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A Golden Moment

With a high-profile NCAA investigation behind him and a top-tier recruiting class headed his way, Coach Al Golden is ready to take “The U” back to the top of college football
By Gaspar González | From Rob Lowe, July/August 2014
A Golden Moment

It was the biggest game of Al Golden’s college football playing career. He and his Penn State Nittany Lions teammates were playing No. 1-ranked Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana, the Land of Knute Rockne, the Dome and Touchdown Jesus. “They jumped all over us early in that game,” remembers the former tight end, talking about the 1990 contest. After falling behind 21-7, Penn State came back to tie the score in the fourth quarter when Golden caught a 14-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Tony Sacca. A late field goal gave Penn State the win, 24-21.

The game is part of Penn State football lore, but it has stayed with Golden for another reason.

“I had actually dropped a pretty pivotal pass in the first [half],” he says. “After you make a play like that, it’s easy to get discouraged, but everybody stuck with me and, because of that, I had an opportunity to atone.”

A chance to fix mistakes. It’s become a theme of Golden’s career, even when the mistakes haven’t been his. Golden is entering his fourth season as head coach of the University of Miami Hurricanes. His first three seasons were spent trying to hold together the program while investigators for the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) probed links between former Hurricanes players and a convicted South Florida Ponzi schemer who had been a high-profile booster in the pre-Golden era.

The NCAA finally closed the books on the investigation in October 2013, wiping the slate clean for Golden. Now, with one of the top incoming recruiting classes in the nation, the coach can do what he’s always done: Put the focus back on football. And winning.

If you’d been following Pop Warner Football in Matawan, New Jersey, in the early 1980s, you probably wouldn’t have had much trouble identifying the 12-year-old with the bright gridiron future. He was the one knocking opposing players out of games. After sidelining two kids in two games, says Golden, “I actually got a lecture on, ‘OK, let’s try not to hurt anyone this week.’ ”

The intensity carried over to the family’s backyard, where the preferred game for the Golden boys—Al and his two brothers, Greg and Shaun—wasn’t cowboys and Indians, but Cowboys and Steelers. “Al used to wear a Jack Lambert jersey religiously,” says Shaun, now the Sheriff of Monmouth County, New Jersey. “I used to have a Roger Staubach jersey.” Turns out, they were appropriately dressed for their respective roles. “Al used to give me some beat downs in those pick-up games,” he says.

Family life for the Goldens was typically middle-class. Golden’s dad, Al Sr., was an executive at Dean Witter who commuted to Manhattan every day; mom Toni, originally from Italy, was a homemaker. By the time Al Jr. was a freshman in high school, the family had moved from Matawan to nearby Colts Neck. Al Jr. enrolled in Red Bank Catholic High School, drawn there by head football coach Lou Montanaro.

Golden quickly stood out for his play on the field, and for his pregame ritual: Hyperventilating. Team coaches would keep paper bags handy, so their tight end could blow into them. “It was one of those deals where the coaches would be, like, ‘Are the guys ready to play?’ says Golden. “I guess they knew the team was ready if I was ready to pass out.”

It was the summer before his junior year that Golden came to his father and told him about a high school football camp that was being held in State College, Pennsylvania, home of Penn State. Al Sr. bought him a Trailways bus ticket. “It was the ultimate show of empowerment,” Golden says. “It was like he was saying, ‘This is what you want to do? This is your dream? Go get it.’ I’ve always thought that was pretty cool.”

At the time, Penn State was one of the elite programs in college football. They’d won the national title in 1982 and were on their way to a second one in 1986. “To me, it was Penn State and [everybody else was] the Seven Dwarfs,” says Golden.

The young Golden got what he wanted: a scholarship offer to Penn State. There, under Coach Joe Paterno, he became a team captain, earned a bachelor’s degree, and, more through hard work than natural talent, kept alive his dream of playing in the National Football League. (For a glimpse of Golden in the weight room at Penn State circa 1990, go to YouTube and search “Al Golden Training Video.”)

In 1992, the New England Patriots signed him out of college. Golden didn’t catch a pass all season. Not that it would have made much of a difference. The Patriots won only two games and booted head coach Dick MacPherson at season’s end. The new coach promised to shake things up. He started with the roster.

“People ask me how I know Bill Parcells,” says Golden, setting the listener up for the punch line. “I tell them, ‘Because he’s the guy who cut me.’ ” Golden plays the story for laughs, but it was a turning point in his life. “Coach Parcells laid it out for me,” says Golden. “He said, ‘I’ve seen guys like you bounce around the NFL. But you don’t have to do that. There are a lot of other things you can do.’ ”

With Parcells’s encouragement, Golden turned his sights to coaching. In 1994, he enrolled at the University of Virginia, as a graduate student in the sports psychology department, where he studied with the renowned golf guru Dr. Bob Rotella. He also served as a graduate assistant on the Cavaliers football team, working with linebackers and special teams. The switch to defense? “Probably one of the best things I ever did,” says Golden.

