No U-turn

"I feel like I'm in the right spot," Golden says. Rob Tringali for ESPN The Magazine

This story appears in the Oct. 31 issue of ESPN The Magazine.

IN HIS DESK sits a thick three-ring binder and a plastic bag of markers in many colors, poised to underline, accentuate, notate and analyze the data in its pages. On a shelf behind him sits a thicker binder: the ever-growing tome that contains the wisdom and lessons and philosophies of his 18 years in coaching, each section -- recruiting, practicing, team culture -- demarcated by colored tabs. On the walls to his left and right are quotes from Colin Powell and Woody Hayes about leadership. And on the wall behind him, lording over his desk, impossible to miss as he sits at his station each morning at 5:30, are the enlarged photographs of five championship rings, each the size of a large dinner plate, reminding him of his mandate.

He looks comfortable behind that desk nonetheless, a man with disarming blue eyes and a cowlicked thatch of brown hair, appearing about a decade younger than his 42 years and insisting now that he's not only undaunted by the blow he's had to absorb in his first months in office -- he weirdly almost welcomes it.

"I feel like I'm in the right spot," Al Golden says with a Dennis Quaid smile. This is a curious perspective from the first-year Miami football coach, especially when you consider the nature of the news that stained this sunny gleam in August, eight months after Golden's triumphant arrival from Temple. That is when Yahoo broke the news that an imprisoned rogue booster named Nevin Shapiro had doled out adults-only party favors to Hurricanes by the several dozen over several years.

Like any blindside hit -- this one delivered with a heads-up phone call after a team barbecue just before the Yahoo expose -- it stunned: "I'm in absolute disbelief," Golden says now, eyes wide, as if flashing back to the moment. "Probably because I found out along with America." For the next few weeks, the "right spot" turned white-hot in the spotlight as the neophyte became virtually the sole university spokesman for a program trying -- again -- to crawl out from the muck.

But now, two months into the season, after losing 12 players to suspensions and three of his first five games, Golden is at peace. The questions from the reporters after morning practice are about strategies, not scandal or smarm. Penalty is no longer linked to Death. The specter of sanctions hovers unseen, but this is out of Golden's control. If the program regains luster in the face of this ugly tarnish, Al will indeed be South Florida's most storied golden boy. It's an axiom of big-show athletics: The bigger the obstacle, the more gratifying the reward. And he fully expects the reward.

"Who's better prepared for this than I am?" he asks.

A SUNDAY MORNING in Charlottesville, Va., Nov. 6, 2005. Temple University athletic director Bill Bradshaw, the day after watching Virginia flay the Owls 51-3, invites Golden, the Cavaliers' defensive coordinator, to his cramped DoubleTree room. Bradshaw wants to talk about reviving a Temple program so abysmal that not only had the Big East dropped it the year before, but the university's board had considered dumping the sport altogether.

Within 15 minutes, Bradshaw senses Golden's "inner strength," he would later say, "when he lasers in with those eyes." Golden is the only candidate to discuss opportunities, not problems or challenges. After the meeting, Bradshaw writes on his legal pad, "This is our man."

Within four years, Golden had 9-3 Temple playing UCLA in a bowl game. He was turning down college and NFL offers. By 2010, he'd re-upped in Philly through 2014 -- and then the Hurricanes came calling last December. Bradshaw gave Golden his blessing. He understood why his friend (they both listened to Sundays With Sinatra on Philly radio) would covet the next level, where Golden could recruit kids by promising the possibility of a national championship. That was, until Shapiro happened.

"Coincidentally, he's the man to take them out of the ashes," Bradshaw says. "Temple was 0 for three decades," Golden says. "Losing games by 30 points. Our own board of trustees was split [by one vote] on whether to even keep football. I had 54 scholarship players playing against teams with 85. We lost 16 of my first 17 games. Now Temple's on TV, and the university brand is stronger.

"Here? We'd lost 14 guys to NFL camps. I removed six from the team in the spring. Then we had 12 suspended and five injured. I remain undaunted because of what I've already been through as a professional. Honestly, if I hadn't been at Temple, if I hadn't had the opportunity to build that, if I didn't have an organization there built on core values, we'd probably be scrambling right now."

