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Tuesday, May 3, 2016

At Miami, rebuilding process chugs along

Wednesday, October 22, 2008


AP Sports Writer

DURHAM, N.C. -- It's Friday night at the Miami Hurricanes' team hotel, about an hour before players will drift off to sleep, and offensive coordinator Patrick Nix stands to deliver some inspiring words.

The conference room is silent. Every offensive player's head is up, all eyes on Nix.

"In case you haven't figured it out, everyone is against you," Nix says, calmly but emphatically. "Our receivers are too young. Our quarterbacks aren't any good. Our offensive line can't finish. That's what everyone says about you."

This is what it's come to at Miami: An us-against-the-world pep talk on the eve of playing Duke.

Since 1983, the Hurricanes have won more national championships (five) than the Blue Devils have posted winning seasons (three), but Miami is no longer the undisputed king of college football. Every day is a test, a challenge to move closer to regaining that elite reputation.

Nix's message sinks in: Miami beats Duke 49-31, getting five touchdowns from backup freshman quarterback Jacory Harris and putting together consecutive wins for the first time all season. The Hurricanes whoop their way into the locker room, then gather on bended knee in prayer, everyone with an arm slung over someone else's shoulder, because that's how the great Miami teams did it.

"We're on a roll now," Miami coach Randy Shannon tells the group. "But we've got to stay focused. After tonight, this game is over with. I don't care how good of a game you had tonight, after tonight, it is over. We can't pat ourselves on the back and say we did a great job. We did. But after tonight, the only thing that matters is getting the University of Miami better."

With that, his team leaps and roars.

These days, every victory is significant.

"Happy homecoming to Duke," wide receiver Kayne Farquharson says over the din of the locker room celebration. "Duke scheduled Miami for their homecoming? When a team schedules a team for homecoming, they want to put on a show for their fans and their families. But we made it our party. We brought some Miami flavor back. The ball is finally rolling for us now. We think we control our own destiny again."

Ah, postgame smack talk. Michael Irvin would be proud.

But maybe Miami really is getting somewhere by going back to its us-against-the-world roots -- albeit in a much different way than two decades ago.

The reputation of the Hurricanes' program is indelible: They were college football's bad boys, the brash bunch that wore camouflage attire to the 1987 Fiesta Bowl, would stand and pose over prone opponents after big hits, celebrate wildly after touchdowns, bury teams by ridiculous margins. They were generally considered to be the dark knights of the game. (Anybody remember the "Catholics vs. Convicts" T-shirts Notre Dame fans broke out for the 1988 game in South Bend?)

Miami's makeup has changed considerably since. Without anyone asking, two linemen ducked out of a packed elevator at the hotel Friday night, so a family of five had enough space to enter. The Hurricanes' graduation rate is one of the best in major college football. Players volunteer in the South Florida community. But the decades-old stigma about the program remains, and was evident in the reaction over two horrific events in 2006: an on-field brawl against FIU, and the off-campus slaying of Bryan Pata three weeks later, a crime that remains unsolved.

Butch Davis made it an emphasis to change the way people saw Miami on the national stage, then left the blueprint for what became the 2001 national championship team. Shannon follows a similar path. That's why, after dinner but before team meetings on Friday nights, some attend Mass in a hotel ballroom, while other coaches and staff meet for Bible study -- the week's theme was patience -- a few doors away.

Mass? Bible study? Patience? Miami football?

There was a time those things might not have gone together. Those days are long gone.

"There's a lot of things about this program that people don't realize," Shannon says.

Every aspect of the road trip is so civilized that the smattering of fans in the lobby bar are fighting off boredom. For the Duke trip, coaches' wives are invited, as were the team secretaries, so the traveling party was bigger than usual. Once at the hotel, players scurry to change out of their dark blazers with the "U" on the left lapel, and head downstairs to an enormous conference room set up for a buffet dinner.

The only real sound is the clinking of silverware against the white plates.

Fried chicken, collard greens, grilled chicken, broccoli, it's what the great Miami teams ate, so it's what this Miami team eats. Tradition also says there's ice cream at the team meal, so some players leave with sundaes, others with containers filled with chicken legs, and in one case, a player departs with his hands full of both. After all, it'll be nearly three hours before the snack table is open.

"It's hard not to go get a bowl of that ice cream," left tackle Jason Fox says. "But I try, especially if it's a day game in Miami."

The team meeting starts at 8 p.m., so naturally, everyone is in their seats by 7:50. Everything starts early. Football time, they call it. Over the next two hours, they go over everything: kick coverages, offense, defense, special teams.

A guest speaker is summoned, a 47-year-old minister and YMCA executive from North Carolina who sets two chairs six feet apart and uses them as props while he does a split, and then entertains players with a series of karate kicks. He tells them about the ups and downs of his personal life, and keeps repeating the theme of his message: Moments matter.

It's what Shannon and his staff have been saying for months. When your moment comes, will you be ready?

Harris is on Saturday. Duke leads 17-7 before he engineers a perfect two-minute drill to get Miami within three points at halftime, then helps the Hurricanes put up 35 unanswered points in the second half to pull away for good.

"Moments do matter," Harris says. "Every play, you've just got take it one by one, and when you get that moment to make something happen, take advantage of it, because you may not get a second chance. We understand that now."

In those Friday night meetings, where coaches show video of dozens of Duke plays, they use odd terms like "skinnying your pads," which happens when a ball carrier turns his body to slip through a small space instead of trying to barrel his way through a hole. It'll be a key to the game, they say, and they are proven right. Travis Benjamin slips his body through two defenders perfectly on a punt return in the third quarter, taking the ball to the Duke 28, and eventually catches a touchdown pass on that drive that puts Miami in full control of the game.

"We want these guys to finish every game, come out with emotion and make plays," wide receivers coach Aubrey Hill says. "Tonight, that's what they did. It's real simple, and it took a while, but we did it. And we didn't panic. We knew we had a chance to win the game, and in the second half, we opened it up."

It sounds so simple.

"It is simple," Shannon says.

There have been whispers that either Harris or starter Robert Marve will transfer for weeks, talk that will only pick up after Harris' big game against Duke. But here's how angry Marve acted on Saturday: He was, by far, the loudest celebrator in the locker room afterward.

Some pundits have suggested it's an act when Marve and Harris openly praise one another in interviews, saying it's just for the cameras. There are no cameras inside the Miami locker room on Saturday when Marve enters.

"Good work, 'Canes," he screams, slapping teammates -- Harris included -- on the head and shoulder pads as he weaved his way to his stall.

He scoffs at the notion that the quarterback "partnership," as Shannon calls it, is a problem right now.

"It felt good that we finally showed people exactly what we could do," says Marve, a redshirt freshman. "I was glad to see the young guys do well, glad to see our defense was strong, glad that we got tested in a battle and no one freaked out, no one panicked, everyone knew it was just time for us to explode. It just took a little time to get us going."

Marve means in the Duke game.

He may as well have been talking about this rebuilding project.

Miami was 5-7 last year, and at 4-3 this season, the turnaround is hardly complete. There won't be a national championship this year. At this point, a bowl game isn't even guaranteed. But with waves of freshmen and sophomores contributing already, with one loaded recruiting class already on campus and another expected to be on the way, Shannon truly believes Miami is getting closer to that elite level.

Another championship moment for Miami football, he says, is coming.

"It's been a while for us," Shannon says. "Now this team can get a little more confidence and feel good about themselves. These young guys are coming around. But we're not done. These guys can feel good right now, but there's a lot more work we have to do get Miami back where it needs to be."

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