• The Old Guy. The plane that circled Sun Life Stadium before the season finale last November might as well have served as Randy Shannon's obituary as the overtime loss to South Florida unfolded on the field: "4 YEARS 0 ACC TITLES LOTS OF EXCUSES FIRE SHANNON." I'm not sure about the "excuses" part, but the disappointing finish in 2010 extended Miami's conference title drought to seven years since it joined the ACC in 2004, without so much as a New Year's Day bowl in the meantime. By the time his well-heeled critics took to the sky, a huge segment of the notoriously fickle Hurricane fan base had already abandoned a non-contender in a disrespected league, where the stench of stagnation — a smell they'd come to know all too well under Shannon's predecessor — had become too powerful to tolerate.
Still, from the outside, Shannon's tenure was as much an inscrutable cipher as the man himself: Three of his four seasons as head coach ended within two games of .500 in one direction or the other, and it didn't feature any defining, breakthrough wins or crippling, rock-bottom defeats. In fact, as recently as last October, Shannon's version of the U was still trending modestly upward. In 2009, an extremely young team had found itself in the top 10 after early wins over Florida State, Georgia Tech and Oklahoma, and eventually finished in the top 20 for the first time since 2005. That bought Shannon a four-year contract extension before the 2010 season and his team a spot at No. 13 in the preseason AP poll, where they found themselves again after road wins over Clemson and Pitt to move to 3-1.
A subsequent blowout at the hands of Florida State, though — at home, in front of easily the largest local crowd of the season — drove home how just far the U remained from the elite: Against the three best teams on the schedule, FSU, Ohio State and Virginia Tech, Miami was trounced by almost three touchdowns per game.
• The New Guy. Al Golden isn't the proven headliner 'Cane fans envisioned, whose arrival would instantly strike fear across the state and harken The U's return as a swaggering, helmet-kicking contender. He's an up-and-comer straight from Temple, which means he's used to taking a team across a major city to play in a sterile, multipurpose pro stadium that struggles to draw fans on a regular basis, and also that few of his new constituency in South Florida had ever heard of him before he was hired in December. He almost certainly wasn't the first choice of Miami administration, either.
But Golden is the guy who managed put together back-to-back winning seasons at Temple, a program that had managed a single winning season in 20 years prior to his arrival, and none since assuming role of perennial Big East bottom dweller in 1991. The year before Golden arrived, the Owls went 0-11 in 2005; the two years prior to that, they were 3-20, just pathetic enough to get them booted from the conference after more than a decade of all-purpose futility.
Four years later, they were playing in the second bowl game in school history after winning a share of the MAC East title. Miami fans may not know or care about the relative competitiveness of the MAC East, but they're more than familiar with the depths of the hopelessness at Temple, and know that if you can make it there, you can make it anywhere — even if you happened to make it there with a grand total of two wins (over Navy in 2009 and BCS-bound UConn last year) against teams that finished with a winning record.
• Immediate Impact or Slow Burn? Golden is more personable than Shannon (almost anyone would be) and is generally considered a better recruiter, something of a sore point for Shannon after a blockbuster class full of hyped locals in 2008. He's also making more of a point to reach out to former players to "uphold that legacy" of elite teams. In many other regards, though, they're the same: Both are young enough to relate to kids as a "player's coach," but are also considered disciplinarians, and true to his square-jawed lineage under Tom O'Brien at Boston College, Joe Paterno at Penn State (as a player and coach) and Al Groh at Virginia, Golden comes preaching fundamentals over high-flying, hard-blitzing scheme changes aimed at a faster turnaround. His new offensive coordinator, Jedd Fisch, comes from the Seattle Seahawks with one year of experience as a coordinator, which ended with Minnesota sitting in dead last in the Big Ten in rushing, total and scoring offense in 2009. Patience is a virtue as roots take hold.
On the other hand, Golden said at his introductory press conference that the goal is a national championship, and the roster he inherits still rivals Florida State as both the most talented and the most veteran outfit in the ACC: The starting lineup this fall is composed overwhelmingly of juniors and seniors, including headliners of the celebrated '08 class (quarterback Jacory Harris, receivers Laron Byrd and Travis Benjamin, offensive lineman Brandon Washington, defensive linemen Marcus Fortson and Micanor Regis, linebackers Sean Spence and Ramon Buchanan and defensive back Vaughn Telemaque) taking their last swing at fulfilling the hype that greeted them three years ago. Man for man, Miami still measures up against anyone in the conference, and if it doesn't show up on the field by the end of his second season, Golden will find himself quickly surrounded by the same entitled lack of patience — and swathes of empty seats — that overtook his predecessors in such short order.
- - -
Matt Hinton is on Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.