In December, Miami Hurricanes players filed into the Edgerrin James team meeting room at the Hecht Athletic Center to meet the program’s future. Even outgoing seniors, whose collegiate careers would end with a bowl loss to Washington State later that month, were in attendance. Mark Richt was in the building.
"I knew he was legit after he gave his speech," junior quarterback Brad Kaaya said. "All the seniors who were on their way out, they were all saying, ‘Man, I wish I had one more year. I wish I had another year of eligibility.’ (Then-senior receiver) Herb Waters told me that.
"(Defensive back) Dallas Crawford said, ‘Man, this guy’s the truth.’"
The reunion of Richt, a former Hurricane quarterback and one of college football’s winningest coaches at the University of Georgia, and a Miami program still searching for its breakthrough moment after more than a decade of ACC play offered a measure of welcome convenience — perhaps even relief — for both parties. Following years of hot-seat rumors, the mutual fresh start appears to be paying dividends.
Richt originally considered taking a year off from coaching after the Bulldogs moved in another direction, but returning home made more sense. The Miami job had opened up twice before during the Boca Raton native’s tenure in Athens — resulting in the Randy Shannon and Al Golden hirings — and there were no guarantees a more natural fit would be available down the road.
Changes needed to be made, though, starting with his own day-to-day involvement.
"I told the coaches this. I said, ‘I am coaching QBs again. I’m calling plays. I’m getting in the middle of this offense again. I don’t have time to baby-sit anybody,’" Richt said on Thursday at the ACC Kickoff. "’If I have to motivate you, it’s just like if I have to motivate a quarterback, I’m going to find another one. If I got to motivate a staff member to do his job well, I’m going to find another one.’"
The new hands-on approach is a reversion to his early days at Georgia and when he was Florida State’s offensive coordinator under Bobby Bowden. Over time in Athens, he delegated play-calling duties to his longtime offensive coordinator Mike Bobo and later, once Bobo accepted the Colorado State head job, to Brian Schottenheimer.
Richt subsequently stepped into a CEO-type role on the sidelines, which does not appear to be his personal preference. That will not be the case in 2016.
"On a personal level, if I’m going to really enjoy it and have an energy level that I think it takes to be great, calling plays and game-planning and scheming has really energized me," said Richt, who posted a 145-51 record with two SEC titles and nine 10-win seasons at Georgia. "I think it’s important for the staff to see me compete. I think it’s important for the players to see me compete.
" … I think the players see that. My competitive juices may be different than if you’re on the sideline watching. If the offense does good or the defense does good, it’s good but you don’t have any emotion towards it."
Of the ACC’s four new coaches, Richt’s transition period might be the smoothest. He inherits a talented roster that returns 17 starters and the extra-fertile South Florida recruiting base. He inherits tradition and a host of former NFL superstars, a few them being his former teammates, offering public support.
And he also inherits Kaaya, one of the nation’s top quarterbacks and an established voice in the locker room. The junior quarterback was already climbing up the school’s passing record books before the coaching change — he sits fifth all-time in passing yards at Miami and, if he repeats his career season average, he’s poised to surpass Ken Dorsey for the top spot this season — but the hiring of Richt seems to have reenergized Kaaya as well. The All-America candidate is waking up for 6 a.m. workouts and talking on the phone with his new head coach every other night, constantly preparing for a ’16 conference title march.
"We kind of speak the same language. We see eye to eye. Like I said, me and him have similar personalities," Kaaya said of Richt, who previously helped mold NFL draft picks Matthew Stafford and Aaron Murray. "It’s just awesome. It’s just good to have him in the room. Anything that I do wrong he can kinda correct. He allows it to where I can’t get complacent. It’s never a day where I’m going to be complacent because he’s always going to be on me.
"Any small thing that I do he’s going to be on me, whereas most coaches might say, ‘Oh, he’s a veteran. Just let it slide.’"
The quarterback-coach combination is bound to draw the brightest spotlight this preseason, but the Hurricanes have far more pressing issues. They finished 117th nationally in rushing, 77th in scoring defense and 128th (out of 128 teams) in penalty yards per game last season. The secondary lost two NFL draft picks in first-rounder Artie Burns and fourth-rounder Deon Bush. Miami might boast the most talented roster in the Coastal, but there is ample room for improvement after last year’s 8-5 finish.
This is a well-worn narrative in Coral Gables.
The Hurricanes are still searching for their first bowl victory and 10-win season this decade, not to mention their first national championship since 2001. The program is also seeking its first-ever ACC Championship game appearance while fellow mid-2000s Big East transplants Virginia Tech and Boston College have combined for seven overall.
"You can say all the things you want about Miami and all the championships we’ve won getting back to years past. One thing we’ve never done is won an ACC championship and a coastal championship," Kaaya said. "That’s our goal for the season."
When Richt was a young quarterback for the Hurricanes, sharing practice reps with Jim Kelly, Vinny Testaverde and Bernie Kosar, coach Howard Schnellenberger, the architect of Miami’s mid-80s dynasty, would tell the team, "We’re on a collision course for a national championship. The only variable is time."
More variables may have been added to the equation since the program’s heyday, but with one of the nation’s most consistent winners at the helm the Hurricanes can afford to aim high once again.