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August 28, 2007
Miami coach Randy Shannon needed to make only one statement to grab his players' attention.
"Raise your hand if you've won a national championship."
There were no arms in the air. Shannon can raise both of them, and may as well kick a leg up in the process.
Shannon, 41, was a starting linebacker on Miami's 1987 national champions. He worked as a graduate assistant on the 1991 Miami team that won a share of the national title. And he served as defensive coordinator on the 2001 national championship squad that is generally regarded as one of the greatest teams of all time.
"So if you've never won one, trust me,'' Shannon told his players. "I can show you how to do it."
That championship experience has helped Shannon win the immediate respect of a team eager to erase the memories of a 2006 season marked by turmoil and tragedy.
Miami went 7-6 last year and has finished outside the top 10 the past three seasons, mainly because of an offense that has failed to exceed the 13-point mark in nine of its last 10 losses. Miami never stopped playing championship-caliber defense under Shannon, who has coached 15 first-team All-Americans and 17 first-round NFL Draft picks during his career as an assistant.
That's why junior defensive end and All-America candidate Calais Campbell refuses to see Shannon as a rookie coach. Campbell instead thinks of Shannon as a future coaching legend.
"I feel like he's a genius," Campbell said. "He's a true football junkie."
Shannon already commands so much authority that the Hurricanes are willing to follow his long list of demands.
As soon as the Hurricanes hired Shannon to replace coach Larry Coker, the longtime defensive coordinator issued a set of rules that shook up a program not necessarily known for its discipline.
"You've got guys who are more into everything they're doing," senior offensive guard/center Derrick Morse said. "Coach Shannon brings out the best in everything you do, whether it's watching film, going to class, practicing or playing. If you're not playing to your potential, he'll let you know about it and won't let you deal with it. It's what every school needs. We lacked it, and we've got it now."
Miami certainly needed some type of fresh start after one of the most turbulent seasons in the program's history. After opening the year as the 12th-ranked team in the nation, the Hurricanes needed to end the season with two consecutive wins to avoid a losing season.
All those losses didn't cause nearly as much embarrassment as a brawl with Florida International that only heightened the national perception of Miami as a renegade program, even if the label wasn't entirely accurate. Miami's graduation rate for football players has exceeded the national average 14 of the last 16 years, and the Hurricanes ranked 11th out of 119 Division I-A teams in the most recent NCAA Academic Progress Rate standings.
One month after the Florida International fight, the Hurricanes would mourn the death of defensive end Bryan Pata, who was fatally shot Nov. 7 outside his off-campus apartment.
Miami coach Larry Coker was fired toward the end of the season despite winning 80 percent of his games, claiming one national title and playing for a second championship during his six-year tenure.
Shannon knows the Miami community's expectations of its football program because he's lived there almost all his life.
He grew up in the Liberty City section of Miami and attended Miami Norland High, where he starred in basketball and track as well as football. Shannon went on to letter four years at Miami and was named the team's most inspirational player in 1988.
After a two-year playing career with the Dallas Cowboys, Shannon returned to Miami and spent seven years as a defensive assistant.
Shannon then worked three years on the Miami Dolphins' coaching staff before he rejoined the Hurricanes as a defensive coordinator. In five of the six seasons since Shannon's return, the Hurricanes have been ranked among the nation's top seven teams in total defense.
That background made Shannon a natural candidate for Miami's head coaching position, but the Hurricanes weren't in any hurry to hire him as Coker's replacement.
Miami officials approached Rutgers coach and former Hurricanes assistant Greg Schiano, who withdrew his name from consideration. The Hurricanes' desire to juice up their dormant offense also caused them to interview Texas Tech coach Mike Leach, whose Red Raiders had led the nation in passing yardage every year from 2002-05.
Shannon finally was announced as Miami's next coach three weeks after Coker's dismissal. Campbell remembers jumping for joy when he heard the news.
"With his leadership ability, motivational ability, knowledge of the game, the way players play for him and his recruiting skills, it would be impossible for him not to be a good coach," Campbell said.
Campbell wasn't the only one celebrating.
Shannon's promotion drew such widespread praise that the Hurricanes' media guide includes several testimonials from a Who's Who list of Miami alumni, including Pro Football Hall of Famer and former Miami teammate Michael Irvin, who called the new Miami coach one of the smartest football players he's ever known.
"He has an instinctive feel for all that is involved in being a winner," Irvin said. "The program is in good hands because the program's in his heart. He will teach his players what the Miami spirit is all about. He understands that it is a privilege to play at Miami, and with that privilege comes a responsibility to uphold the success and pride of those who came before, those who are there now and those who will follow."
Shannon hasn't hesitated to preach that message to Miami's current and future players.
Instead of making promises to recruits, Shannon expects recruits to promise they'll follow his rules.
"We let every parent know our rules and what we expect out of kids," Shannon said. "We don't even talking about playing time. We talk about what's expected out of them and what we expected them to bring to the University of Miami. These (rules) are the things you've got to live and die by. If you can't live and die with those things, don't come to the University of Miami."
That tough-love approach hasn't exactly hurt Shannon on the recruiting trail thus far. Miami already has commitments from 16 high school seniors, including a pair of five-star prospects and seven four-star recruits.
One of those five-star recruits ? Miami Northwestern defensive tackle Marcus Forston ? said Shannon's message attracted him to the school.
"He doesn't just talk about football," Forston told CaneSport.com. "He talks about life and school and other things besides football. I liked that."
Forston's commitment reflected Shannon's emphasis on keeping South Florida's best players close to home. Thirteen of Miami's 16 commitments come from Palm Beach, Broward and Dade counties.
Shannon's status as a Miami native has paid off in a big way.
"With the great tradition Miami has, a lot of these kids grew up watching the 'Canes," said Miami Northwestern coach Billy Rolle, whose roster includes five seniors who have committed to Miami. "A lot of them have relatives who have played there. And with Coach Shannon being a product of Dade County, I think it really helps from that standpoint."
Shannon's recruiting success bodes well for the future, but plenty of questions remain about how soon the Hurricanes can return to national title contention. The Atlantic Coast Conference media picked the Hurricanes to finish third in the Coastal Division this season.
As a career-long defensive assistant, Shannon also must prove he can upgrade an offense that ranked 87th in the nation in scoring and total yardage last season. Miami's quarterback situation wasn't settled until Tuesday, when Shannon announced that Kirby Freeman would start Saturday's season opener against Marshall instead of Kyle Wright.
All that uncertainty hasn't lowered Shannon's expectations. He has been around long enough to see Miami beat the odds before.
"I'll put it to you this way," Shannon said. "A first-year head coach, a first-year defensive coordinator and a first-year offensive coordinator won a national championship (in 2001). It can happen. That's why you never limit yourself."
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Steve Megargee is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.