His team has been to the postseason four of the five years he's been here, second only in the ACC to North Carolina, Duke and Maryland which have been there all five. He's made the University of Miami a major player for some of the nation's top recruits -- from Devin Ebanks a year ago to the country's No. 1 recruit this season John Wall (who will be making an on-campus visit sometime after the McDonald's All-American Game). And he's elevated Miami's basketball program from the depths former coach Perry Clark left it at by making the Hurricanes a relevant player in the Atlantic Coast Conference.
So why does it feel like Frank Haith is getting the Rodney Dangerfield treatment instead of the love Norman Dale felt at the end of Hoosiers? Why are some crazy fans calling Haith a failure and calling for his head after he couldn't take Jack McClinton and a senior-laden team back to the NCAA Tournament? Because there are very few people in South Florida who appreciate and understand how tough it is to win in college basketball. Because at The U (forget that, every sport in Miami) everything is measured by championships and greatness.
Haith understands that. He's learned that in his five years on the job. But just because the 43-year old coach knows there's still work to be done to get the Canes where he wants them to be and to turn more fans onto college basketball in South Florida, he's not about to jump ship. Even though some internet message posters and people on this blog say UM needs a bigger name coach, Haith sees signs of progress, hope, believers in him and his program. Although he admits it hurt him to see only 2,000 people in attendance on Senior Day when Jack McClinton was honored earlier this month (that was before the game started and when the ceremony took place), Haith said he was touched last week when he received a standing ovation from fans when he walked out of AmericanAirlines Arena during the first and second rounds of the NCAA Tournament.
Friday morning when I caught up with Haith for about an hour interview over the phone, he sounded just as passionate about his aspirations for this program as the day when I first met him a little more than three years ago. But he also sounded like someone whose learned a lot and is willing to try new things to make basketball work at UM. He talked about why no one should believe he'd leave no matter if the job pays more or has better tradition or support from its fan base. He made a passioned plea about how fans shouldn't see his team's 19-13 season and loss to Florida last week in the second round of the NIT as a step back. And he talked about the future, how he expects a Top 20 recruiting class (one that could strengthen even more) to take his program to the next level, and how the 2009-10 season should not be seen as a rebuilding year. Here are some of the highlights of our conversation...
MN: At the beginning of this season you guys were ranked in the Top 25, picked to finish fourth in the ACC and you fell short of that. But I get the sense you don't see it as huge of a disappointment as others. How would you sum up the season?
FH: "I think it was disappointing what happened to us, but it was not a disappointing season. Other people may look at it differently. But I think this team had a lot of bright moments, beating a Top 10 team like Wake Forest by 27 points at home. Jack [McClinton] makes All-ACC First Team for the second year in a row. Here's the thing, you can't just look at what we're doing here year-by-year. When you look at a five year period, we've won more games than anybody in the history of the program, more postseason games than anybody in the history of the program. There are a lot of positives you can draw. I think we've made basketball pretty relevant. It's not because we're winning, but because attendance is getting better. Our student section has gotten a lot better. We're getting involved with big time recruits. Every year, there are a lot of teams that would love to do what we've done. that. I think other than UNC, Duke, Maryland we've been to the postseason more than anybody. I'm really proud of that. That's a nice thing this program can hang their hat on as far progress."
MN: But is that going to be enough for you to want to stay here? There have been rumors out there linking you to other jobs like Alabama, Georgia, Arizona. Here's a two-part question: Have you been contacted by anybody? And ultimately, what would it take for you to leave Miami?
FH: "For the record, I have not been contacted by anybody. Not this year. I have been in the past and I've told you about that. But right now, it's only rumors and speculation. Here's the thing, I don't work everyday looking for my next job. I'm really seriously looking to stay here for the long haul. I love living here. But I do want to win."
MN: So does it bother you when fans say things like 'He should be fired'? Do you take it to heart?
