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December 28, 2012

On The Rebound: Lessons to be learned from The U

LAUREL COUNTY, Ky. — They are the most successful college program. A team expected to play for a national title every year. There are plenty of naysayers questioning their tactics and their coach. The results cannot be questioned. One sports caster called them the greatest dynasty since Caesar.

It would be easy to assume this paragraph describes the University of Kentucky basketball team. In fact, the reference is to the University of Miami football team of the late 1980s.

As I watch an ESPN documentary “The U” it is easy to share comparisons between the two mega successful programs. Much of their success can be attributed to recruiting the best players in the country. Miami dominated the state of Florida, which is loaded with the best athletes in high school football. The Hurricane coaches called the area from Daytona Beach, across to Tampa, and down to Miami “The State of Miami.”  They could choose any player they wanted from that area to reload each year. Kentucky could turn a map of America blue and call it the United States of Kentucky, so far-reaching is the ability of John Calipari to sign whoever he wants.

Both programs featured coaches that were larger than life. The Hurricanes accent started with Howard Schnellenberger and continued with Jimmy Johnson. Schnllenberger won a national title in 1983 and Johnson in 1987. Johnson’s successor, Dennis Erickson won titles in 1989 and 1991.

Although Erickson won more titles, it is hard to rank him ahead of the previous coaches. Schnellenberger and Johnson set the foundation for the program. Much the way Tubby Smith is questioned for winning a title after succeeding Rick Pitino, Erickson’s hiring prompted one Miami recruit to state, “I didn’t come to University of Miami to play for no Dennis Ericson from Idaho.”

Actually he was from Washington.

As impressive as the Miami run of four titles in less than a decade, it could have been greater. Johnson’s championship was bookended by a season with they lost in the title game on five Vinny Testaverde interceptions. Two years later they lost to Notre Dame on a bad call.

The Miami run ended when the team was hit with NCAA sanctions in 1995 and docked 31 scholarships through the 1998 season.

So while I am watching, I am wondering how Kentucky can maintain its current success. The obvious answer is to not lose your coach. Johnson and Erickson moved on to the NFL. Schnellenberg became part owner and coach of an NFL team that never played a game.

Next you must command the headlines. There was no program bigger than Miami in the 80s. It was also the era of Miami Vice and a feeling that South Beach was the place to be. John Calipari is better than anyone at keeping Kentucky in the headlines. So again the coaching position is critical. We aren’t South Beach, but Kentucky basketball is the place to be.

There is one area that Miami failed greatly and it is the hardest to avoid. A program can become so successful it is crushed by its own weight. Miami’s success drew many people that wanted to attach themselves to that success. You had rappers giving money to players. There was fraud in the financial aid program involving athletes. This all came at a time when the athletes themselves performed like they were the program and not a part of the program.

It might seem a long stretch to compare Miami and Kentucky. The only true link is success. Just let the past be a guide and realize success is not infinite. It is often it’s own greatest foe.

 mhoward@sentinel-echo.com

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