LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- Miami began practice Sunday surrounded by palm trees and sunny, warm weather, but the football program was 235 miles away from home.
While its Coral Gables campus remains closed and many parts of South Florida deal with continued power loss and cleanup after Hurricane Irma, the football team began to take the slow steps toward normalcy by returning to practice at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex.
Miami coach Mark Richt ran his players through a light conditioning practice Saturday and a full two-hour practice Sunday. Those were their first practices since the team was released Sept. 6 to prepare for the impending hurricane.
In between then, Miami canceled its game at Arkansas State on Sept. 9 and had its Sept. 16 game against Florida State postponed until Oct. 7.
"Our No. 1 goal was safety of everybody," Richt said in his first comments since he released the team. "That's why we made the decision early not to play the [Arkansas State] game. Could we have snuck out just in time to play that game? We could have, logistically, but in the meantime, if you're a coach and you're putting in 12-hour days and the time that it takes to prepare for a game like that, to show the respect that you need to show to that game, then who's helping your wife get things done? The thing that was kind of the deciding factor for me was, I didn't want to have a team in Memphis or Arkansas while all heck is breaking loose with everybody's family. I didn't want my players to look at me like, 'Coach, why are we here? What are we doing here?' Or even my staff saying, 'What are we doing?' I said, 'That's it. We're out.'"
Many players went home to be with family. One flew home to Puerto Rico, another to California.
Richt opted to come to Orlando with a group of 25 football players, coaches and athletic department staff to ride out the storm. It took 10 hours to get to Central Florida, a ride that normally takes about 3 1/2 hours.
"We let our players choose," Richt said. "When we decided to break camp, we wanted everyone to have time to get with their family and make decisions on what's best for them."
When the university announced classes would not resume until Sept. 25 and the campus and dorms remained closed, the football team needed to find a place to practice and stay. The Miami Dolphins offered the use of their football facility, but Miami couldn't find enough hotel rooms to house the team.
Since part of the team was already in Orlando, it made the most sense to stay. Miami worked on locating enough hotel rooms and meeting space, along with football fields thanks to an assist from Florida Citrus Sports, which runs both bowl games in Orlando.
On Friday, the remainder of the team bused up to Orlando. Focus has now shifted to preparing for Toledo, at home, on Sept. 23.
"There's a difference between running conditioning and playing football conditioning," Richt said. "Part of it is, you have to get your mind used to contact again. Contact is not necessarily a natural thing. We have to get used to tackling again, blocking again. We have to get used to being in the kind of condition you need to play in the heat and humidity that we're going to play in. That's kind of where we're at."