I had a chance to visit Miami last week and spoke to Hurricanes coach Randy Shannon about the state of his program, how it had fallen from the proverbial mountaintop and what it will take to get back to winning national titles:
Q: What do you see as the biggest reason why the program went into decline the past few years and also saw the end of Miami's record run of first-round draft picks?
Shannon: It's the recruiting aspect of it. You have to make sure you recruit the right type of players that fit what you do offensively and defensively. That's when you'll get back to where you have players drafted like that. Sometimes you can make a mistake by recruiting players just because he is "a name" or he's considered a "top-10" or "top-5" guy. Well, that may look good on those recruiting reports, but when it all comes down to, are you winning, that makes more difference than anything. You have to recruit the right type of players.
Look, I was here for almost everybody. I was recruited by [Howard] Schnellenberger. I played for Jimmy [Johnson]. I coached with Dennis Erickson, so I've seen the transition. I coached with Butch Davis when we got it back going, and then I coached with Larry Coker.
With Butch, we identified players that we felt were great athletes that we could play at different positions. When Edgerrin [James] came in, we tried him at receiver. He finally went to running back. We got Santana Moss. Nobody knew about him, but he fit what we needed because he was a fast guy that had great hands and was explosive and a tough kid. Dan Morgan was a free safety/running back in high school, but he was an athlete. Jon Vilma was a tight end/linebacker. We found tough athletes and realized those were the guys that made a difference. And that's what we're doing now. Finding athletes that can do more than one thing out of high school, and then when they come here, they'll be better players.
Q: Is it simply doing more legwork and being more thorough as you evaluate not only how tough and athletic they are but also the character side of things?
Shannon: It's being on guys earlier and really having people at the school you trust. You do not want to take a great player who will be detrimental to your team. You have to be very careful now, especially with the APR and the way everyone is on coaches about making sure you don't bring in the wrong players who represent the school in a negative light.
I insist on all of our guys making sure we talk to everybody we can. It may be a janitor at the high school. It may be a counselor. It may be a regular student. Anybody that you can talk to so you can find out the information on a kid to find out, is this the right person? Is he going to be passionate about playing football? Is he going to represent your university well? That's the key.
Q: I remember hearing [Butch Davis' right-hand man] Pete Garcia saying that after the probation that you guys had to make sure you had strong leadership within the locker room so that it could police itself, and then after that maybe then you could roll the dice on a borderline guy with the thinking the team will have an influence on that player. Do you think at one point the program may be strayed too far from that?
Shannon: My first year as the head coach we just didn't have many leaders. We had "guys." They were all friends, but no leader to really step up like an Ed Reed would or a Dan Morgan or a Santana Moss would. When I was a player here, we had Jerome [Brown]. Or when [Micheal] Barrow played here, he was a leader. We're getting that now. Jason Fox is a leader. Jacory [Harris] is a leader. Sean Spence has that. Randy Phillips has that. We've got a mixture now that want to be part of it. When you see that your team doesn't have that, when it can't police itself from the inside to making sure the locker room is clean, make sure guys are showing up on time for classes and for everything, then you know you've got to change up how you're doing the evaluations.
Q: When you're signing 25 kids, do you look at your recruiting board and see who those guys probably are?
Shannon: To be honest, these last two years we've done a great job with that. My first year, we got [CB DeMarcus] Van Dyke and a couple of players here and there, but we really just had a month to put it together. But since then, I think we've done a great job of hitting on the right kids. You see it at receiver. You see it with Sean Spence. You see it with Marcus Robinson. You can go to any position on the team and you see that we did hit on some real good kids that are hard-nosed, that love UM, want to work and you won't have to worry about any problems.
Q: From interviewing top college players around the country the past year or two, I hear about how a lot of kids grew up as Miami fans at first but then shifted over to other schools as they move into the recruiting process. When you hear that, what do you think?
Shannon: A lot of people say when we recruit them, "Ah, I always loved Miami." Well, the hardest part is really getting people to understand where Miami is located. Some kids and parents think we're right in the middle of Liberty City. They don't understand we're in Coral Gables. They don't understand that Miami is a private school, that we only have 8,000 students. They think Miami is 40,000 students. That perception you have to knock down real quick.
If we can get the parents on campus with the kid at the same time, I think we have an 80 percent shot that we're gonna get him.
Q: When you first got the job, some of your rules got a lot of attention, especially your mandate that your players could not have any guns. You've got a reputation as a strong discipline guy, but the pressure is building to get Miami back to the days of contending for national championships. How connected are these two things?
Shannon: The wins will come. The thing I always believed is that when you have distractions, it's very hard to win because you're fighting other battles instead of coaching and your team sticking together. The wins will come. I think we have 56 freshmen and sophomores on this team. That's unheard of. And out of that 56, probably 38 to 40 of them are going to contribute. We've got a senior class and then these freshmen and sophomores. There is a big drop-off between. We have only about eight juniors.
