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ATLANTA — On Saturday night, as the city of Atlanta sat transfixed by Alabama’s throttling of Georgia in the SEC title game, a titan of a previous generation of college football plotted a long game of catch-up to that caliber of stage.
A few miles from the Mercedes Benz Dome, University of Miami officials met with Clemson athletic director Dan Radakovich about becoming the school’s next AD. While plotting that move, they’d already begun feverishly and clumsily putting together an offer to lure home Oregon coach Mario Cristobal, an effort that ultimately proved successful as Cristobal officially took the job Monday afternoon.
The Miami of camouflage fatigues, relentless swagger and an assembly line of first-round NFL draft picks is now the stuff of lore, fodder for the "30-for-30s" and the grumpiest base of former stars in the sport. Aside from the Turnover Chain blip in 2017, Miami failed to build on the five national titles won in the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s. Eventually a series of poor coaching hires and an apathetic athletic department watched the SEC race ahead. Miami suddenly found itself leading the nation only in entitled alumni complaining to the media.
And that’s where Miami’s new money, bold leaders and even more new money have come in — chief-of-staff Rudy Fernandez, UHealth CEO Joe Echevarria and board chair Laurie Silvers among them. The UHealth tie has created hundreds of millions more in revenue for the university, some of which is expected to spill over to boost athletics. Miami never had money, it always had talent. And the new guard wants the investment in athletics to help build the university’s brand, just like back in the day when Miami football helped the school become a national brand.
There’s a new guard at Miami taking a bold, emotionless and occasionally cringe-worthy approach to reviving “The U.”
Let’s be blunt: The ideas are strong. The execution was shaky, especially Sunday. Cristobal is a Miami native, prolific recruiter of South Florida and has the type of institutional ties to that area that could revive the program’s aura. He has won a Rose Bowl and lost a Fiesta Bowl at Oregon, where he went 35-13. He also could keep programs like Alabama and Georgia from raiding South Florida, where recruits no longer see the school as a premier destination.
“Why wouldn’t he go and crush it?” a veteran coach said of Cristobal on Sunday night. “It isn’t just location, because he’s proven he can do it anywhere in the country. Put him in his sweet spot, and it’s that much more dangerous. He’ll be doing it at a place that has more talent running around in his backyard than any other place in America.”
Radakovich is one of the country’s best athletic directors, and he could provide a compelling coda to a decorated career by awakening a modern version of the Miami he knew while there from 1983-85.
The execution was what you’d expect from a bunch of rich, well-meaning people who don’t know much about college athletics. It was bold and cold, ambitious and amateurish, brazen and sloppy. Perhaps that’s the cost of doing business at a place that hasn’t really ever done the business of college athletics well, winning more because of the surrounding talent than the campus accommodations.
What Miami did to head coach Manny Diaz on Sunday is the type of egregious mismanagement that happens when grand ambitions turn blind. To leave your football coach dangling for an entire day while you wait to potentially fire him — or maybe not — is a terrible look. A lot of people around college athletics were laughing at Miami on Sunday while feeling awful for Diaz, who twisted in the wind in a cruel fashion. He ultimately was fired Monday morning during a meeting with Miami's president.
Before that meeting, Diaz didn’t hear from any Miami officials all day regarding his job, according to sources. He got a commitment from a player in Dade County, linebacker Wesley Bissainthe, on Saturday. On Sunday, he got marched out to the plank for the world to see.
Diaz’s buyout has been reported in the $8 million range. No one is going to shed many tears for him, but the whole thing was generally uncomfortable.
On a pure, cold-blooded business level, Miami’s brashness and callousness also showed that the new regime at Miami doesn’t care about feelings. Judge that how you may. Miami has come to a sudden realization about how far behind its program is and the new leaders aren’t going to care about bad optics and hurt feelings.
The reasoning for Radakovich likely going to Miami is simple. He’s been there when Miami has been elite, and his experience at Clemson makes him perfectly suited to help galvanize and build Miami back to relevance. Miami is never going to be what it was under Howard Schnellenberger and Jimmy Johnson, but Radakovich is uniquely suited to maximize what it can be in the new world of college football.
Radakovich came away from the Saturday meeting impressed with Miami's leaders. There appear to be a few final formalities before he takes the job later this week. At 63, he’ll likely end where he began.
Can Miami reclaim relevance? Diaz’s potential parting gift is quarterback Tyler Van Dyke, a young star who threw 25 touchdowns and just six interceptions as a freshman. He’s an elite building block for whoever is next, assuming he doesn’t enter the transfer portal to see how the bidding war unfolds.
This Sunday will be remembered as Miami being bold again. The brashness has returned, and now we’ll see about the results with Cristobal.