Art Kehoe never quit loving Miami; now, Miami again loves him back
Miami fired Art Kehoe in 2006 after 27 years and five national championships
After five years of random coaching gigs, Kehoe is returning home as OL coach
'Human espresso' never stopped loving Miami or trying to make his way back
The red Cadillac DeVille sat in a parking lot overlooking Vaught-Hemingway Stadium on the Ole Miss campus. Inside, a bald man built like a fire hydrant bellowed into his iPhone. In fact, the Caddy sat in this particular parking lot because of Art Kehoe's iPhone.
Only a few locales in metropolitan Oxford, Miss., delivered the precious bars that allowed Kehoe to make the calls that kept his dream alive. Of those locales, he had two favorites. One was a Subway inside a Wal-Mart. It offered the trifecta -- bars, a place to sit and sandwiches. The other was the parking lot. So on Sunday, Jan. 23, Kehoe sat in the red Caddy as freezing rain fell. He held the iPhone to his ear.
"You ready to come home to the family?" the voice on the other end of the line asked. Kehoe couldn't believe his ears. He had to make sure the bars hadn't fluctuated and forced his brain to fill in the blanks with words he'd assumed he'd never hear. "What?" he yelled. "Are you kidding me?" The caller assured Kehoe he wasn't kidding. With that, Kehoe put the phone on his leg, rolled down the window, stuck his head out into the ice-cold rain and screamed.
CORAL GABLES, Fla. -- In March 2009, a more famous bald football coach than Kehoe sat down for an interview with author Clay Travis. Phillip Fulmer, a Tennessee alumnus whose blood will always run that particular shade of orange, had tears in his eyes when he discussed his firing a few months earlier.
"You can love a university, but the university can't love you back," Fulmer told Travis. "It's just bricks and mortar."
That isn't always true.
Sometimes -- once in a great while -- a university can undo a mistake. What was wrong can be set right. Sometimes, a university can open its arms to a dedicated servant it once tossed aside and welcome him back with an embrace he didn't believe possible.
For 27 beautiful years, no one loved the University of Miami the way Kehoe did. Kehoe played two seasons for the Hurricanes and then coached the offensive line for 25. He worked for five head coaches. He won five national titles.
Then, on Jan. 2, 2006, head coach Larry Coker called Kehoe into his office. "I don't know how long everybody else's deal was," Kehoe said. "Mine took about a minute." Kehoe and three other assistants were gone. The university he'd loved had tossed him out like trash. But even after he sued the university -- and won -- for unpaid wages, Kehoe still loved Miami. When he coached the offensive line at Ole Miss for two seasons, he still loved Miami. When he volunteered at NAIA school Lambuth in Jackson, Tenn., he still loved Miami. When he subbed for an ailing coach at Louisiana Tech, he still loved Miami. When he coached two seasons in the United Football League, he still loved Miami.
But until he sat in that Caddy screaming into the freezing rain, Kehoe, 53, had always assumed Miami would never again love him back.
Al Golden asked Kehoe if he wanted to fly down the following day. No, Kehoe said. He wanted to drive. That way, he wouldn't have to come back for his belongings. He could just work. But first, he had to go home and break the good news. His wife, Diona, had headphones covering her ears when Kehoe arrived. At first, she couldn't hear him, couldn't decipher the goofy grin. Finally, the headphones were shed and the message was delivered. "You're looking at the new line coach at Miami!" Kehoe said. To hear Kehoe tell it, Diona would have set a high-jump record when she leapt into his arms. Kehoe packed his things, hugged son Jake and stepdaughter Madison and pointed the Caddy toward Coral Gables.
Kehoe's 27-year association with the University of Miami began with what some might consider a fib. The Conshohocken, Pa., native with the bullhorn for a voice box considers it more of a gentle stretching of the truth. A two-inch stretch, to be precise.
Back in the late '70s, back when he had hair, Kehoe lived for a while on a couch in the coaches' office at Laney Junior College in Oakland, Calif. When coaches from four-year schools would come through to watch game film, Kehoe, Laney's nose guard, always offered the same advice. "Make sure you look at No. 66," he would say.
