way to the championship game by pulling out desperate cliffhanger wins seemingly every week against suspect competition.
However, while the Buckeyes seemed focused, inspired, and determined, the Canes seemed to stumble out of the gates too relaxed, somewhat lacking in intensity, and out-of synch for a good period of the game. This, unfortunately, would be a harbinger of things to come in the Larry Coker era. Despite trailing for most of the 2d half, the Canes, behind heroic efforts of a select few like Roscoe Parrish, Sean Taylor, and Kellen Winslow, managed to tie the game and force overtime, where an infamous late flag halted a celebration already in progress, the details of which need not be recounted here.
While the flag and the way the Canes seemed to have all the breaks in that game go against their favor seemed to insulate Larry Coker from direct blame for the Canes for falling to what many felt was an inferior opponent, cracks in the façade were emerging.
In 2003, the offense fans had been so used to seeing control games and putting up big points started going through horrific dry spells, seeming out of synch and at times inept. An awesome defense helped carry the Canes to a 2-loss season and a BCS bowl, where fans were treated to the unlikely pleasure of beating the Noles twice in one year. With the Canes roster ravaged by the NFL draft and early departures, and Ken Dorsey having been replaced with the erratic Brock Berlin, Coker once again was insulated from most direct blame, although some disturbing trends were emerging. Offensive confusion, massive penalty yardage, and bouts of listless play on both sides of the ball were becoming more and more prevalent.
In 2004, after a thrilling opening-night win against FSU, the Canes took a major downturn, suffering back-to-back losses to teams with decidedly inferior talent in North Carolina and Clemson. After a listless loss to Virginia Tech, the Canes bounced back with a win over Florida in the Peach Bowl. While the anti-Coker sentiment was rising, wins over both in-state rivals again seemed to keep Coker's job very safe for the time being. However the troubling trends that began to emerge as early as the 2002 season were becoming more and more pronounced. Recruiting at the WR and QB positions was begging to suffer as an offense becoming more and more anemic was making it difficult to lure top talent to Coral Gables. An undeniable growing discontent with the state of the program was burgeoning. However Coker and his staff, when pressed, simply stated their record and accomplishments over the last 3 seasons.
This assertion, on its surface, was hard to argue with. The argument was enough to convince Paul Dee and Donna Shalala to sign coach Coker to a lucrative extension. This decision met with a lot of mixed reactions, many concerned, as it turned out, for good reason. 2005 brought a brief moment of hope and possibility after a startling and dominating win against an over-hyped Virginia Tech team in Blacksburg. It seemed the Canes might actually be in the National title hunt once again. The fun was short-lived however, as the Canes fell short in a dismal effort at home against a mediocre Georgia Tech team, and then was totally exposed and embarrassed at the hands of LSU in the Peach Bowl. To make matters worse, an after-game brawl fueled speculation that Larry Coker had not only lost control of his team on the field, but off it as well.
Coker was now officially on the hot seat. His response? Gut the staff. Make them the fall guys for the late-season collapse. The moves had Dee's blessing, and although skeptical, fans generally adopted a wait-and-see approach, as it seemed the staff cut loose might not have been pulling their weight as far as recruiting was concerned. Larry had one more shot to prove he was the right man for the job, that he could get the Canes back on a champion-ship level footing.
But with a new staff in place and no one left to blame, the 2006 season became one of the most disastrous on record. Horrific recruiting efforts at wide receiver left the team considering lining up their punter at the position, which nearly became a necessity. A variety of injuries and off-field issues exposed the severe lack of depth, leaving true freshmen, converted defensive backs, and players with unaddressed attitude problems to grossly under-perform at the position. Weak depth at the running back position also necessitated the need to rely heavily on a true freshman. In the secondary, freshmen and inexperienced players also riddled the field. Unlike Butch Davis before him, Larry Coker could not point to probation, a loss of scholarships, or someone else's mess he had to clean up, other than perhaps his own. But player depth problems and inexperience weren't the worst of it.
In the off-season Coker had brought in his old pal Todd Berry from his coaching days at Tulsa, to be the offensive coordinator. Inexplicably, Coker thought the shotgun-spread option offense that Berry employed while head coach at Army was the answer to the Canes offensive woes. While Coker got his way and brought Berry on board, others stepped in and demanded that a coordinator with a better pedigree be brought in. So Rich Olson was hired away from the 49ers. However, Coker still wanted Berry to have control over the offense, and also at times intervened to take control of offensive game planning himself. So what emerged was an absolute mess in terms of who was in charge of the offense, what the philosophy was, and how to implement it. Players and coaches alike had virtually no idea who was calling the shots, and had little faith and likely even less understanding of what the offensive game plan would be from week to week.
