It was somewhat of a throwaway article in Wednesday’s Miami Herald, but it ultimately served as a reminder that the Miami Hurricanes are in good hands with head coach Mark Richt—especially in regards to tradition and pushing all the right mental and emotional buttons.

The Canes held their final fall scrimmage on Wednesday at Miami Southridge High School; Richt throwing in a twist to challenge the first team, putting them in a 17-0 hole for the fictitious third quarter—while the rest of the squad played the role of LSU; UM’s opponent in the Dallas-hosted season-opener.

The first team scrapped back and took a 21-17 lead, which caused Richt to toss in some extra adversity in the form of a mythical fumble resulting in a touchdown—making it, 24-21, Faux Tigers. A subsequent field goal put the first-stringers down, 27-21 when less than two minutes remaining—with the challenge of going 75 yards, minus any timeouts.

Ahmmon Richards hauled in a touchdown from Malik Rosier, while freshman kicker Bubba Baxa drilled the extra point for the 28-27 “victory”. Mission accomplished.

On the surface, just another scrimmage with some added motivation less than two weeks before kickoff—but at Miami, psychology and coach-imposed head games have sort of been the foundation on which great Hurricanes teams were built. Richt is wired the same way as past greats, which bodes well for UM’s immediate future.

HEAD GAMES : IT’S YOU AND ME, BABY

Jimmy Johnson picked up two Super Bowl rings and a national championship in a three-decade long career, but in all reality fell into coaching by chance. Johnson originally planned to be an industrial psychologist, putting his degree from the University of Arkansas to good use. Instead, he wound up with a temporary coaching assignment at Louisiana Tech.

The Bulldogs ran a defense similar to the one Johnson played in with the Razorbacks, so when defensive coordinator George Dodder suffered a heart attack, the undrafted former linebacker fell into what looked like a three-month stint coaching and recruiting.

“They said, ‘Maybe we can hire him for three months—a thousand dollars a month, give me a car and an apartment, so I said, okay,” Johnson shared with Curt Menefee years back.

“I actually planned on going back and getting my master’s and going into psychology.”

For those who don’t understand “industrial or organizational psychology”, it’s the scientific study of employees, workplaces and organizations. The role of this type of psychologist; to improve the performance, satisfaction, safety, health and well-being of its employees—which obviously translated well to football as far as JJ’s path was concerned.

Johnson’s football resume when landing at Miami for the 1984 season, replacing the departed Howard Schnellenberger and taking over the unexpected defending national champions—it was rather pedestrian. The five years Schnelly was transforming UM into “The U”, Johnson amassed a 29-25-3 record at Oklahoma State, always finishing in the middle of the Big Eight pack, while never once toppling giants like Oklahoma and Nebraska.

Once at Miami, Johnson put together a defense tailor made to dismantle the types of squads he lost to in Stillwater—dismantling the wishbone and option—and beating the Sooners for a national championship, while setting up the Canes to be a thorn in the Huskers’ side for year. (Payback is a bitch.)

That motivation in itself is a psychology study all of its own, to be unpacked at another time. For now, let’s stay the course.

Johnson took his unique mindset to Dallas after leaving Miami, where he pulled off the most-lopsided trade in NFL history—a bad team dumping it’s best player (Herschel Walker) for draft picks that ultimately set the Cowboys up to become champions.

After a 1-15 run Johnson’s first season in 1989, Dallas improved to 7-9 in 1990 and 11-5 in 1991, losing in the second round of the playoffs. From there, 13-3 in 1992, winning Super Bowl XXVII—and repeating the feat in Super Bowl XXVIII, going back-to-back with a 12-4 season in 1993.

NFL Network footage from the Cowboys’ 1993 training camp showed Johnson working to keep his team focused, motivated and hungry after winning the franchises first championship in 15 seasons and third overall.

“In order to win back-to-back, you’ve got to work—because if you don’t, they’ll become complacent,” Johnson explains, while challenging his players—questioning if they have what it takes to individually be better before the start of next season.

As the clip rolls on, a 25-year old moment comparable to Richt’s recent approach with the Southridge scrimmage as Johnson puts Lin Elliott in an in-game scenario, describing the scene—down 14-13 to Washington at RFK with :10 left in the game, wind behind, wind to the left, challenging his rookie kicker to focus and to envision success.

Lin made the kick and Dallas theoretically won, 16-14.

A quote machine, many Johnsonisms are on display throughout the piece—most-notably, the what the head coach believes to be a self-fulfilling prophecy: “Treat a person as he is and he will remain as he is. Treat a person as if were what he could be a should be and he’ll become what he could be and should be.”

Johnson also explained that he treats his team as winners and a championship team, because that’s where he believed they were headed in 1993—and he was correct as Dallas whooped Buffalo, 30-13.

Everything that manifested in Dallas en route to championships and a franchise turnaround; it truly started while at Miami.

JOHNSON : 101 — “JJ” WAS BORN AT “THE U”

In one of the deleted scenes from 30 For 30 documentary on the Canes; another one of Johnson’s calculated head games was on display—the implementation of 10:00 p.m. Thursday night team meetings. The thought process; it’d keep guys from going out two nights before a game, where they could find trouble, or at minimum be too tired to attend classes on Friday.