That method drew some interest, as did the Laney coaches' trip to a convention that led to multiple offers for the sophomore. But Kehoe, whose teammates revered him for having keys to seemingly every door at Laney, had snagged an athletic department copy of the NCAA directory and had a different destination in mind. Among the capsules describing each school and offering a list of athletic department phone numbers, Kehoe found the entry for Miami. "Palm trees, beaches," Kehoe said. "They play Notre Dame, Penn State, Florida State, Florida, Alabama. Their schedule was ridiculous."
So Kehoe called Miami. Collect. He told the operator to tell the person who answered that Coach Kehoe was on the line. Miami head coach Lou Saban answered. First, "Coach Kehoe" explained that he wasn't really a coach. Then he asked Saban if he needed a nose guard. Saban said he did. Kehoe said he had great film if Miami coaches wanted to see it. Then he told that fib. "I said I was 6-2, 245," Kehoe said. "I was 6-foot, 230."
Saban bit, and Miami began recruiting Kehoe. He worried that recruitment would end when he arrived for his official visit. When the plane touched down, Kehoe met Miami assistants Mike Archer and Harold Allen. Archer shot Kehoe a sideways glance. Allen, Miami's legendary defensive line coach, couldn't hold his tongue. "Hell, son," Allen said, looking Kehoe up and down. "Did you shrink on the flight?" Kehoe decided brutal honesty was his only option. "Coach," he said, "I'm tryin' my ass off to get a scholarship."
Kehoe got that scholarship, and he arrived at Miami in 1979. That same year, Howard Schnellenberger replaced Saban. Schnellenberger dreamed even bigger than Kehoe. Where others saw a respectable, middle-of-the-road program, Schnellenberger saw a potential national champion. Kehoe was moved to offense, where he started at guard for two years -- he protected quarterback Jim Kelly as a senior -- and forged lifelong friendships with teammates such as Jim Burt and Tony Chickillo. He served as a student assistant coach in 1981. He won his first national title ring as a graduate assistant in 1983. In 1985, Kehoe was promoted to offensive line coach.
He would win four more national title rings, but according to him, his line never blocked a soul from Monday through Thursday. Miami's defensive lines, which featured Cortez Kennedy, Jerome Brown, Warren Sapp, Vince Wilfork and a host of other future NFL stars, were simply too good. Kennedy's senior season in 1989 was especially frustrating for Kehoe. After Kennedy slimmed from 370 pounds to 295, he turned completely unblockable. "We went 0-for-500 against him," Kehoe said. "We never blocked anybody."
Except on Saturdays, when the Hurricanes blocked everyone.
Kehoe coached seven first-team All-Americans at Miami, beginning with Leon Searcy in 1991 and ending with Eric Winston in 2005. He also recruited the heck out of Florida's West Coast. He was the point man in the recruitment of tailback Edgerrin James from the Everglades-adjacent town of Immokalee. He also built an offensive line pipeline from Canada, recruiting future All-America guard Rich Mercier from Toronto in 1995. Later, he landed center Brett Romberg from Windsor, Ontario, and guard Sherko Haji-Rasouli from Toronto.
In 2002, Romberg told SI about meeting Kehoe at a camp in his hometown. "It was a gloomy day, and there was this stumpy guy with a tan," Romberg said. "Every time he walked by me, he'd whisper, 'Miami.'"
To Kehoe, that was the ultimate recruiting pitch. Miami. A "U" on the helmet. Who needed more?
By the end of 2005, Kehoe had all he ever wanted. He had Diona. He had Madison. He had Jake, whose 2004 birth he had to rush from practice to attend. He had Miami.
Then, just like that, Miami was gone.
"I thought maybe I didn't spend 27 years there," Kehoe said. "It's like you're lost out at sea."
Coker had become convinced he needed to shake up his staff to improve chemistry. Kehoe, offensive coordinator Dan Werner, running backs coach Don Soldinger and linebackers coach Vernon Hargreaves were fired two days after the Hurricanes' 40-3 loss to LSU in the Peach Bowl. Miami had lost by more than a touchdown only once in the previous five seasons. From 2001-05, the Hurricanes went 53-9. In the five seasons since, they've gone 35-29.