The entire offense was in a state of complete havoc, and it showed on the field. Penalties, mostly of the stupid and ill-timed variety, continued to plague the Canes as they had for the past 5 seasons. Accountability for mistakes, poor play, poor attitude, or selfish actions was sporadic and inconsistent at best. It seemed at many times the football team was essentially a rudderless ship. The culmination may have been an ugly on-field brawl against FIU. Although the coverage and subsequent commentary by the media was unfairly slanted, clearly this is to be expected as fair or not, Miami Football is and will always be held to a higher standard. The incident was another clear example that Larry Coker simply had little to no control over his football team in any way, shape, or form.
Not surprisingly, after the Canes just barely avoided utter humiliation at the hands of Nevada in an insignificant bowl game, Larry Coker was given his walking papers.
How did this man run the program into the ground in so little time? How could a coach with so much capital, so much momentum, bring it all crashing down so quickly? Quite simply, Larry Coker was way in over his head from day 1, and a victim of his own early success. He was allowed to remain in a position of power and able to do so much damage because those who should have known better relied only on logic in the most plain mathematical sense, and completely ignored reason. Larry was able to state his case until the bitter end (and is doing so even now), by stating the obvious. That he won a national championship, and was a dubious flag away from winning another.
He trumpets his overall record, and relates that to the rest of the football world at large, accurately stating that firing a coach with that sort of record for success is unheard of. Of course, he's right. However, the University of Miami is not the rest of the football world at large, and obvious trends cannot be ignored. His personal relationship with the powers that be at UM bought him more time than perhaps he deserved. He was able to charm his way into a lucrative contract extension, and still refuses to admit he had anything to do with the program's precipitous slide. Simply speaking, Larry Coker was brought in with priority one to keep the ship steady, which to his credit, he was able to do for a short time. However it was hoped he could do much more than that.
A great or even good head coach has the ability to shift his thinking when necessary, to change his philosophy or style when circumstances dictate, to show a dynamic ability to even step out of their persona from time to time. Larry Coker was either unwilling or unable to do any of these things. Coker got caught up in a mode of thinking not unlike his very arguments for wanting to keep his job. He had success in the past. His blueprint for success in 2001 and 2002 was to more or less stay out of the way. Let the team leaders lead. When you had a Ken Dorsey, Ed Reed, Joaquin Gonzales, et al. that was easy. When those leaders graduated and a new generation was slow to emerge to take up that relative slack, a good coach would have recognized this and stepped in as a more forceful leader.
Coker failed to do this. He also failed to recruit the right types of players that could have possibly stepped into those leadership roles. This, combined with a penchant for extreme conservatism and game day disorganization, led to a cumulative degradation of Miami football both on and off the field. In short, Larry Coker was axed a year or 2 too late, but hopefully just in time.
The search for a new coach in many ways was even more important than the Butch Davis hire. Larry Coker had so depleted the talent pool and so disenchanted the fan base that, with a possible move to a new stadium and the need for new facilities looming, Dee and Shalala understood that a severe change in direction was needed, and fast. Although the search was heralded as a thorough, nation-wide event, the man for the job was right on campus, and many believe they knew that all along. That man was Randy Shannon.
Randy Shannon is one of the more unique coaches in terms of background in all of college football and may turn out to be one of the most inspiring stories. Despite the obvious risk of hiring yet another coach with no head coaching experience, Randy Shannon brings some unique attributes to the job, and some of them already seem to have the program quickly heading in the right direction. Randy is the first Miami head coach who is actually from Miami, and his story in many ways embodies the best and worst of being a South Florida native. From the mean streets of Liberty City, Shannon endured family strife and tragedy most people could not comprehend, let alone imagine living through.
