FRIDAY BUZZ COLUMN
Randy Shannon was back on his home turf now, just three miles from the University of Miami campus where he became the first member of his family to earn a college degree, helped the Hurricanes win three national championships (two as an assistant coach, one as a player) and made history as UM’s first African-American head football coach.
But as Shannon stood behind a podium addressing about 30 University of Florida football fans inside a Coral Gables museum on Tuesday night, there was something jarring about the visual:
Shannon was dressed in a bright orange shirt sporting the Gator logo, talking about how the Gators “are my family” now, and punctuating his closing remarks with the traditional Gator chomp, the one that can irritate any warm-blooded Hurricanes fan.
So isn’t this all a bit strange, working now for Miami’s arch rival as the Gators’ associate head coach, co-defensive coordinator and linebackers coach?
“Being back in Coral Gables is kind of ironic, being a graduate of the University of Miami,” he conceded before addressing the fans. “But I work for the University of Florida, which is a great institution, a great place.”
Four and a half years after UM dismissed him with a 28-22 record --- which happens to be Al Golden’s record at Miami --- Shannon seems like a man very much at peace.
“I’m happy; I’ve enjoyed it a lot,” he said. “Being back in the state of Florida has been unique. The embracement of all the coaches in South Florida has been unbelievable. [New Gators coach Jim McElwain] has been unbelievable…. I love [Gainesville]. It’s a college town. No traffic.”
Bouncing back from his firing at UM was, of course, not nearly as difficult as what Shannon overcame as a child growing up in Liberty City.
At 3, his father was murdered. His older twin brothers became addicted to crack cocaine when Shannon was 10 and died of AIDS, as he did his sister.
But Shannon was a survivor, always has been. He was an all-state football player at Miami Norland, started at linebacker for UM’s 1987 national championship team, played 17 games over two seasons for the Dallas Cowboys, and distinguished himself for his defensive acumen as an assistant coach for the Dolphins and Hurricanes before being promoted to replace Larry Coker as UM’s head coach in December 2006.
His players graduated and were law-abiding, but he didn’t win enough games to the administration’s liking. After UM fired him, he spent some time at ESPN, one season as Texas Christian’s linebacker coach and two years as Arkansas’ linebacker coach.
Not long after his firing, Alabama coach Nick Saban invited Shannon to visit. There, he met McElwain, Saban’s offensive coordinator at the time.
“Said maybe three or four words to Jim,” Shannon said.
Years later, when McElwain was hired away from Colorado State last December to replace Gators coach Will Muschamp, Shannon got a call.
“He said, ‘It’s Jim,’” Shannon said. “I said, ‘Jim who?”
McElwain broached the idea of Shannon joining his staff, then called him again after Arkansas’ bowl game and said, “I’m serious. Would you like to be a part of Florida?”
Shannon was intrigued. Even in all his years as a Hurricane, there was a respect for the Gators program.
“It’s the brand that makes Florida special,” Shannon told the audience. “The Florida brand is bigger than the University of Miami brand. I’m being honest with you.”
A fan asks him, essentially, how he can reconcile being a Miamian working for the Gators.
“I’m invested in Miami because I’m from Miami,” he said. “But I’m invested in Florida. That’s my family.”
Still, old habits are tough to break. At the museum on Tuesday, he began to answer a question by saying, “Our biggest emphasis at the University of Miami,” eliciting chuckles from the crowd, before catching himself.
Shannon’s skills as a savvy defensive technician (he’ll share coordinator duties with well-regarded former Mississippi State coordinator Geoff Collins) complement McElwain’s talents as an offensive mastermind, and Shannon very much has McElwain’s ear.
One of the first things Shannon told McElwain is that he needs more coaches to recruit South Florida. “I said, ‘I can’t do it by myself,” Shannon said.
McElwain agreed and assigned six coaches to Dade, Broward and Palm Beach recruiting. The move has paid dividends.
Four of the Gators’ nine oral commitments for 2016 are South Florida-based, including Vosean Joseph, a three-star linebacker from Miami Norland, Shannon’s alma mater.
“When I first arrived in January,” recruiting for the Gators in Miami “felt a little strange,” Shannon admitted.
When high school coaches see Shannon, they naturally tease him about being the Hurricane now working for the enemy.
“All the time, they joke,” he said. “When I first arrived at Florida, [UF athletic director] Jeremy Foley said, ‘That F must be blowing your chest up. How does it feel, that green turning into blue now?’ We joke about it all the time.”
He said his relationship with South Florida high school coaches “help out a lot. The South Florida area especially is one of the areas we need to get into. Florida was successful when they had a lot of guys from South Florida on the football team.”
Though the Gators, like Miami, have been in a down cycle (7-5 last season), Shannon sees many reasons for optimism.
He is “very excited” about the offensive creativity of McElwain, whose Colorado State teams averaged 36 points each of the past two seasons; says incoming running backs Jordan Scarlett and Jordan Cronkrite are “game changers with phenomenal speed” and vows “we are going to make people know the Gators are back. We are going to do a lot of great things.”
At 49, Shannon has no idea if he will ever get another head coaching job. But “I don’t think about it no more,” he said. “What I think about is the job I have at hand.”
Even if requires the longtime Hurricane to do the Gator chomp.
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