FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- Edgerrin James stood on the sideline throwing up a U with athletic director Blake James. Jessie Armstead signed autographs.
Russell Maryland, Jon Beason and Randal Hill chatted with friends. Down the sideline at the other end zone, former coach Howard Schnellenberger stood in his usual shirt, tie, slacks and suspenders. They were not the only ones watching the Miami football game so intently.
Former players from across different eras all came together to see Mark Richt and what he has in store for their beloved alma mater, giving the entire program a collective bear hug that has been missing for years.
They are not the only ones. Fans have shown their support, too, doubling attendance at the spring game at Lockhart Stadium, about an hour north of campus. The turnabout is noticeable. Remember, this is the same school that drew embarrassing headlines for the ubiquitous banners that flew on game days urging former coach Al Golden to be fired.
“So far, it’s like coach Richt is the president of Miami,” quarterback Brad Kaaya said.
A record 300 former players attended a get-together Friday, held every year before the spring game. Last year, Miami had around 80 attend. Richt was one of the last to leave. "We just shot the breeze and told war stories. Just had fun talking about old memories and what could be in the future,” Richt said.
This is the same program that saw one former player after another openly bash Golden, splintering what is traditionally one of the most unified alumni bases in college football between those who chose to quietly support and those who chose to vocally oppose.
But in just four short months, Richt has changed the dynamic. Vitriol has been replaced with candy hearts that might as well spell out “We love U!”
“He’s one of us,” Edgerrin James said. “He’s a Hurricane. He understands what it takes. You look at the turnout we had, you look at the former players who came back. Everybody’s excited. There’s just a difference when you have one of your own in the stable.”
Richt is suited for the job perhaps more than any other coach in America. His background as a quarterback at Miami clearly helps. But so does his track record at Georgia, where he averaged nearly 10 wins per season with the Bulldogs.
On top of all that, Richt easily handles being a program ambassador and is never shy about shaking a few hands, speaking on the rubber chicken circuit or voicing his opinion when he needs to.
“We all know we got a gift from Georgia,” said Dave Heffernan, who roomed with Richt for one season when the two played at Miami.
Richt is no dummy. He understood the need to get former players unified and the value in getting them pulling in the same direction. Miami has not been allowed to welcome them back to the sideline for actual games while it is under NCAA probation. Getting them on the field for the spring game was just a taste of what should come once probation is over in October.
The good will extends beyond former players. Blake James said season-ticket renewal rate is at 85 percent, the highest number he can recall. Over 6,000 new season-ticket packages have been sold. There is renewed hope for an indoor facility to finally gain approval, with Richt taking the lobbying lead.
Players have noticed all the positivity, too. Let Kaaya explain how it felt to go to a game knowing there would be a banner flying overhead.
“It’s hard when I know any bad decision I make on the field is going to affect my coach,” Kaaya said. “If I throw a pick, or if I do something that’s going to lead us losing this game, there’s going to be a banner up at our next home game. We’re 3-0 and I’m going into the Cincinnati game and there’s a banner. I’m just thinking, ‘I hope we don’t lose this game. I hope I play well so my Twitter mentions aren’t going to have, ‘I hate coach Golden’ or ‘Fire coach Golden.’
“We put in all this work and there’s a banner saying, ‘Bring back Butch.' ... 'Throw it in the tank for the season.’ Geez you’re giving up on us, too? That part right there, it was hard to take at times as a player. It was a bit nerve-wracking.”
The pressure is not necessarily off. Buy-in is always high when a new coach is going through the honeymoon phase. His credentials made him the perfect choice, but Richt will be held to the same expectation as every coach before him: win a national championship.
“He’s got to,” Edgerrin James said. “The city of Miami isn’t going to accept anything but getting this thing back.”