Where the up-and-coming coach took things next level; how he chose to use the time.

“It evolved into something that I thought was very important for our team, because we never, ever talked about football,” Johnson shared with the Rakontur crew as cameras rolled.

“That meeting was just me with the players and I talked to them about, ‘What are you going to do when you leave the University of Miami—and don’t tell me you’re gonna to play pro football. Tell me how you’re going to earn a living. You tell me how you’re gonna support your family’—and I’d go one-by-one with them and talk about life, and talk about how we’re going to be successful—and I thought it was one of the most-important things we did at the University of Miami.”

Some psychological misdirection and a plan intended to keep players focused and out of trouble before the big game—it became the cornerstone of the “U Family” movement and an experience that players still carry to this day.

JOHNSON FAMILY TREE ROLLS THE SAME WAY

This attitude and approach was something that also trickled down to JJ’s assistants; most-notably, Butch Davis—who coached under Johnson at Miami, followed him to Dallas and wound up back with the Canes in 1995 after Dennis Erickson bailed out, leaving the program on probation and in rough shape.

Davis immediately cleaned house internally, laying down a new law for his remaining players. He also reached out to then-Pittsburgh Steelers general manager Tom Donahoe, who was on Davis’ radar from his NFL days.

Davis noticed that the Steelers had gone half a decade without any players testing positive for NFL drug tests, so he asked Donahoe how they were finding success where other franchises weren’t. Donahoe steered Davis towards sports psychologist Dr. Kevin Elko.

Elko’s task regarding a Miami program stripped of 31 scholarships that needed next-level discernment in the recruiting process; identifying the right fit.

“He (Elko) became an integral part in helping us identify, in those classes, guys that were leaders. Is it all about him, or is it about his team. Is he willing to come in and make some of those kids of sacrifices—because it wasn’t going to be easy,” Davis explained in The U Part 2.

This was the era a 2-star out of Louisiana like Ed Reed found his way to Coral Gables—and by 2001, when Davis had left for the NFL and the senior safety return for a run at the national title, Reed’s leadership played a monster role in guiding that talented squad, under first-year head coach Larry Coker.

Reed’s leadership is still felt today, as his mentoring of Jaquan Johnson played a huge role in the safety returning in 2018 for his senior season.

“He (Reed) said, ‘You know the NFL wants you. Why even think about it? Just go out and have fun with your brothers, go out and play,” Johnson told the Sun-Sentinel, regarding Reed’s advice. “You know you’re going to go, so go to work.’ That was one of the best pieces of advice I’ve gotten so far through this process.”

COMPLETE PACKAGE NECESSARY FOR ULTIMATE SUCCESS

All this to say, the mental approach only works if the X’s and O’s are there to back it up.

Former head coach Al Golden was also a psychology enthusiast, rolling south from the northeast with a 300-page binder and endless key phrases about “deserving victory” and pillars of success. Lost in that process—understanding one’s audience and tailoring the pitch towards the players he was coaching.

Golden was a captain at Penn State and kneeled at the alter of Joe Paterno; the Nittany Lions having long been the polar opposite of the Hurricanes, culture-wise. Between the wrong approach regarding connecting with, or motivating players—as well as the scheme-related issues; running a 3-4 defense, where South Florida’s best attack, while relying in instinct and physicality—Freud-level understanding wouldn’t have made a difference with a wrong-fit leader; which brings it all back to Richt.

Conversely, Davis took his act to North Carolina after his NFL days in Cleveland came to an end—where he had success with the Tar Heels, though it took some book-cooking for quality football talent to stick around Chapel Hill.

These days, Davis is back in Miami—albeit 20 minutes northwest or Coral Gables, at Florida International—where he’ll never have Hurricane-level talent to work his metal magic on.

Miami’s current leader is a former player, who understands the local culture—while a proven success; as an offensive coordinator coaching-up Heisman-winning quarterbacks at Florida State, en route to two national titles, as well as resurrecting a Georgia program in the early 2000s, that had become middle-of-the-road since early 1980’s success.

Like Davis, Richt has also brought a sports psychologist into the fold for Miami—though little has been said about it, outside a throwaway comment in the media months back.

“You look at the staff—the strength staff, the nutritionist, we’re hiring a sports psychologist—even the football coaches and the salary pool … Miami has made the commitment to keep and hire great coaches. All those are things that you need to help develop these players into great players, great people, and great students,” Richt told the Sun-Sentinel back in June.

PROVEN PATH TO SUCCESS

The Canes lost their way over the past decade-and-a-half; a safe, interim-type hire in Coker, that lasted too long due to an abundance of talent on the field—followed by a safe, inexpensive choice in Randy Shannon, at a time the job had lost its luster. Golden was another low-cost long shot Miami’s then-leaders hoped would pay off, but it too failed miserably—but it paved the way to Richt, which is proving to be the epitome of the right guy, in the right place at the right time.

Competition remains stiff across the college football landscape as other programs improved, while the Canes fell apart—but for the first time in a long time, Miami is finally on the right path—with Richt following his version of a tried and true blueprint that’s paved the way to success and championships for his predecessors.

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