Mark Richt came to Miami and, in two years, made the Hurricanes an ACC Coastal Division champion for the first time in school history. The Canes played in the ACC Championship Game for a spot in the College Football Playoff. They played in the Orange Bowl game. They played in the games Miami football expects to encounter each season.
Given how marvelously successful 2017 was, and given his history at Georgia, where he won multiple SEC championships and fielded an especially strong team once every three to four years, it seemed that Richt was about to settle in for a long and prosperous tenure at Miami.
This did not mean that 2018 was going to be a great year. Before I joined Florida Football Insiders in September, I wrote this piece in August about the difficulty of following the 2017 season with another equally successful campaign.
However, while being skeptical about whether Miami could go 11-1 or even 10-2, I never thought Miami would sink to 7-5 in the regular season. More precisely, I never thought the Hurricanes would look so consistently clueless on offense. I thought this would be a 9-3 or possibly 10-2 team which would be competitive in its losses but not come up with the takeaways it gained in crucial situations last year. I didn’t think this would be a genuinely mediocre team.
Yet, that’s exactly what the 2018 Hurricanes were.
It was ugly. It was conspicuous. It was a case of substantial regression, not a slight downturn or the kind of season which, with a few bounces of the ball, could have been 11-1 again.
No, this season’s Miami offense played far too poorly to earn that benefit of the doubt.
This was a miserable autumn in which Richt lost the mustard on his fastball The good feelings in and around the Miami program after the 2017 joyride didn’t just evaporate; they evaporated and then turned to anger from fans. This never felt like a season in which fans thought, “Well, this season just didn’t break right. We’ll get ’em next year.” No, it was deeper than that. This was a season marked by thoughts such as, “How did we perform so well last season, bring people back this season, and become THIS BAD?”
The pitchforks were out for Richt in October and were never truly put away.
Okay, then. Three months were awful, but at least now Miami had four weeks to prepare for a bowl game against another 7-5 team which had conspicuously underachieved this season. Wisconsin was “Miami Midwest,” following an Orange Bowl season with a returning quarterback and several familiar faces… and utterly falling all over itself on offense. Miami looked at a beefier version of itself when it stepped into the Pinstripe Bowl to battle the Badgers.
This was a chance to get healthy in a winnable matchup against an opponent which started a backup, Jack Coan, at quarterback. With four weeks for Richt to prepare, this was a time for the head coach and offensive mastermind to show that he could coach up his quarterbacks and get them to play up to standard.
One bowl win wasn’t going to make the pain of the regular season go away. One bowl win wasn’t going to eliminate or severely reduce the problems faced by Miami — now without Manny Diaz, now without recruiting momentum, now without an 11-win season to celebrate — heading into 2019.
One bowl win, however, would have done a lot to quiet the growing fears that Richt had lost his touch. A crisp performance from his quarterbacks — not a spectacular one, but simply a display of basic competence and football IQ — would have given Richt the reassurance that he was entering 2019 with a regained sense of command over his offense. He needed that with Diaz heading to Temple.
Instead, Richt got a complete disaster. It could not have been worse.
Miami played down to the “warm weather team in cold weather” stereotype which was fully in evidence for Miami even in last year’s successful season.
The Canes played and moved like icicles in Pittsburgh. They moved as poorly against Wisconsin in New York. They were clueless on offense the whole game.
They were slow on defense at the start as they struggled to adjust to the conditions. Even against an opponent which couldn’t pass the ball with any consistency, the Canes couldn’t stop Wisconsin’s running game, which kept moving the pile and creating holes in the middle of The U’s defensive front.
Soft. Unprepared. Poorly coached.
No improvement over four weeks. No player development — especially not at quarterback — after weeks of bowl practices. No improved decisions or play calls from the offensive staff. No willingness to bench Malik Rosier at halftime (which should have been the obvious move) and give N’Kosi Perry at least a full half of football.
No brains. No clue. No toughness. No chance.
On a night in New York when Miami needed to at least show that it was capable of improving before 2019 came to a close, Miami delivered a stink bomb.
It was never the case that Richt’s job was in jeopardy this season. Miami would have become a very undesirable place for other big-name coaches if Richt had been fired this year. Other coaches would live in terror, paralyzed at the thought of virtually nonexistent job security, if they saw someone with Richt’s seniority and credentials shoved out the door ONE YEAR after an immensely successful 2017 season.
However, this Pinstripe Bowl did need to set the table for 2019. Richt did need to show to his bosses and his fan base that he could turn this ship around.
Instead, that ship ran into the hard rocks of Wisconsin’s linemen, wrecked on a December night in the Big Apple.
2018 is mercifully over for Richt and Miami. That’s the good news. The bad news is that with 2019 upon us, Richt has no more excuses and no more grace periods. He has managed to do the improbable: He has squandered every last ounce of the good will he generated in 2017. Richt has to know — and everyone in college football does as well — that if Miami doesn’t meaningfully improve in 2019, Richt will be looking for a new job. This doesn’t mean Richt has to win the ACC title or go 11-1, but it does mean that Miami has to win the games it is supposed to win.
In 2018, the quality of the ACC took a big tumble. The ACC Coastal champion, Pitt, lost five games en route to its division title and got buried by Clemson for loss number six. No ACC team other than Clemson won 10 games in the regular season. Against this version of the ACC, Miami should have been able to win at least nine games
It ended its season after the Pinstripe Bowl at 7-6, essentially a break-even team.
If the rest of the ACC remains as bad in 2019 as it was in 2018, and Miami can’t win nine games, Richt — with this 2018 disaster, capped by the Pinstripe Bowl debacle — has lost any margin for error. He has lost the benefit of the doubt he had in 2018 as his cushion, his buffer, against fan anger and displeasure.
The 2018 regular season got away from Mark Richt. The Pinstripe Bowl was a time to reshape attitudes.
Richt, as everyone can see, spectacularly failed to do that.
The hot seat talk — relative to the 2018 season — never added up.
Now we’re focused on 2019, though. Feeling warm yet, coach?
If this mess isn’t fixed, the 2020s will begin with yet another man calling the shots in Coral Gables.
We will see if this storied football school endures yet one more U Turn before the end of this decade. Games as bad as the Pinstripe Bowl should have been consigned to Miami’s past, but they are clearly still part of the present moment. Miami administrators are left to wonder if they will continue to be part of the future.
That’s exactly why Mark Richt took a tremendous 2017 season and exhausted its measure of value in the subsequent 12 months.
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