Two more stints as a linebacker coach followed. The first was at Boston College from 1997 to 1999; the second, a one-year return to Penn State in 2000, where he was reunited with Paterno. While there, Golden met his future wife, Kelly, who was working in the football affairs office.

The following year, he returned to Virginia and, at age 31, became the youngest defensive coordinator in Division I-A college football. Golden spent five seasons at Virginia, leading a unit that consistently ranked in the top third of scoring defenses in major college football. With that stat on his resume, somebody was bound to offer him a head coaching spot.

It turned out to be Temple University in Philadelphia, a school with a football team so bad it had gone 0-11 in 2005, and that was the season after it had been dropped by the Big East conference for, among other things, failing to compete. If college football programs were cars, the Temple Owls would have been a Yugo, stranded on the side of the road. On fire. “They were ranked 120th out of 120 teams,” says Golden.

Nevertheless, he took the job. Not long after, in a harbinger of post-hiring surprises to come in his career, he found out the NCAA was taking away nine football scholarships from the Owls because the team had failed to comply with basic academic standards.

No matter. Golden got to work. After going 1-11 in 2006, the Owls steadily improved. In 2009, they went to their first bowl game in 30 years, and only their second since 1934 (when Pop Warner himself coached there). That was also the season Golden ditched his usual sweatshirt and began dressing in a shirt and tie on the sidelines. It was his mother’s idea. “She said I looked like shit,” he says, laughing. “After I started wearing a tie, we started winning, so I kept wearing it.”

By 2010, Golden was a hot commodity, and many believed his next job was all but waiting for him: Penn State, where he would take over for Paterno. Even before the child sexual abuse scandal that would tear at the foundations of Nittany Lions football in 2011—a subject Golden won’t discuss—Joe Pa’s 40-plus-year tenure as Penn State head coach was seen as nearing its inevitable end. He was in his early 80s; how much longer could he go on?

Golden, on the other hand, was barely 40, and a Penn State guy. He had demonstrated he could turn around an ailing program. It seemed like a natural fit to almost everyone—except Golden. “I always looked at it like that was Coach Paterno’s job,” he says. And Paterno, at least at that moment, wasn’t going anywhere. So when the Hurricanes, coming off a disappointing four-year run under Randy Shannon, offered Golden the head football job, he didn’t hesitate. “It was just too good of an opportunity to pass up,” he says. “You’re talking about the program that had the most players in the NFL, had the most first-round draft picks in the last 12 years, played for more national titles than anybody else in the last 30 years, won more national titles than anybody in the last 30 years.”

It’s the same list of program accomplishments Golden ticks off for potential recruits these days, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t believe what he’s selling. He does. It’s the reason he and his wife Kelly packed up their three kids—son A.J. and daughters Addison and Grace—and moved to Miami. Go get it.

For all its rich history, the team Golden was inheriting was a far cry from Jimmy Johnson’s or Dennis Erickson’s or (even) Larry Coker’s Hurricanes. “The U” had averaged only seven victories the previous four seasons and had never won the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) title since moving from the Big East in 2004. Its last national championship had been in 2001, almost a decade before—which, for Hurricanes fans, can seem like a very long time. [Disclosure: My wife is a professor at UM; I’ve taught there as well.]

Golden had an extensive to-do list, but he also had a blueprint. It was contained in a 300-page spiral notebook he’d brought with him when he arrived on campus in December 2010. The motto “Deserve Victory” was emblazoned on its cover. By summer, says Golden, everything was going according to plan: “We were getting to know our team, we were implementing our program, and we were excited.” Then came August 16, 2011. That’s when, in Golden’s words, “a bomb went off.”

Yahoo Sports published an article detailing the program’s ties to Nevin Shapiro, a flashy booster who liked to prowl the sidelines of games and was known to party with Hurricanes players. In the article, Shapiro, who only weeks earlier had been sentenced to 20 years in federal prison for his part in a $900 million Ponzi scheme, claimed that, between 2002 and 2010, he had provided UM players with cash, jewelry, prostitutes and other amenities generally frowned upon by the NCAA.

“I couldn’t conceive it,” says Golden. The NCAA announced it was investigating the program. The prospect of the so-called death penalty hung in the air. No more football at The U. And Golden had yet to coach his first game. “Can you imagine being the coach and your team is in Sports Illustrated, and not because you did something good, but because they want your school to drop football?” he asks.

Golden could have bolted. Few would have blamed him. After all, he hadn’t made the mess; why should he have to be the one to clean it up? It was Kelly, says Golden, who put the situation in stark relief. “To leave now means [Shapiro] wins,” she told her husband. Golden stayed put. “I’m sure it was tough for him,” says his brother Shaun. “You think you have this dream job—and it’s not.”

