OPINION: Miami's greatest win was ownership of failure at a difficult time
The Miami Hurricanes didn’t look right last Saturday against North Carolina. They didn’t look right in any way, shape or form.
Appearances were not deceiving.
The Canes weren’t right. They were not close to right.
This is not a story about excuses. A team gets beat 62-26, allows an insane 778 yards of total offense, and there are no excuses that apply under any circumstances.
“The opening statement is that we got our ass kicked,” head coach Manny Diaz said before a single explanation was asked of him.
It was an understatement. No Miami team had ever been beaten like that, had not been run on for 554 yards by an opponent or given up that many yards. It was the wrong kind of history for sure.
“A humiliating performance,” Diaz said.
He didn't even try to offer an explanation. Diaz and his players and coaches took every bit of the heat coming their way. Nobody tried to explain the how or why beyond that the most explosive offensive football team in the country had a great game plan that day and got it all rolling.
Not the safeties who were late to the ball and missing tackles all day who didn’t tell anybody about how their position coach had literally been missing from the building for 27 days.
When the going got tough very early at Hard Rock Stadium, Ephraim Banda couldn’t be there to help his kids make the adjustments they badly needed to make. He couldn’t calm them down amid the chaos as Carolina’s offense kept coming and coming with force.
Banda was at home watching the debacle on television. The coronavirus which ravaged his body in mid-November had led to pneumonia which segued to having to rush himself to the hospital twice because his heart started beating out of his chest and he was gasping for air. There were times when he couldn't even lift his body off the couch to attend a meeting via Zoom.
Banda had long since sent his family away so they wouldn’t get sick like him. So he was sitting there all alone for almost a month trying to reconcile what was going on inside his body when all he really wanted was to help his players figure out how to slow down Carolina’s offense. It was like having a nightmare. Banda could see and feel everything that was going on at the stadium, but couldn't do anything to make it stop.
The defensive linemen who couldn’t stop North Carolina’s running game? They didn’t muster up excuses either. They didn't tell anybody about how they had also been missing their coach for more than a month.
Todd Stroud was crushed by the coronavirus worse than Banda. The truth is that he probably never should have even tried to coach this season. Stroud has lived the past decade with Amyloidosis, which occurs when a substance called amyloid, an abnormal protein that is produced in bone marrow, builds up in someone's tissue or organs. It affects different organs in different people, choosing indiscriminately between the heart, kidneys, liver, spleen, nervous system and digestive tract. It is supposed to lead to organ failure. There's no cure. Treatments, which resemble chemotherapy, can help manage symptoms, limit the production of amyloid protein and extend a life for what until Stroud came along was believed to be a very short time. Stroud was never supposed to be at Miami coaching the defensive lineman, much less during the worst pandemic of our lifetime which was spreading like wildfire across the community and ultimately the University of Miami campus. His preexisting condition only left him more exposed than anybody else.
So for more than a month, Stroud found himself fighting for his life for the second time in his life. "I'll tell you what not to do," Stroud once told me. "If someone tells you that you are sick, don't go to Google and look it up." This time Stroud went into the hospital and battled for air and life like there was no tomorrow, not too dissimilar from what he did the first time all those years ago. They say experience counts for a lot and Stroud made it through this time also, finally rejoining the team in the hours before the North Carolina game.
Blake Baker, the defensive coordinator everyone is pointing fingers at now, missed more than 12 days. The only defensive coaches who didn’t get coronavirus in the past few weeks were strikers coach Jonathan Patke and cornerbacks coach Mike Rumph.
Vinny Scavo, the head trainer who is a vital artery of the football program, tested positive two days after the Hurricanes returned from Virginia Tech. He toughed it out for a couple weeks until he couldn't bear it anymore. Doctors came over and took him to the hospital the day after Thanksgiving. Scavo also was able to make it back to work just before the Carolina game.
So is everything the Miami program collectively went through over the last month an excuse for the way the team played against North Carolina?
No. There are no excuses. Not even when a team can't come close to normal game preparation.
Did it all impact the way the Hurricanes looked and played last Saturday? It had to. How could it not?
Diaz did everything he could do to hold everything together. But think about the players. Nobody has given an exact count for how many of them got coronavirus during the season, but 17 were left home for the Duke game alone.
Imagine this. When someone tested positive for Coronavirus, they were told to go sit alone in their dorm room or bedroom and not to come out for 10-14 days. Imagine the mental toll of that isolation from the team and everybody else. And a return to football did not necessarily mean that their heart and lungs were working at full capacity. That can take weeks or months to become right again. The guys on the inactive list each week were just the ones that didn't make it back. Players were constantly coming and going from practice over the last month.
Could that have had something to do with why so many guys were missing in action at the point of attack against Carolina, why the game looked so weird? Sure it could have. But suggesting that to people would be construed as an excuse. So nobody has or will ever suggest that.
Several days later, the amazing thing about the beat down Miami took in Hard Rock Stadium last Saturday remains that nobody inside the program has told the real story that might have been behind it.
A football game that plays out like that is remarkable in its own way. And even though explanations really can sometimes fairly become construed as excuses by an angry mob, aren't facts still facts?
