After two-year absence, Miami thrilled to be bowling
CORAL GABLES, Fla. — Though a trip to the Russell Athletic Bowl takes just 240 miles north along Florida’s Turnpike it doesn’t do justice to how far the University of Miami football program has come the past 30 months.
Until the NCAA announced sanctions in mid-October after an extensive investigation into improper benefits by a booster, the Hurricanes didn’t know where their 2013 season would end.
Over the past two years, they self-imposed bowl bans as well as passed up a shot in the Atlantic Coast Conference championship game.
Seniors like Stephen Morris and Allen Hurns, guys in elementary school when most of the infractions occurred, got punished for the deeds of others.
On Dec. 28 at the Citrus Bowl in Orlando, however, they will get one final shot to leave their legacy in a matchup with No. 18 Louisville (11-1).
Head coach Al Golden, who has guided the Hurricanes since December 2010, watched from the sidelines during Miami’s previous bowl appearance — a 33-17 loss to Notre Dame in the Sun Bowl in El Paso, Texas.
”Our kids are excited, I think they’re grateful,” Golden said. ”They’ve been through a lot the past two years, and they have not been able to have this opportunity. They’re practicing with a purpose, they’re excited, and clearly they have a really tough opponent coming up."
A bowl represents progress.
So did a top-10 showdown earlier this season with rival Florida State.
So did freshman Stacy Coley becoming the nation’s only player this year to score a touchdown via a catch, rush as well as kickoff and punt returns.
So does 29 verbal commits, including four-star guys from state championship teams, for the upcoming National Signing Day.
When Golden and his staff would visit recruits before the NCAA’s decision, questions centered on the uncertain future rather than the campus or any football schemes.
Around 30-40 local high school players visited and observed how Miami operates during four open practices the past two weeks.
”We haven’t had that opportunity. We haven’t been provided that opportunity,” Golden said. ”It feels totally different. You’re not going to get them all. There are other good opportunities for kids and all that, but at the end of the day, we feel like we’re on a level playing field for the first time.
”It’s unfortunate it comes at the tail end of our third class, but nonetheless, it gives us a chance to finish this one and start the 2015 class with a fresh slate. There has been a lot of positive energy out there, and weâre just excited to move forward. You can feel the difference.”
Golden strives to build a culture where competition is the rule, when players battle for spots on short yardage and special teams. He wants to purge the program of jealousy and a mediocre mindset.
That starts by progressively winning more games and recruiting talented athletes to keep guys from becoming complacent. Each guy must challenge one another to breed a winning environment.
”The one thing we have to continue to do is embrace competition having a next man in and play mentality,” Golden said. ”Guys have spots on mediocre teams. ‘This is my spot or position.’ It’s not really your position — It’s the University of Miami’s position."
”When you start to get 9-10-11 wins it’s this competition at every position, and guys have to start to embrace that. It’s really the best way for the program and you as an individual to improve.”
If the Hurricanes (9-3) beat the Cardinals, it will mark the first double-digit win season in a decade.
Even more remarkable for a program with five national championships: A victory would be the first in a bowl since besting Nevada, 21-20, at the MPC Computers Bowl in 2006.
”We’re going to try like heck to be the first 10-win team in a decade,” Golden said. ”We’re grateful for all they’ve endured to get us to where we are. Everybody has to carry the torch.”
The journey doesn’t stop in Orlando for the Hurricanes. As Golden would say, it’s just part of the process.