Spend even the slightest time around a major college football program and the thing you’re immediately struck by is how button-down the whole operation is. The romantic image of the hard-drinking, hard-charging, foul-mouthed, win-at-all-costs football coach? Maybe in old movies. The position these days requires a combination strategist (on and off the field), salesman, brand manager, politician and CEO, equally at ease with players, donors, alums and the college administration.
Golden fit the mold from the moment he walked through the door at UM. “He’s very modern in his approach,” says Jesse Marks, associate athletic director for development. “He relates well to the players and, when it comes to fundraising and marketing, he understands what appeals to our fan base. He’s the complete package.”

Arthur Hertz, a UM alum and prominent supporter of the football program, says simply of Golden: “He’s grounded.”

The ‘Canes, playing under duress, went 6-6 in 2011 and 7-5 in 2012. In both seasons, the university imposed a bowl ban on the team, hoping to show it was serious about cleaning up its act. Meanwhile the NCAA investigation dragged on. Through it all, Golden kept his optimism. “He was the anchor,” says Marks. “He was the one who kept us looking forward to better days.”

While he waited for those better days, Golden took refuge in family and perhaps the one other uncomplicated pleasure in his life: cigars. Golden has been an aficionado since his Temple offensive line coach, Bob Bicknell, first got him hooked. (In what Hurricanes fans will surely consider an ironic twist, Bicknell’s brother Jack was the Boston College center who snapped the ball to quarterback Doug Flutie on the famous Hail Mary that beat UM in 1984.)

In Philly, Golden kept his smokes in a humidor in his office and mostly burned them on drives home: “It would be spring or summer and I’d be stuck in that Schuylkill [Expressway] traffic and I’d just pop the sunroof.” In Miami, he’s found himself smoking under more enjoyable circumstances. “Here,” says Golden, “I’ll usually smoke after a day at the beach, or while I’m playing golf.” He also likes to visit a cigar lounge only a few miles from campus.

Located in a strip mall on Miami’s Bird Road and surrounded by Cuban eateries, hair salons and discount stores, it’s the kind of place you’d expect would suit Golden: low-key, unpretentious, but well appointed with overstuffed club chairs and flat-screen TVs. The best part is, when he walks in, he’s just Al, with football questions being very low on the list of conversation topics. “Usually, Jesse [Marks] and I will go in the back and just hang out with the old-timers,” says Golden.

Indeed, when he walks in on a recent spring afternoon, it’s surprising to see how many of the regulars he knows. But he’s got a funny story about that. A couple of years ago, his son was playing a Little League game in Little Havana when the clouds rolled in, forcing a rain delay. “I ended up going to the Padrón shop,” says Golden. “When I get there, the ladies out front are, like, ‘Sign your name here.’ I didn’t know what was going on.” When they led him to the rear of the store, he found there were “200 guys back there, smoking.”

Golden inadvertently had walked into a meeting of “The Bastards” cigar club, a diverse collection of local characters partial to good times and Padrón cigars. Jorge Padrón was there and introduced him to a number of the group’s members, many of whom also frequent the Bird Road lounge. “It was classic Miami,” says Golden, adding that Padrón’s 1964 Anniversary Series has been a favorite for some time.

He probably lit up a few during the 2013 season, when the Hurricanes posted a 9-4 record and, more importantly, when the NCAA, after a long and messy investigation—one in which the agency admitted to improperly working with Shapiro’s lawyer to obtain information—handed down a surprisingly light penalty: three years’ probation and the loss of 12 scholarships.

For Golden, the shackles were off. “For three recruiting cycles, we were impeded,” he says. “I never knew how many scholarships we had, or how many we were going to have to give up.” Other teams took advantage of the uncertainty around the program to lure away prized recruiting targets.

No more. Scout.com ranks Miami’s 2014 recruiting class as the 11th strongest in the nation, and second in the ACC behind only national champ Florida State. “We’re not back,” Golden cautions. “To get all the way back, you have to have layers and layers of good players, guys who have been in your system. But I’m excited heading into 2014.”

He knows he won’t be cut much slack. He ruffled feathers this past January when he appeared to flirt too long with the most recent coaching vacancy at Penn State. Former Hurricane Warren Sapp, in particular, took aim at Golden for that, while also blaming him for the ‘Canes’ late-season defensive woes in 2013. Meanwhile, this season, fans are looking for the team to compete for the ACC title.

Don’t expect Golden to be rattled by the pressure. He’s been through worse. “It’s like that line in The Godfather II,” he says, sounding very much like the Jersey guy he is. “ ‘This is the business we’ve chosen.’ That’s the deal.”

Gaspar González is a Miami-based writer and filmmaker.

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