Maybe everybody just wanted to adhere to the code of a tightly-wound football program that tries to keep the most sensitive details of its daily on-and-off field battles in-house. Either way, the players and coaches in tandem absorbed all of the humiliation that came along with losing like that in a game with such high stakes. There understandably was a lot of it. They even are printing t-shirts about that day by the thousands in Chapel Hill right now because Carolina may never have another like it.
Good teams and programs usually find a way to get it done, whether the challenge is beating the coronavirus or defeating North Carolina. Failure is failure. Without compromise. Miami won eight out of nine times this season until it met the day that the house crumbled beneath the weight of everything that had evolved inside it for a month.
Until then, the Hurricanes might have handled the coronavirus better than maybe any team in the country. It was most likely a major part of the reason they were 8-1 entering the Carolina game. The team was built around older players who maybe missed spring practice a little less than some other younger players on opposing teams. Miami won its close games until the virus won itself and then that North Carolina team showed up clicking on all cylinders too.
The Tar Heels were so good on Saturday that they certainly would have beaten Miami on its best day. So no, there really is no room for excuses. But when Carolina got Miami’s worst, the Canes were easy pickings. And now it is Carolina that will likely go to the Orange Bowl while the Hurricanes likely end up in Orlando to play a Big 12 team, possibly Oklahoma State or Texas.
Several ACC teams have already opted out of bowl season, have waved a white flag. They don't want to deal with the virus anymore. They want to see their families and friends again. They want to be around girls without being scared they are letting their team down.
Boston College said it was all done. Pittsburgh sent word to the ACC league office that it also was finished. Several bowl games around the country have been canceled.
Diaz also discussed the concept of whether to play in a bowl game with his devastated team the other day. Enough kids said they wanted to play that the Canes are expected to field a team the week after next. There will almost certainly be some opt outs from the bowl game as there probably should be. But Miami will play in the game because enough players don’t want to go out of this season in the manner that they played against North Carolina.
That’s not why they did it all for four months. The lifestyle sacrifices. The quarantines. Sitting at a computer for eight hours at a time to try to keep up with their school work. Just eating a meal after a game was a complicated process because it couldn't be done on the team bus or plane. They called the rules "protocols."
All that to have the lasting memory be the butt kicking they received in that Carolina game?
No thank you.
So Miami plans to show up for a bowl game, likely in Orlando.
On the morning of November 20, Diaz sent out a tweet announcing that he had tested positive for the coronavirus.
“I am currently in isolation and feeling good overall,” Diaz wrote. Diaz never told the full story of what he personally went through over the next 10 days as the virus proceeded to ravage the entire program. It wreaked havoc with his breathing.
For six months Diaz had led the program through the mental warfare of trying to stay away from the pandemic, to keep the flood from coming over the walls. He won so many games because he was able to keep his team connected and motivated better than most coaches. And then just as things exploded within the team and staff, Diaz was not able to be there anymore either. The flood runneth over.
A couple of players and coaches testing positive was turning to 10. Ten was turning to 20. Before anybody realized that the air they were breathing was tainted, the virus had spread through the coaching staff and trainers, graduate assistants and quality control staffers too. Miami didn't play for 21 days. Everybody was sent home for two weeks to try to end the spread. Diaz returned November 30 to prepare for a Duke game where he would have to leave those 17 players home who had not completed all of the protocols.
These coronavirus battles have impacted every team in the country, every coach. Everyone is feeling miserable about the way the Hurricanes played against Carolina. But Duke doesn’t feel any better about how it played this entire season. The 2-8 Blue Devils allowed 56 points in the two games prior to losing to Miami 48-0. All you had to do was look at the exasperated look on Coach David Cutcliffe’s face on game day against Miami to understand the wear from those experiences. Remember this was a team that had beaten the Hurricanes two consecutive years.
Out in the Pac-12, Washington had to bow out of a game against Oregon that was to decide the conference’s Northern Division. Even after the Pac-12 awarded them a pass to the league’s title game despite that, the Huskies had to decline that too because their entire offensive line was in quarantine from the virus. Oregon was told it would replace Washington with four days to prepare for Friday night's game against USC.
These stories could go on and on and cover just about every single team in America. They are why we saw so much randomness in college football this season. The mental and physical stress has been enormous.
The United States has fallen behind nearly every other country in combating the virus and these football players and coaches couldn’t hide behind their walls from the fall surge forever. Coronavirus fatigue has coincided with the number of new cases rising 51 percent over the past month. So many people continue to defy basic health advice. So it was eventually going to catch up to most football teams.
The players and coaches gave us our games this fall. They wanted to play and coach ball because that is what they do. But there was hell to pay along the way. Getting stampeded by North Carolina was just the culmination of the Miami version of hell.
But there is a silver lining to it all as the pain of humiliation from the defeat subsides with each passing day.
Everybody in the Miami Hurricanes program is now alive and well.
The Canes march onward toward their next hurdle with full realization that a lost football game, no matter how bad and how ugly, is really not a reason to sweat right now.