FH: "I know our fan base is kind of disgruntled about this season. It is a little mind boggling. We've improved. I know what the program was like when I got here. Like I said, we've made UM basketball relevant. But in terms of jobs, I don't look at certain jobs and say I want that one day. I just really want to win. And I want to win big here. Obviously, every coach will say that. But I really want to win big. I want to do to help that program win big. I don't know. Are there things we can get better at? Yes. Do we still have areas we need to improve on? Yes. Our fan base is getting better. Our student turnout has improved tremendously. The energy in the building has gotten better. We just need it more consistently. To win big, we need a home court advantage."
MN: Do you feel like you can have that here? Do you feel like the support you have or could have will be enough to make you feel comfortable, to make you feel like you can win big here?
FH: "As long as I can feel like... [pause] Here's the thing, [athletic director] Kirby [Hocutt] and the president [Donna Shalala] have been great. As a coach, you are always skeptical when the guy that hired you is no longer here. But Kirby and I have a really good relationship. It's made me even more comfortable being here. And I have the best president in the world, who is so, so supportive. You don't know how many times I've gotten pick me up texts or emails from her. It honestly makes it difficult to look elsewhere. I'm very loyal and appreciative of people giving me opportunities. That's just who I am and I want to be here as long as Miami people want me to be here. And I hope that's for a long of time."
MN: So is there something that could drive you away?
FH: "If I don't feel there's appreciation and support. Not just from the fans, but from the athletic department. But that's not what I feel. I feel like people want to see us succeed. It definitely made me feel good last week when I was leaving the Cleveland State-Syracuse game and fans got up and gave me a standing ovation. Like I said before, I'm real proud of the support we've come to earn from the students, too."
MN: Let's get back to basketball. Not to put the blame on anybody, but were there guys you were counting on this past season that just didn't come through for you that ultimately led to the 19-13 finish and the second round loss in the NIT?
FH: "I don't point to guys, I point to situations. Who would have known Lance Hurdle was going to be hurt at the beginning of the year and miss, four or five games. Who would have known the situation with Eddie Rios would play out the way it did? It definitely hurt us not having that third ball-handler, having to put Jack at the point. Who would have known Dwayne [Collins] would turn his ankle down toward a crucial part of our schedule? Who would have known Jack would have an injury at the worst time of the year. You talk personnel, but we were one win away from getting back to the NCAA Tournament. We lost four games on final possessions. I don't know if we can point to one guy or one situation. The one thing I can point to as a whole was free throw shooting. That won us a lot of close games last year. And we really didn't shoot free throws well all year. That made a difference."
MN: Let's look ahead to next year. In the five years you've been here, you've had that go-to guy for big shots. Guillermo Diaz and Rob Hite and then Jack McClinton. Are you guys going to have that guy next year? Can you survive without one?
FH: "I think if you go back to when Rob was a senior and Guillermo decided to go pro, you asked me the same question then. Nobody then knew about Jack McClinton. Yet, he turned out to be that guy. I think the same thing could happen with this team. And if it doesn't, tha's still OK, too. This team may not have a 20 point scorer when those guys leave. But I think we're going to have a number of guys that can score for us. I think our offense will be spread around. We're going to be young, but athletic and we're still going to have a few seniors, too. I think James Dews, Dwayne Collins, Malcolm Grant, Dequan Jones, Durand Scott, all those guys could score. Maybe that will be good for this team, more guys that can score. I would think Dwayne could be that go-to scorer in the post."
MN: Speaking about Dwayne, there were moments this year -- I think back to that dunk over UConn's Hasheem Thabeet -- when he lookied so promising, so dominant. And then, there were moments when he could not score, couldn't do much at all. Do you worry at all he's just not ever going to be that consistent guy?
FH: "I think with Dwayne it's his motor. He's a really good player, who can defend. But he's got to get that consistent motor. When he does, he can be one of the best big men in the country. When he realizes that potential. We're going to hammer it home this summer. He's going to be one of the best big men not only in the ACC, but the country. He has to be a tremendous spark all the time. You're right. At the beginning of the year, he played with tremendous energy and had moments where he was not as good. But I think he played really hard. He just didn't have a lot of breaks. I think that's what he boils down to. He has to realize great players can't turn it on and off."
