Al Golden is trying to lead Miami through a difficult period.
Recruiting is a contact sport not meant for the weak-hearted. Al Golden knows this. But even with that in mind, Golden was startled by the level of malice he and his Miami Hurricanes staff encountered from fellow coaches last winter on the recruiting trail.
With the Hurricanes facing an NCAA investigation into impermissible benefits provided to athletes by rogue booster and convicted felon Nevin Shapiro, opposing recruiters went after Miami like a piñata at a kids’ party.
Golden says his coaching counterparts “absolutely crushed” Miami with attacks that “entered the realm of vicious.”
Players pursued by Miami were warned, not only of imminent NCAA-imposed scholarship cuts and bowl bans, but also of a potential death penalty ruling, a possibility few take seriously.
“There was a lot of negative recruiting,” Golden says. “We don’t have a lot of Achilles’ heels. They saw a soft spot and they took it.”
Golden reacted to the low blows — not by complaining, but by getting even.
Despite looming NCAA sanctions, a 6–6 record in 2011 and the cut-throat tactics applied by competitors, Golden pulled in a recruiting class listed in virtually everyone’s top 10 and one that includes six players ranked among ESPN’s Top 150.
Golden responded to Miami’s talent haul by taking a victory lap while warning his program’s detractors “to get your licks in now.”
“What has everybody else worried is that we did this despite everything that was being used against us,” Golden says. “Basically we told everybody, ‘Here’s the tee and here’s the ball,’ and we still were able to get a top-10 recruiting class.”
Those who have followed Golden’s coaching career are not surprised at what the 43-year-old coach was able to accomplish despite the circumstances. Long-time recruiting analyst Tom Lemming of CBSSports/MaxPreps says Golden built a reputation as “one of the top four or five recruiters in the country” while serving as Al Groh’s defensive coordinator at Virginia from 2001-05.
That rep was further bolstered during six seasons as Temple’s head coach, as Golden turned what was arguably the nation’s most decrepit program into one of college football’s unlikeliest success stories.
Golden brought Temple back from the dead by attracting prospects who prior to his arrival would never have considered the Philadelphia school and by finding unheralded players like Muhammad Wilkerson, a 2-star defensive tackle who developed into a 2011 first-round draft pick of the New York Jets.
But Golden says that what faced him at Miami last winter made the situation at Temple look easy. The NCAA investigation that resulted in the suspension of eight key players and a self-imposed bowl ban had nothing to do with Golden, but he was left to put out the fire while school administrators hid behind carefully crafted statements.
The Shapiro story had more than its share of lurid elements — prostitutes, abortion and strip clubs, to name a few — and provided chum for Miami’s competitors in the shark-infested waters of recruiting. Golden’s approach was to attack the NCAA issues proactively.
“We went after guys that understood we weren’t responsible for it, but understand that we’re responsible enough to clean it up,” Golden says.
The message resonated with recruits. Not only did Golden keep most of his oral commitments after the scandal broke in August, but he also closed like Mariano Rivera, guaranteeing a top-10 class on Signing Day by getting Miramar cornerback Tracy Howard, ranked as the No. 18 prospect nationally by Athlon Sports, to change direction and sign with the Hurricanes instead of Florida.
“There aren’t many guys that can pull that off,” Lemming says. “Golden is a younger version of Nick Saban and Urban Meyer as a coach and a recruiter. Like Saban and Meyer, Golden never stops working. He has an uncanny knack for knowing what kids are looking for, which requires a lot of time and effort. That, combined with a work ethic that is second to none and a great personality, makes Golden unique. There’s only a few of them like him.”
The Hurricanes signed 33 players, but Brennan Carroll, Miami’s national recruiting coordinator and tight ends coach, says the key pair were running back Randy “Duke” Johnson and defensive back Deon Bush, a couple of local area products.
Johnson, Florida’s 5A Player of the Year after leading Miami Norland to an undefeated season and state championship, committed to the Hurricanes as a junior in high school and didn’t budge despite the firing of coach Randy Shannon, two lackluster seasons, the NCAA investigation or the best attempts by other schools to sway him.
Bush, a consensus top-5 safety, committed to Miami a month before Signing Day, then worked hard to get Howard, his buddy and former teammate on a 7-on-7 all-star team, to ditch the Gators and stay in South Florida.
“Those were really two guys that were turning points for us — Duke Johnson, who was such a rock, and Deon Bush,” says Carroll, the son of Seattle Seahawks coach Pete Carroll. “They were the story. They got some other guys to say, ‘Let’s do it right here.’”
Of Miami’s 33 signees — nine enrolled in January and technically count toward the 2011 scholarship limit — more than half are from the South Florida area. Golden has made it a point to re-connect with local coaches, some of whom felt like their schools and players were ignored during Shannon’s four seasons in charge of the Canes program. Whether that’s a legitimate beef or not, Golden has doubled down in South Florida by assigning his entire nine-man staff to recruit the area and personally communicating to his high school counterparts that “interaction, trust and communication with the local coaches has got to be elite. It can’t be good.”
Whatever the formula, it seems to have worked with the 2011 class, which includes most of South Florida’s best talent.
“We’re going to be tough to beat down here,” Golden says. “And we should be.”
Golden, who signed an extension in November that runs through the 2019 season, has gotten off to a fast start toward building next year’s freshman class. As of early May, Miami had received commitments from five players, including two ranked in ESPN’s Top 150 and Ray Lewis III, son of the NFL great and Hurricanes legend.
With recruiting going very well, Golden sees sunny days ahead despite an impending date with the NCAA Committee on Infractions and an expected rebuilding season.
“We just need to weather the storm,” Golden says. “Don’t flinch and just have a stick-to-it-iveness and determination that’s going to be able to overcome it.
“We are undaunted by this. At the end of the day, it’s still one of the most special places in college football.”
This article appeared in Athlon's 2012 ACC Preview Annual.
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