Al Golden is in his fifth season as the head coach at the University of Miami, and to those of us old enough to possess a firm institutional knowledge of what Miami used to represent, that still feels strange. Part of this is not his fault; part of the troubles he’s run into are due to the fact that he stumbled into a job laden with scandals that pre-dated his tenure. But part of it, I think, is because Golden, in reacting to that scandal, aspired to turn Miami into something altogether different, something that contradicted the program’s countercultural historical identity.
Golden played football at Penn State, and is a protégé of Joe Paterno, the coach who long stood for the symbolic idealism of college sports (at least until the Jerry Sandusky scandal upended that public profile). Golden wears a shirt and tie on the sideline, as Paterno did; Golden is committed to abiding by the rules and working within the system, but maybe this is the wrong approach altogether for a program that made its name by bucking the rules.
Miami was an outsider program that bullied its way into the mainstream. And maybe Miami needs that edge in order to succeed, in order to truly connect with its swaggering past.
On Saturday, the Hurricanes play Nebraska in their first consequential game of the 2015 season. It is a matchup between a pair of programs that dominated college football in the 1980s (and played one of the most iconic championship games in history in 1984), a matchup that now feels like a frivolous and disinteresting money-grab of a reunion tour. Neither Miami nor Nebraska has played in a major college bowl game since 2004; I wouldn’t count on that streak ending this season. Nebraska quickly folded itself into the mediocre underbelly of the Big Ten under ex-coach Bo Pelini, and may face a long uphill climb under first-year coach Mike Riley; Miami can’t seem to sustain any momentum under Golden, who hasn’t been able to elevate Miami to anywhere near the level of once-archrival Florida State.
If Golden loses on Saturday, the chances of him retaining his job beyond this season grow ever slimmer. Even if he wins, he might still have no chance. The fanbase at Miami has already turned on him, in part because Golden regressed from nine wins in 2013 to a 6-7 record last year. Anything short of an appearance in the ACC Championship game might not be enough to permit him another season at Miami. And maybe that’s not such a bad thing. Maybe Golden would be a better fit at a program with a simpler history, a blocky and conservative agricultural institution like Iowa State or Indiana. And maybe Miami would be better off with a coach who fits ethos of the region: Someone slick, someone fast-talking, someone who will do whatever it takes to win.
Now, I realize that Petrino’s Louisville team is not off to a great start this season. But Petrino is almost universally respected as a pure football coach, which is why he continues to land jobs despite displaying the loose ethics of a congressman. And maybe this is what Miami needs: Somebody like Jimmy Johnson was in the 1980s, somebody who’s willing to embrace the flamboyant ethos of a city that made its name on flamboyance.
There may, in fact, be nothing wrong with Al Golden as a football coach. But I don’t think he ever belonged at Miami. I think the Hurricanes need to strip off their collective tie and let some swagger flow back in.
Michael Weinreb is the author of Season of Saturdays: A History of College Football in 14 Games, now out in paperback. You can find him on Twitter @michaelweinreb