MN: Without Jack and the offense you guys ran for him and with a lot these new additions, one has to believe you guys are going to look a lot different on both sides of the ball this coming season. Can we expect a different attack?
FH: No question. I think athletically, we'll be our most athletic team ever next year. With Dequan being able to play more of his style next year, I expect him to be a totally different player. I think the one thing we will be able to do, which we really haven't is extend the floor more. We didn't have a lot of depth. I'm not saying we're going to be a full court press team. But we'll spread the team more with our length and have our hands in guys' faces more because we're bigger and more athletic.
MN: What is Malcolm Grant going to be able to give you guys that maybe you didn't have this season?
FH: "He's going to give us a true point guard that can score. The type of player he is, he'll do things help guys become really good. He's going to make guys around him better. He'll get them shots. I think Malcolm can do that. He's also really skilled. He can shoot the basketball. He's not your typical New York guard. He's also got a great feel for the game. Him and Durand [Scott] both are guys who can drive the ball. That's one thing we weren't very good at. We're not going to be as good a three-point shooting team. But we'll be able to run. When Jack played the one this year, we could not run. We were a little bit better when Lance [Hurdle] had the ball. But there's no question he was not the same Lance he was two years ago. I think next year's team will have more athletes, Dequan, Garrius [Adams], Durand and even with Dews coming back. Plus, a couple other guys we'll add on our team. I think this will be a team that can run. Don't get me wrong, we'll still have a bruising effect. Julian [Gamble], Cyrus [McGowan], Dwayne, there will be big bodies. Plus, a guy like Adrian Thomas, who had a nice run, will add his abilities. I think we got a lot of guys who will contribute."
MN: It sounds like you feel pretty confident about next year's team. Most people probably think you won't be very good without Jack, that this might be a rebuilding year. But it sounds like you feel differently...
FH: "I think we're still going to be good. Yes, it's going to be an extremely young team with only two, three seniors. But I don't ever want our team not to focus on postseason. Our goal is to make postseason. Obviously we'll be young and most people probably won't expect us to be competitive. But maybe that will be great for us. We won't be on anybody's radar and that will be good for us. What I want is for this team to be tough. I don't know if we were as tough this year as we were last year. I think we'll be a tougher team. That's the thing that hurt us this year. We could not do all the things we needed to do all the time because we had knicks and pains we didn't want to turn into something else. We need to be bruisers and have a tough man mentality. If we do, I think we'll definitely be back in the hunt."
MN: Beyond Malcolm Grant, it seems like right now you don't have another primary ballhandler lined up for next year with Eddie Rios gone. Is this something you'll address through recruiting? FH: "[Recruiting is] one way. But to be honest with you I think we have a few other guys who could handle the rock. Durand is a guy who can play all over the floor. At 6-6, he's a lot like [ACC Rookie of The Year] Sylvan Landesberg. I'm not saying he's him. But Durand can play the 1, 2, or 3. We also have another young man I can't talk about [Antoine Allen] who will be coming and we could sign another perimeter player [possibly John Wall]. We definitely don't want to go into next year without enough ballhandling. You got to have enough ballhandlers to be successful. That being said, we did win 19 games with only two ball handlers."
MN: Last question: Anything you can tell us about next year's schedule?
FH: "Here's what I know for sure. We're playing in Charleston in a preseason tournament ESPN is putting together. I hear South Carolina and Penn State are going to be there, too. We're going to play FAU again and we're going to have a Big Ten Challenge game at home because we'll play an ACC game at home in December. The Big Ten game might be against Indiana. We're still looking for a home and home series. Our schedule just won't be as heavy as it was last year. We'll still have some very good matchups. Right now, because Rick [Pitino] and I are good friends, there is talk of us maybe playing at Louisville. But that's kind of still in the air."