The time has come to stop referring to the University of Miami as a football school. Those days are long gone, ancient history.
That does not mean the passion for football in this town has dwindled. Not a bit. Fans are still obsessed with everything the UM football team does, every recruit, every transfer, every coaching change, every spring practice update.
But anybody who saw the sold-out Watsco Center spill onto the court and belt out “We are the Champions” last weekend while players and coaches cut down the nets can surely verify that Miami is now a football and basketball school.
There is no disputing that. The basketball program deserves to be at least on par with the football team in the eyes of its fans and the national media.
Miami is the No. 1 seed in the ACC men’s tournament this week. The Hurricanes enter their opening game against Wake Forest at noon Thursday as top dog in the storied league, the big kahuna, ahead of Duke, ahead of North Carolina, Virginia, Syracuse and Louisville, college basketball bluebloods all of them, looking up the standings at the Miami Hurricanes.
Read that sentence again and let it soak in.
You want more validation? UM guard Isaiah Wong this week was voted ACC Player of the Year. That’s right. The top player in the league was not a Blue Devil or Tar Heel or Cavalier. It was a humble Hurricane from Piscataway, N.J., who celebrated the prestigious award by having dinner at Friday’s with his mother and two brothers.
It was the third time in program history a Hurricane won conference Player of the Year. The other two were Shane Larkin in 2012-13 and Tim James in 1998-99, when UM was in the Big East. In addition, guard Jordan Miller was voted to the ACC second team and Norchad Omier the third team.
Very slowly, but surely, the national perception of UM basketball has been changing.
When I arrived at the University of Miami as a freshman from Miami Killian High in 1983 there was no men’s basketball team. Only women’s basketball. The men’s team had been disbanded in 1971 due to paltry attendance and financial losses. The program was reborn in 1985 with a few recruits and some walk-ons coach Bill Foster picked up at open tryouts on the student union patio.
Coach Leonard Hamilton took the Hurricanes from 0-18 in the Big East to the Sweet 16 in 2000. Still, despite that great season, UM basketball struggled with attendance and was an afterthought nationally. Miami football got all the attention back then, and it was hard to argue with five national titles between 1983 and 2001.
But there have been no more national football titles at Miami.
Over the past 12 years, UM has been through four football coaches and had only one 10-win season. The Canes have lost seven of eight bowl games during that stretch. The school is investing $80 million in coach Mario Cristobal, banking on the hope he can get the team back to its glory days. Plans for a $100 million football complex are under way.
Meanwhile, since UM basketball coach and Hall of Fame nominee Jim Larranaga arrived from George Mason 12 years ago, the Hurricanes have won two ACC regular-season titles, an ACC tournament championship, reached the Sweet 16 in 2013 and 2106 and made historic run to the Elite Eight in 2022. They have won 20 or more games in eight of the past 12 seasons.
Even so, respect has been slow to arrive. Last season, the Hurricanes remained unranked all season and wound up in the Elite Eight. This year, they got a little more love from voters and were ranked much of the season.
Last season, students showed up for high-profile ESPN games, but other nights the student sections had giant open spaces. This season, with the carryover from the Elite Eight and the help of the Category 5 spirit club, the Watsco Center felt like a bona fide ACC powerhouse, with students packing both end zones, waving fathead player posters and raising the decibel level to heights we have not heard much over the years.
Asked if he thinks perceptions of the program have changed, Larranaga replied: “I care about perceptions. I want everybody to look at our program and think we’re a great role model for how an NCAA Division I ACC program should be run. Perception is reality. Our players represent us so well. Anybody who engages with them in the media raves about them afterwards, and everybody loves a winner.”
Wong added: “We proved a lot of things last year and it helped to get nationally recognized for how good we are, we can compete with any team in the country. It was easier for them to rank us this year.”
And this from guard Nijel Pack: “We’re not done yet. … I feel like Miami basketball is still going up in the rankings, still a lot of things they don’t appreciate about us, some don’t believe yet. But what they think doesn’t really matter. It’s what the guys in our inner circle think about ourselves and how great we can be.”
So, has the basketball team supplanted the football team as the big thing on campus?
“I think we’re a great sports school, don’t think it’s one over the other,” guard Harlond Beverly said. “Our baseball team is really good, always has pros. Our football team produces pros, so I feel like anybody that wants to play high level sports should come on down to Miami. The weather is great and we’re a high-level sports school. Can’t beat it.”
Time will tell how the football team will fare in 2023. Cristobal certainly has the passion to right the ship. In the meantime, it is the basketball program that continues to carry the green and orange torch to the national stage.