Despite unspeakable tragedy, poverty, and the temptations of street life, Shannon became a star football player at Norland High, earned a scholarship to UM, became a star linebacker under the tutelage of Jimmy Johnson. He then earned his degree, and had a brief stint with Jimmy for the Dallas Cowboys. After his short pro career he immediately came home and became a graduate assistant for the Hurricanes. After a brief but successful stint as the linebackers coach for the Miami Dolphins, Shannon returned in 2001 as defensive coordinator (a move everyone can at least agree was one smart one by Coker), and quickly cemented himself as one of the brightest young minds in the game. Rumors swirled year-in, year-out that Randy was the lead candidate for open jobs all over the country, but his heart was always in Miami, and his patience has now been rewarded with his dream job. However, with the job he's always coveted come challenges and demands that might overwhelm a lesser man.
First off, he has to contend with a fan base that is quite frankly, sick of losing. And not just losing, but losing to inferior teams, losing at home, losing in humiliating fashion. Even many of the wins over the past few seasons have left fans grumbling and ornery with the sloppy and uneven effort that the Canes have displayed on many Saturdays. In short, Cane fans want a major change in the on-field product, and they want it now. And while there will always be that segment of the fan base that unrealistically expects and demands nothing less than undefeated seasons and national championships every year, most Cane fans would be satisfied with obvious, palpable improvements, even at the expense of a few losses.
But that honeymoon will be short lived as well. If within 2 or 3 season the Canes are not back among the national elite, Randy Shannon may very well have banners on game day flying overhead calling for his firing. Randy of course understands this, and welcomes the challenge. Whether Randy Shannon will ultimately be successful as Miami's head coach will obviously take several years to determine. However if his early efforts to change key aspects of the program are any indication, there is much for Cane fans to be excited and hopeful about.
His first goal: re-introduce accountability and discipline to a team that has been sorely lacking both. Over the past few seasons, the players have certainly talked a good game about "teamwork" and "selflessness." However their on and off-field actions have dictated otherwise. So far, the players seem to be buying in to Randy's demand for absolute discipline on the practice field, in the classroom, the weight room, even at the dinner table. Offensive lineman, who over the past several years have been habitually fat and out of shape, have been dropping weight at an impressive clip. Players have spoken of the need to stay off the infamous "list." Which according to several players, means a bout of extreme conditioning, at any time of day or night, or an automatic drop on the depth chart, for even the most minor of disciplinary infractions. These 2 examples, while early on in the Shannon regime, are already in stark contrast to the way things ran under Larry Coker.
Randy has made a commitment not just to molding young men into football players, but into stand-up citizens. While many coaches have fed this line to parents and the press, it's not hard to see that Randy means it. In fact to him it's a larger priority than wins and losses. And of course, in the bigger picture, these things may indeed go hand in hand. Among the new edicts, Randy has insisted on a strict code of conduct for his players, including a focus on respect for women, which has been a subject sorely lacking throughout the college and pro sports world.
Shannon's second initiative, which already appears to be paying impressive dividends, is getting back to locking down the best local South FL high school talent and making sure they suit up for the Hurricanes. On the heels of Coker's exit and Shannon's entrance, Shannon was able to secure an impressive recruiting class, rife with talented players at skill positions that were sorely lacking in the last few classes. And already for this coming February's class, Shannon has received oral commitments from most of the top local prospects, practically putting a fence around South Florida football powerhouses like Northwestern and Booker T Washington High Schools. It has been predicted that with Randy's background and subsequent relationship with local coaches and families, that he would have tremendous recruiting success in South Florida. So far, those predictions have been even more accurate than could have been expected.
More than his knack for tough discipline and penchant for recruiting, Randy Shannon comes from a pedigree of overcoming obstacles, and winning on the highest levels. He was there during the formative years of Hurricane Football, was indeed no small part of it. Playing under Jimmy Johnson, Randy Shannon was introduced and indoctrinated first hand to the ideas of teamwork and personal accountability and the idea of the team becoming a family, all hallmarks of Miami football. These attributes have made the program unique as a haven where former players come back to visit and work out, despite less-than-stellar facilities, and often drawing the ire of their respective NFL coaches for spurning their team-sponsored sessions.
What once was an undersized, unheralded kid from the mean streets who saw family members die and go to prison, grew into a successful man who is unafraid of the challenges that lie ahead, and has proven throughout his life that he is a survivor, a man who has never encountered an obstacle he couldn't overcome. And in the grand scheme of things, Randy Shannon is a winner, plain and simple, even if he never lives up to expectations as head coach of the Hurricanes. But given his track record thus far, it's hard to imagine Randy failing at anything. Let the next era begin.
Travis Rosen is a contributing editorial writer for CanesTime.com.