THOSE VALUES COME FROM his Jersey shore home, where he was the youngest of three sons, an intense boy who in Pop Warner once knocked out a kid in something called the Friendship Bowl, then implored the boy to get up because, young Al said, "My father will kill me!" Al Senior and Toni Golden have been married for 50 years, with Toni, an Italian immigrant, anchoring the clan. She instilled in her boys a fierceness for life and competition: Golden's football coaches at Red Bank (N.J.) Catholic kept paper bags on hand in case Al hyperventilated, which happened often. At Penn State, Golden didn't shine with statistics. As Joe Paterno remembers it, the tight end who served as his offensive captain in 1991 made his presence known with his character. Paterno recalls the editorial Golden wrote in the Centre Daily Times in 1992 as a grad assistant, addressed to a Penn State senior named Chino Wilson who had written a militant essay in the university paper The Daily Collegian a few weeks earlier. Enraged by a recent racial incident involving New York City police, Wilson penned a Black Panther-style screed advising black people to arm themselves in a militia against white "devils."

Golden took action: "It is easier for you," he wrote, "to create controversy than to confront evil; to recklessly stir riot than to provide redress. To carelessly destroy rather than discover." Quoting Martin Luther King Jr., with references to Milton, the 22-year-old's plea for societal harmony reads like the heartfelt manifesto of a young man aiming for the political, not athletic, arena -- if not the pulpit.

But Golden's heart was in the coaching and the teaching. Unlike the political forum, education allows you to pass on your wisdom for all the right reasons. "There's something really rewarding about educating young people," he says today. Widespread speculation has it that Coach Golden may be in line to succeed MentorJoe, but as of right now, Golden has given himself the ultimate challenge: not only righting a football program but reversing a culture as lax as any in college sports.

As far back as Golden's years playing for Paterno, Miami backer Luther Campbell, the voice of the rap group 2 Live Crew, was allegedly paying Hurricanes for bounty hits. Twenty years later, little has changed. If the Yahoo reports are accurate, no fewer than 72 kids partook of Shapiro's skeevy generosity.

The Miami football eras of the last quarter-century can be measured in equal parts success and controversy. To lifelong Miami fans, weary of the unending asterisks, it would be a refreshing relief if the new man could come in and not only win a lot of games but lay down the gauntlet the way Golden did when he drew the line in his editorial back in State College: eliminating the U's pre-professional program, with attendant wink-wink, nod-nod acceptance of de facto sleaze.

So what is it about Golden that seems to make his peers certain he's the man for the job? "He's honest," says Tom O'Brien, who brought Golden onto his staff when he turned the Boston College program around, now the coach at NC State. The Golden method involves some tough love, which explains another quote mounted in the office, visible to any athlete who sits across from the desk: "Am I therefore become your enemy, because I tell you the truth? - Galatians 4:16."

Three times a year, Golden and his staff hold frank one-on-one evaluation conferences for the players that take up to three or four days. As Andrew Dees, his offensive line and tight ends coach at Temple, now at UMass, puts it: "The film never lies. Show the kid on film and everyone agrees that's not what it's supposed to be, and you can go about fixing it."

"They aren't designed to make a player upset," says Hurricanes defensive coordinator Mark D'Onofrio, who followed his close friend to Coral Gables after serving as his defensive coordinator at Temple -- the animated, enthusiastic, profane traffic cop to Golden's omniscient, unemotional commissioner. "They're designed for them to understand what they need to fix and to give them a plan to fix it. How do we get a player from point A to point B? How do we get the program from point A to point B?"

Okay, then: What is Plan B?

"You're always trying to develop player No. 1 down to 105 -- that's what Al does really well," D'Onofrio says. "That's Plan B. There's always got to be the next-man-in mentality."

Quarterback Jacory Harris has just stepped out of a black plastic tub of ice after a two-hour practice that began at 7:30 in the morning, as the sun was cresting the palms. He glances at his coach, surrounded by microphones. "He already knows what he wants to accomplish," Harris says. "So when he sees it happen, it happened based on his formula. He has a master plan."

The particulars of this appeared on the practice field moments ago, devised by a head coach with a master's degree in psychology, and in preparation for a game against Virginia Tech: an entire hour of the session accompanied by a surreal, volume-11 tape of VaTech's fight song being played by the Hokies band in Lane Stadium in Blacksburg, backed by the cheers of 66,000 screaming fans and the bleat of a turkey -- the same loop playing endlessly as the offense ran pass plays again and again.

"Pattern recognition," Golden says afterward. In other words, in a couple of days in a deafening, hostile environment, his uniformed psych students will associate the song and the crowd sound with success. That's the theory anyway. (In practice, the Canes lose 38-35 on a last-minute Hokies drive.) And it's the same theory, Golden insists, that is guiding him in the bigger contest: "It's pattern recognition, and it's confidence. What I'm doing right now is no different from what I ask the players to do, no different from using music and running the same play over and over on third and six so that they can react a certain way when the situation presents itself.

"I think that's why I feel I'm prepared: pattern recognition. I've seen this already. You don't want to hire somebody for this job who hasn't seen this already. It's too big a job."

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