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The 58-0 loss that turned Miami into a title contender

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Miami, Clemson fight for playoff spot in ACC Championship (0:51)

The Hurricanes and Tigers face off Saturday night at 8:00 on ABC with the conference title and a shot at the College Football Playoff on the line. (0:51)

The banner flew over the stadium three hours before kickoff, in what had become an all-too-familiar sight in South Florida.

This one read: "Our pilot has as many top 25 wins #FireAlGolden."

It was no secret the Miami fan base had grown increasingly disenchanted with coach Al Golden. But going into the game that afternoon against No. 6 Clemson, Miami athletic director Blake James maintained the same philosophy he always had: He would let the 2015 season play out before making any final decisions about the future.

That abruptly changed hours later. Clemson embarrassed Miami 58-0, handing the Hurricanes the worst loss in school history. But more than that, Clemson exposed the large gulf that separated the two programs at that moment. Clemson had gotten to the point Miami expected to be, with a coach who had vision and buy-in and players who believed in a common cause.

Miami very clearly had no vision, no buy-in and no belief.

After the game ended, Golden took full responsibility for the performance. The locker room was somber.

"Obviously, it's not a type of game you want to be a part of," said Miami starting left tackle KC McDermott, who had started at guard in that game. "It was kind of rock bottom."

James began to have conversations with the university president, his closest staff members and members of the board of trustees about how to move forward. It was one thing to lose respectably. It was another to move forward with a coach who presided over such a historic loss.

The ultimate decision was not an easy one. Golden had navigated the program through an NCAA investigation into allegations of misdeeds that had happened under somebody else; Miami had lost a chance to play in the ACC title game in 2012 because it had self-imposed sanctions as a result. Golden had earned a measure of loyalty for taking on a mess of someone else's making.

But the progress everyone hoped they would see simply had not happened. Golden was fired the day after the loss.

Nobody knew it at the time, but Oct. 24, 2015, ended up being a turning point, an unexpected catalyst to jump-start a program desperately trying to claw its way back into national relevancy. Two short years later, the Hurricanes are set to play for their first ACC championship (Saturday, 8 p.m. ET, ABC and ESPN App) -- against the same Clemson program that unknowingly sparked the change.

"I wouldn't say in any way did I expect us to be in the position that we are two years later," James said. "I couldn't be happier."

James knew where he wanted to turn almost immediately after letting Golden go: Mark Richt was the No. 1 choice. Richt was not only a proven winner, he was an alum with a clear understanding about the Miami culture. But just as important, James knew that Richt would quickly bring a fractured fan and alumni base together.

Within 48 hours, James had placed a call to Richt's agent just to gauge the coach's interest level. James was told that Richt appreciated the phone call but felt loyal to Georgia.

So Miami moved on to other candidates.

But everything changed Nov. 29. James was sitting in church with his family when his son reached for the phone to check the time. An alert was sitting on the screen: Georgia fires Mark Richt.

"At that point, Mass couldn't end fast enough for me," James said. "I made the call as I was leaving church on that day."

He then texted deputy athletic director Jennifer Strawley, who was on her way to a women's basketball game when she noticed the text. "Stay tuned," James had written.

"We didn't know at that moment what his interest was going to be, and so I got to the women's basketball game and there was a lot of waiting that day to what our next step was going to be," Strawley said. "My suitcase was packed, and it was like, 'OK, where are we heading and what is the next step we're going to take?' "

It would not take long to figure out. The Miami contingent flew to Atlanta two days later to meet with Richt. They had no idea what to expect, understanding that Richt would still be emotional after losing his job at Georgia, where he had spent 15 years.

The interview started formally enough, but James and Strawley could sense something changing in Richt when they asked him, "Why Miami?"

"It's like a light bulb went off at that moment and he knew why Miami, and from that point forward, I think we knew he was going to be our next football coach," Strawley said. "You could just see his passion, you could see it switched. ... That moment, I think we all knew it."

Within 24 hours, they had an agreement. Richt said his goodbyes to his Georgia players. When Strawley and James went to pick him up to take him to Miami for his news conference, Richt relayed his emotional farewell. He told them his Georgia players all threw up the "U" to wish him well.

His new players at Miami immediately embraced him. Noting the difference between their previous coaching staff and the current staff under Richt, quarterback Malik Rosier said, "The difference the year we played Clemson and now is just a mindset. This team is ready to go. I mean, I felt like a couple years ago, more people were worried about going to the NFL, more worried about themselves, how they performed, instead of the team.

"This team has bought into the process. I think that's the biggest difference between back then and now. Yeah, people want to go into the league, but at the same time we're worried about getting a ring more than we are about our NFL draft stock."

Added Jaquan Johnson: "Coach Richt brought a winning attitude to Miami. I believe that he truly brought the swagger back."

Though this weekend's ACC championship game against Clemson naturally brings to mind what happened in 2015, Richt has never even watched the game from two years ago. Still, he said, "I imagine the guys that were here during that time frame haven't forgotten how that felt. I'm sure no one wants to feel that again."

Given the way Miami has played this season, it is hard to believe the Hurricanes are only two years removed from that rout. Eleven current starters played in the 2015 loss to Clemson, including three who also started in that game.

But Clemson coach Dabo Swinney has called the difference between Miami then and Miami now "night and day."

There is a reason that when College GameDay was on the Miami campus before the Notre Dame game, one Miami fan held up a sign that said, "Thank you, Dabo."

Without that 58-0 loss, who knows where Miami might be as a program?