Success Is Critical for Al Golden and Miami in 2015

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Miami on Saturday wrapped up the first phase of its 2015 season, the Hurricanes’ fifth under head coach Al Golden, with one of the earlier spring games on the docket.

That’s a double-edged sword. On one side, Al Golden and his staff have more than five months to evaluate where the Hurricanes are before kicking off the season, ample time to map out the program’s strategy for competing in the ACC.

On the other, Golden faces more than five, football-free months of columns like this, which question if his fifth season in Miami is destined to be his last.

Al Golden has been one of the most heavily scrutinized college coaches from the moment he was hired to replace Randy Shannon at Miami. Golden built Temple from perennial cellar dweller — and a program in the running as the absolute worst in the FBS — into a respectable, bowl participant.

Golden’s impact at Temple was long-lasting, laying a foundation on which both Steve Addazio and now, Matt Rhule, could also succeed there. And while Golden’s primary focus in transforming Temple translated to Miami’s most promising blueprint for success — recruiting homegrown talent tenaciously — his hire in December 2010 got something a luke-warm reception.

Maybe that was because Al Golden is a product of the Rust Belt, having both played and coached in a part of the country more synonymous with three yards in a cloud of dust than with the sunshine and swagger characteristic of The U.

Perhaps skepticism was due to Temple never appearing in a MAC Championship Game in Golden’s tenure. If he can’t win the MAC at Temple, how is he going to win a national championship at Miami?

His first four years at Miami haven’t done much to dissuade the latter sentiment. He’s 28-22 through his tenure, and the Hurricanes have yet to break that streak of zero ACC Championship Game appearances since joining the conference a decade ago.

Adding to Miami’s frustration is that in Golden’s time there, the Canes’ Coastal Division has been won by surprises in Duke and Georgia Tech.

Of course, Miami was ineligible for the ACC title game in Golden’s first two seasons. It had the cloud of an unnecessarily long and poorly managed NCAA investigation lingering over it from the outset of his tenure, complicating the program’s in-season goals as well as the long-term recruiting vision.

Self-mandated bowl bans negatively impacted the program, not just by depriving it of the prestige of appearing in the postseason, but taking away the additional practices that come with participating in a bowl.

Bowl practices operate as a jump-start into the spring, which is ostensibly the beginning of a new season.

Those two years seem to have bought Al Golden some leeway from the administration. Otherwise, he likely would have been replaced coming off a disappointing Year 4, one of the most critical in an evaluation period for a coach.

How important is a four-year stretch?

Just ask Golden’s predecessor Shannon, who was let go after going 7-5 in his fourth year, a step back from the 9-4 finish a year earlier. Or Shannon’s predecessor Larry Coker, dismissed following a 7-6 finish just four years removed from coming a Willis McGahee injury — and horrible pass interference call — from winning a second national championship.

Golden, meanwhile, finished below .500 in Year 4, his first such finish at Miami.

He may not have been fired, but he has to be feeling the heat. CoachesHotSeat.com ranks Al Golden’s the No. 4 hottest seat in the nation heading into 2015, ahead of such notable names as perennial hot-seat sitter Mike London, struggling Kliff Kingsbury and favorite blogosphere target Kirk Ferentz.

Year 4 is so important because a coach has had one full recruiting cycle to build a program in his vision. Let’s say those NCAA-plagued first two seasons don’t count as normal campaigns, since Golden and his staff were somewhat handcuffed. That would make this coming year the watershed season

Miami must meet certain milestones in 2015 to ensure Golden and his staff another season. Getting over the hump against Florida State, which Miami fell just short of last season, is one.

Another is winning 10 games total, even (especially?) if one of those is not against rival Florida State. Double-digits in the win column carry so much weight for a program trying to build, and comes with certain implications: one of which is a final Top 25 ranking, something that has eluded Miami for

Winning the Coastal is perhaps the most important accomplishment Al Golden can reach in 2015, both to ensure his job security and show tangible progress in Miami’s quest to return to past greatness.

Reaching such benchmarks could be a tall task, with Miami losing its leading rusher (Duke Johnson), top three pass-catchers (Phillip Dorsett, Clive Walford and Johnson) and half its starting defense. It’s time for three highly rated recruiting classes from 2012 through 2014 to prove their actual value.

Quarterback Brad Kaaya, thrust into the starting lineup as a true freshman, is the key figure to leading Miami in 2015. He’s one just 11 total starters back from the 2014 lineup, which is tied for No. 100 in the FBS.

Kaaya was equal parts impressive and erratic in his debut season, to be expected of a true freshman. His maturation in his Year 2 is critical to Golden’s success in Year 5.

That’s one of the many topics Golden has to marinate on for the next five months. Kaaya throwing three interceptions in Saturday’s spring game, per Susan Miller Degnan of the Miami Herald, probably won’t help Golden rest too easily.

He credited the Canes defense afterward, telling Matt Porter of the Palm Beach Post:

For everything we do wrong, we’re on the other side doing something right. I think we learned a lot about our team and we’ll just take a deep breath and evaluate everything on Monday and go from there.

That evaluation may not just be for Miami’s Week 1 contest against Bethune-Cookman, but the long-term future of the entire program.