There was a time for nostalgia last year, when Nebraska and Miami played for the first time in more than a decade.
All the requisite pieces were done on the 1984 championship game, on their Orange Bowl rivalry, on their contrasting styles, on their days in the national spotlight. Given what Nebraska and Miami once meant to college football, all the look-backs proved to be irresistible.
But as the teams prepare to meet in Miami on Saturday, the focus should be entirely different. Incoming freshmen were 4 years old when Miami played Nebraska in the national championship game after the 2001 season. Their understanding about what Miami used to be comes from video clips or the pages in history books. Or in some cases, what their parents or grandparents have told them.
What should be in focus is the present and where the Miami football program stands headed into its most brutal stretch of the season. Coach Al Golden knows as much, telling reporters Monday that his players have an understanding about the tradition with Nebraska. “But none of that is going to help us prepare,” he said.
Looking back on the past serves a wonderful purpose. Living in the past does not.
Head-scratching over the wasted years is understandable. Miami should not be an also-ran in the weak Coastal Division. Miami should not go 6-7 with seven future NFL draft picks on its roster. Miami should be competing for championships.
But when Miami struggles in the here and now, the default reaction should not invoke the ghosts of Miami champions past.
College football today is far different from the Miami heyday in the 1980s and 1990s, when the Canes dominated South Florida recruiting in way that will probably never be duplicated.
Even if we use the early 2000s as a comparison, it is easy to forget just how much everything around the actual game has evolved, from facilities to budgets to the serious increase in cash flow. There has never been an even playing field in college sports, but there is a much wider disparity between the filthy rich schools, the somewhat rich schools, the merely rich schools and everyone else.
Miami is not in the filthy rich category.
Let us stick with the last national championship Miami won in 2001, because that era is not nearly as far removed as 1983. Miami got to that point after surviving heavy NCAA sanctions. It took five years under Butch Davis for Miami to truly become a contender again. And when he arrived in 1995, he was only four years removed from the last national championship – close enough for his incoming recruits to remember.
When Golden was hired in 2011, he was 10 years removed from the last national title and had a far bigger mess to clean up. He also had his own NCAA nightmare unfold thanks to the previous regime. They did not lose nearly as many scholarships, but the Canes did serve a two-year postseason ban and cost themselves a spot in the ACC championship game in 2012.
Miami is nearly free from the NCAA stranglehold that has gripped the program and expects to be up to its full complement of scholarship players next year. Golden is in Year 5 now, and better results are expected after what happened last season.
This is a huge game for him, and for the program. Golden does not really have a signature win under his belt. His biggest wins – over Ohio State in 2011 and Florida in 2013 – are somewhat discounted because both teams ended those particular seasons with losing records.
A victory over Nebraska – a team Miami owned during its championship runs – would go a long way toward showing an uneasy fan base that the Canes can win under Golden. Even he would acknowledge that going 2-5 against Power 5 nonconference opponents, and winless against Florida State, is unacceptable.
Everybody inside the Miami facility knows what is expected of them every time they hit the field. The past reminds them of that. But Golden is right: Championships and tradition will not help Miami prepare for Nebraska. These Canes must find their own way.