ON A SOUTHWEST AIRLINES FLIGHT HEADED HOME TO SOUTH FLORIDA -- After Notre Dame was done taking the Canes to school Friday afternoon at the Sun Bowl, I spent about 20 minutes behind the stadium watching UM close its chapter on the 2010 season.
One by one, as players and assistant coaches trickled out from the locker room, all I saw were somber, defeated and disappointed faces. This unceremonious finish wasn't the way guys like Damien Berry, Leonard Hankerson and Ryan Hill figured their careers would end after Randy Shannon took over four years ago.
Hankerson tried to hide his disappointment. But he couldn't. In the middle of talking about all the great times he had at UM with his "brothers" and his "family" he broke down, covering his face with a towel so we couldn't see him weep. Berry, who led the Hurricanes in rushing this season, started to tear up as he said good-bye to a few equipment workers and friends who came to watch him play. Hill, who along with the rest of UM's secondary had a rough afternoon trying to chase down Michael Floyd, didn't hide the chip on his shoulder. Now that he knew his ride in Coral Gables was over, he cut loose when I asked him if he thought the next coach could do what Shannon couldn't.
"I think [he'll turn it around], but it will definitely take some time. I don't know how much time," Hill said before unleashing a little displeasure. "But I think the first thing he has to do is weed out the guys who he doesn't think will be beneficial to the program. We have a lot of guys that have to do a lot of maturing, that act like little boys. There are points like this in November, late in the season that it hurts you. We have a lot of growing to do in this program."
I couldn't have said it better myself. What Hill said summed up exactly what we failed to see during Shannon's tenure -- real, sound, player development. For all the praise Shannon got for being a great recruiter (I'll touch on that later), disciplinarian and bringing the school's APR scores up, two things he failed miserably at were hiring the right personnel to make his football team better on the field, and being a well-liked, charismatic ambassador of the program. Like it or not, the last two are probably the most important when it comes to winning and being a successful coach -- with recruiting right in there as well.
If there we one constant under Shannon, really, it was coaching instability. In Shannon's four seasons, UM had two offensive coordinators, two recruiting coordinators, two running backs coaches, two receivers coaches, three defensive line coaches and three defensive coordinators. And then you wondered why guys never seemed to take a step forward. It's kind of hard for players to develop when they have start over with a guy who has new ideas constantly. It's even harder when many of those assistants weren't very good to begin with.
Shannon's personality -- as you well know -- wasn't sparkly either. For as much as his players may have loved him and still do, he never really won the fans or the media over, opting instead to be abrasive and at times combative when he really didn't need to be. Instead of letting people see the good side of his program that might bring people closer to liking it -- like the personality of his players (he shut down Twitter and cut off access to interviews), assistants and even how fired up he would get in the locker room (go back and watch those clips from Hurricane Gameday) -- he shut everybody out, closed the door for privacy. All we saw instead was that stern, disinterested look on the sideline from Shannon and a team that went 28-22 under his rule and did nothing but make people angry and frustrated on most Saturdays.
You want to talk about brand? That's not an image of a successful program, one you can sell to boosters, trustees and more importantly -- the people who buy tickets on Saturdays and the top high school recruits who might have been interested in coming to the program.
I said I was going to get into recruiting: Shannon was hardly great at that. To me, he did what was expected. He got many of the top players locally who wanted to come to UM and a few top-notch pieces from other places (Seantrel Henderson, Storm Johnson to name a few). But he still missed the boat on a lot of good players who wanted to come to Miami and didn't fill key needs (look at linebacker and cornerback). Coming out of high school, you didn't hear a lot about guys like Pittsburgh defensive end Jabaal Sheard (Hollywood Hills) and West Virginia safety Robert Sands (Carol City). But you will in April during the NFL Draft. Both were in his backyard for the taking and now both will go on the first day of the draft. There are plenty of other examples -- UCF quarterback Jeffrey Godfrey (Maimi Central) is a big one.
I got the sense toward the end of his tenure, Shannon and his staff got a little complacent when it came to recruiting -- thinking they could go in at the last minute and swoop up local guys they wanted. Sound familiar? Ask local coaches like Miami Central's Telly Lockette, who just led the Rockets to the Class 6A state title with a roster loaded with nearly two dozen D-I recruits, and he'll tell you the Hurricanes didn't begin recruiting a single one of his players until Shannon was fired. Southrdige coach Patrick Burrows, who has two legit defensive backs headed to BCS programs, said he sent his top two players down to UM in his truck nearly every day during spring practice when they were juniors.
"They just kept coming back telling me 'Coach, they're just not interested in us,'" Burrows said two weeks ago.
The point here isn't to bash Shannon as his era comes to an end and his players begin walking out the door. There really is no need to pile on here. The point here is to learn from four years worth of mistakes.
There is no reason a talented player like Sam Shields should go through his career at UM as a mediocre player at best only to go to the NFL and start for the Green Bay Packers (where he's learned the basics of playing the cornerback position with flash cards). There is no reason a player like Leonard Hankerson should have to go work with former Dolphins receiver Mark Duper to learn how to become a better receiver. There is no reason a player like Jacory Harris, in his third year at UM, should still be looking like a freshman in his third bowl game.
I'm not saying players don't deserve some blame themselves for underperforming. But how can a football team continue to make the same mistakes game after game after game? How come the Canes looked progressively worse at the end of each and of Shannon's four seasons? UM ranked 114th in penalties this season, led the nation in interceptions thrown and probably was first in missed tackles (nobody counts those).
If you didn't think so before, I hope you know now that Al Golden has a heck of a job in front of him. Not only does he need to mend and solidify the fence that fell down locally in recruiting, he needs to hire a top-notch staff that is going to start making the players here a lot better and put them in situations to be successful. He needs to bring fans back to Sun Life Stadium and a sense of excitement back to the program.
Do you realize that if the Gators win their bowl game today, the Hurricanes will be the only in-state FBS program that didn't win its bowl game? Do you realize Miami's 7-6 record was tied with FIU for the second-worst among the FBS state schools (FAU finished 4-8)? The Golden Panthers won their bowl game. And right now I'm not sure UM could beat the Golden Panthers. UCF, meanwhile, not only won its bowl game, but is going to finish in the Top 25. The Canes lost to USF. And those Seminoles up at Florida State, they won 10 games in Jimbo Fisher's first season and seem primed to start ruling the state again. Sure, the Gators are down. But they've got a new head coach and Charlie Weis is supposed to be the team's next offensive coordinator.
It's time to start realizing how big a hole the Canes are really in.
It's time to start pulling out those weeds in Coral Gables.
It's time to start moving forward.
Good luck, Coach Golden. You've got a nation full of Canes who are praying you get the job done.