Q: If you didn't have the two new coordinators, where your opponents are probably more in the dark about what they might see early, would you be more worried about having to open with those first four games [at FSU, against Ga. Tech, at Va. Tech and against Oklahoma]?
Shannon: I'm pretty excited about it. [Former UM defensive coordinator] Bill Young was great, but he went back home to his alma mater. He's probably going to retire at Oklahoma State. [Former UM offensive coordinator Patrick] Nix is a good coach. I felt we just needed to get something else going. I hired coach [Mark] Whipple because he's a great offensive mind, and he's also a great quarterback coach, so he could work with Jacory. And on defense we got John Lovett, who has that experience, and he knows the ACC. They bring a lot to the table, and the players see that.
I go back one year ago and I didn't know what was going to happen because we had so many young kids we had to depend on. Right now, I'm thrilled to death. I'm excited about what we have going into next season. The players are much more experienced, and they're much better athletes going into the season.
Q: How did the players here handle the end of the first-round draft streak?
Shannon: The players on the team took it as a challenge. Most Cane fans probably were shocked but then the reality hit: The program had probably got worse than what everybody thought it was. I mean we had one guy drafted [LB Spencer Adkins] and maybe three guys get free agent contracts out of maybe 18 seniors.
Q: And that recruiting class had a pretty high ranking when it was signed
Shannon: See, that's what I'm saying. You have to be careful of going about rankings and what's on the board instead of going after players. We've been fortunate the past two years. We got players now, but they were all young and we had to play them. A lot of people get on me for playing them so early, but they were still our best players.
Q: How many guys do you suspect might become first-round picks in the 2011 draft?
Shannon: You probably could have four. In terms of the NFL draft, 2011 and 2012 will be big years for us.
Q: What kind of similarities do you see to when you get the head coaching job and to when Butch Davis came in?
Shannon: Back then, we still had four or five players. We had Ray Lewis, Kenard Lang, Kenny Holmes and Duane Starks, so we won nine games, but when we ran out of those guys, we had nobody. We went 5-6 and had to play Santana, Reggie Wayne, Dan, Damione Lewis when they were so young. That's what we had to do in 2008 and we went 7-6. It's kinda like the same situation. After we went 5-6, then we went 9-3, then 11-1 and then we won it. Well, we as a team feel like we should be a whole lot better than 7-6 next year.
Q: What would it take to win the ACC this year?
Shannon: Luck. And what I mean by that is we have to stay injury-free. Jacory cannot get hurt. We have to bring the second-team QB around, and the offensive line and linebackers have to stay healthy. We gotta get more depth. Our first-team offensive line is full of seniors and juniors and then behind them are guys who haven't played a snap. We don't have that third-year sophomore who has played some. All we need are two guys to come around. Right now, there's a gap. Now that's not supposed to happen in a program, but that's called rebuilding.
• Southern Miss got some encouraging news recently. DeAndre Brown, the Eagles' 6-6, 230-pound wide receiver who had the huge freshman season but then had the horrific broken leg in the New Orleans Bowl, is coming along really well. On Sunday night, I talked to coach Larry Fedora, who said Brown was released to do everything (running, squatting, running pass routes) two weeks ago and they think he'll be 100 percent by mid June. He also said Brown told him he feels even faster, but cautioned that Brown has been saying that even since his leg was still in a boot.
• Notre Dame made a curious decision: omitting the losing seasons from Charlie Weis' year-by-year biography on page 15 of the 2009 Spring Prospectus and page 90 of the 2008 football media guide, reports Mike Rothstein:
"In a lot of cases those decisions are made on the fly, on deadline pressure," [ND spokesman John] Heisler said. "Whenever we did that in the beginning for Charlie or whatever, I don't know that there was a reason why we were trying to go back and make it look like something else."
Notre Dame has admittedly not been consistent with that information. With Bob Davie, it had an expansive breakdown of years, positions and records -- both winning and losing. The media guides under Tyrone Willingham ranged from having some records under "The Tyrone Willingham File" in the 2002 guide to none in the 2004 guide. With Weis, though, it has remained consistent.
My three cents: This is just bizarre. The 2007 Irish season was the worst in ND history. The 2008 season was a little better but still plagued by embarrassing losses. They happened. They're over. There's nothing more than can be done except hope that the people involved have grown as a result. Then again, this could be worse. The media-guide folks could've tried to list those years under Willingham's record, as some ND diehards having been trying to do, and credit Weis only with his first two seasons. But not those bowl losses. Or the blowout loss at USC in 2006. Or getting routed at home by Michigan.
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