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Hiding in Plain SIGHT
GARY SMITH
September 10, 2007
Miami's exhaustive search for a football coach ended with a man who'd been there all along: assistant Randy Shannon, a loner with a mysterious, tragic past.
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September 10, 2007

Hiding In Plain Sight

Miami's exhaustive search for a football coach ended with a man who'd been there all along: assistant Randy Shannon, a loner with a mysterious, tragic past.

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THE HURRICANES knew, by the second Thursday of Randy's reign, that they were somewhere new and strange. Their breathing told them. It had stopped the first time their new head coach had entered the meeting room. Their heartbeats told them. They could hear them. How could that be? They'd seen this man on the practice field, in the locker room and the football offices nearly every day of their college lives. The first words out of the loner's mouth had been curious as well: "We're going to be a team. We're going to be a family." He'd begun changing their seats, interspersing offensive linemen with defensive backs, running backs with linebackers, dismantling the two-division army they'd become over the past two years—defense going one way, offense another—and promising the same upheaval in the locker room.

Then he'd distributed documents for them to sign, commitments to the new laws. No firearms, or you're banished from the team. No phone calls to the head coach after midnight, because anything that happens after 12, you asked for it. No classes missed, or you're benched. No running through the door at 6:31 a.m. for 6:30 meetings, because the door will be locked. No freshmen or sophomores living in apartments. No GPAs beneath 2.5 for juniors or seniors, or they'd have to move back into the dorms. No cellphones or hats in the football offices or meeting rooms, or they'd gather dust in his desk. No walking past anyone in the athletic center hallways—even secretaries and ticket-sellers—without greeting them and respecting them as if they were coaches. No one unaccountable for anything, even for the 300 locker-room towels, which would be counted each week.

The Hurricanes knew they were in a new and narrower place; they just hadn't understood that there was no wiggle room in it, none—until now. Now, as they stood in line to pass through a security checkpoint, coaches rifling through their backpacks because someone's cellphone had vibrated. Now, as Coach Shannon ordered 18 of them to report immediately to the practice field for failing to turn in the first-semester schoolbooks they'd received as part of their scholarships, along with a few other offenses that they'd considered just little things. Now, in the rain, in the clothes they were wearing—no changing into sweats.

Their teammates bolted to the weight room, whose windows overlooked the practice field, to watch. The new coach lifted his stopwatch. The defensive end likely to be a multimillionaire after being picked in the top five in next April's NFL draft looked down at his sweater and expensive sneakers. The walk-on kicker coming straight from his internship at a nearby business wondered how, in his dress shirt and slacks, he could finish the long series of sprints within the mandatory time. The 331-pound defensive tackle yanked off his pants and shoes.

The Hurricanes at the window looked at the new coach, the sky soaking his blue suit, yellow tie and black dress shoes. They turned to each other. "This guy's crazy!" they howled. "This guy's nuts!" They turned to their 18 teammates outside—in their Sunday best, in their boxers, in their bare feet—sprinting off through the mud and rain ... vanishing into the tunnel.

******

The athletic director relished that story. "A man of action!" he chortled. Paul Dee had opened a new door, made a choice that no other football power—not Ohio State or Southern Cal or Michigan or Texas or Florida or Florida State or LSU or Alabama or Auburn—had been willing to. He'd handed the keys to a black man who'd beaten the past out of himself, to see if the man could do it to a team.

"I consider him a friend, and I'd never known what he'd been through until he got the head-coaching job," says former Hurricanes center Don Bailey, now a radio analyst. "It made me cry. It made him super-human in my eyes. He's lived through every headline in The Miami Herald and come out on top.

"He'll win a national championship. It's a matter of when, not if. It'll be a different team. He'll have them hitting like they've never hit before. He's the quiet storm. He'll create an intensity, a desire, a fever. Because he'll make everyone ante up. But he'll win a million battles more important than a national championship along the way. He'll change lives. He'll save lives."

The new coach told his players, at that first meeting, that he still wants his office to be their living room, still wants to help them sort out their lives. But could a head coach at this level, with all the demands on his time, have players lounging in the control room? Could he create a tunnel that large and see everything outside of it that a CEO needed to see? If he changed lives and went 8--4, would that be enough?

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