Many questions surround Miami Hurricanes football program

When he announced this week that the University of Miami would opt out of the postseason for a second consecutive year, acting athletic director Blake James insisted that the football program has “a very, very bright future.”

In one respect, he is right. Of the 22 starters who will vie for the school’s first ACC Coastal Division championship Saturday against Duke, 20 will return next season. That includes players such as freshman phenom Duke Johnson, record-setting quarterback Stephen Morris and hard-hitting linebacker Denzel Perryman.

But while the on-field product is in good shape, there are no shortage of concerns inside UM’s Hecht Athletic Center.

Most of the worry revolves around the ongoing, 18-month NCAA investigation into improper benefits provided by rogue booster Nevin Shapiro. As the probe drags on, fans are left to wonder what punishment is in store for a football program that already has self-imposed an unprecedented two-year bowl ban, suspended a slew of players and begun plans for a reduced 2013 recruiting class in anticipation of penalties that will include scholarship cuts.

“I’m more optimistic than not, but the program still has a lot of hurdles to clear,” said former athletic director Sam Jankovich, who left the program two decades ago but still follows the Hurricanes closely. “You just wonder what’s coming down.”

And it’s not just the NCAA that has UM supporters jittery.

With coaching jobs beginning to open up and more vacancies at elite programs likely over the next couple of weeks, coach Al Golden figures to find his name on the wish list of several athletic directors. That may be the case at Tennessee, which fired coach Derek Dooley this week.

Golden, who signed a four-year contract extension last November that runs through the 2019 season, has been bombarded this week with questions surrounding his future. He’s adamantly declared his intention to remain at UM.

“I can see what we’re becoming and what we want to do with the program, and that vision pulls me a little bit stronger than some of these things that try and tear us apart,” he said. “I think we’re here for the right reasons, which is why you have a tendency to dig in and fight as opposed to flight.”

Despite his 6-5 record this year and 12-11 mark in almost two full seasons, the consensus among fans is that Golden is the right man for the job. He has been UM’s most visible spokesman during the Shapiro scandal and has proven his coaching ability this season, leading an inexperienced team that was picked to finish fifth in the Coastal Division to within a victory against Duke of capturing the division title.

But what happens if Tennessee or some other school presents Golden with a boatload of money and a chance to escape the turmoil that has enveloped Miami since he was hired in December 2010?

“Al Golden is a man of character, a man who believes what he is doing,” said Harry Rothwell, a former president of the Hurricane Club and a longtime booster. “But everybody has a trigger, a dollar amount that makes you say, ‘Guys I’m out of here. See you later.’ If Al left this year, it would be crippling for this program.”

The direction of the athletic department also remains in question. The position of athletic director became vacant last month when Shawn Eichorst departed to accept the same job at Nebraska after less than 20 months at Miami.

James, a bright and congenial 43-year-old former athletic director at Maine with longstanding ties to UM, has received plenty of support from boosters and others who believe he should be appointed UM’s athletic director. A member of UM’s Board of Trustees said the university has received hundreds of inquiries about the job but is not expected to hire an AD until after the NCAA wraps up its case.

If UM bypasses James and goes outside the program, Golden would be serving under his fourth athletic director in just over two years.

“I think it’s really horrible what’s transpired around that position,” said Jankovich, Miami’s athletic director from 1983 to 1990. “I’m not sure why there’s a revolving door. They have to hire someone who will show the university some loyalty rather than someone who is using it as a steppingstone.”

Alonzo Highsmith, the former UM standout and current senior executive in the Green Bay Packers’ personnel department, said it seems to him “that nobody wants to stay here and be the athletic director.”

Kirby Hocutt, who preceded Eichorst, stayed about 2 1/2 years.

“What’s that say about the program?” said Highsmith, whose son A.J. is a junior safety with the Hurricanes. “We need some stability. God forbid Al Golden leaves and we have no athletic director.”

Highsmith and other former players, including WQAM host Dan Sileo, have been highly critical of UM’s administration, starting with university president Donna Shalala. Highsmith wonders why more than a year after the Shapiro scandal broke, the only people to have paid a price are players, including those on the current squad who have been denied a chance to play for an ACC title even though they had nothing to do with NCAA rule violations.

“With any organization, it starts at the top,” Highsmith said. “If this was on my watch, it’s on me.”

Highsmith said that UM’s approach has been to appease the NCAA. The university chose to impose a second bowl ban even though James admitted this week that UM has no “guarantee” how the ban would mitigate potential penalties.

“The thing I don’t understand is why Miami didn’t put up a fight,” Highsmith said. “It’s like we put our tail between our legs and said, ‘NCAA, do what you want, but please be nice to us.’”

In the meantime, Golden prepares his players for Saturday’s game at Duke.

“We can complain all we want, but we can’t change it,” Golden said. “We want to get it fixed. Again, we didn’t ask for it, but I have confidence in the coaches and players that made a commitment to fix this. …We’ll get through it.”