Although he'd never say so, Miami coach Randy Shannon's future was most uncertain a year ago.
Months of talking about a new contract for Shannon had gone almost nowhere, and he was faced with the unenviable task of trying to convince recruits to spend the next four years of their lives at Miami — while unable to guarantee them he'd actually be with the Hurricanes past the 2010 season.
"It was tough," Shannon said.
Not anymore. A new four-year contract was hammered out in May, giving Shannon some measure of security. And with a depth chart that's finally loaded to his liking, Shannon thinks he might have the kind of team he needs to get the Hurricanes thinking about winning college football's biggest prize again.
When No. 13 Miami opens its season Thursday night against Florida A&M, Shannon believes he'll be sending the most talented Hurricanes team of his four-year tenure onto the field. All they have to do now, he says, is go out and prove him right.
"I think when he came in, he had to establish his new rules, his new regime," Miami kicker Matt Bosher said. "I think he did that. He came in and led with an iron fist for a while. Now he's kind of letting the team police ourselves before he had to step in. He's letting the senior class have a lot more responsibility and the team have a lot more accountability ... which I think is a good sign."
By now, his rules are well-known. Go to class. (The Hurricanes rank among major college football's leaders in the NCAA's Academic Progress Rate.) Don't get in trouble. (Only one player has been arrested in Shannon's three-plus years, and that was on a misdemeanor charge.) Make sure no one calls the coach's cell phone after midnight to report an issue.
All those changes in the off-field makeup are complete. The only thing left to do is win.
"There is such a need for a guy like Randy," said Florida A&M coach Joe Taylor, a Shannon fan who'll be a foe Thursday night. "He stands for all the good things. Not only is he a role model himself, but he's affecting that city in a very positive way. There's trouble all around the city. When you establish a program that mothers and fathers can point their kids to, then you're doing a great job."
True, Shannon's mission is much bigger than what Hurricane fans might see.
He's a father figure to dozens of his players, many of whom turn to him when they have no one else to talk with, and those conversations are rarely about football. Running back Graig Cooper endured two bouts of personal tragedy this offseason, the specifics of which he wouldn't disclose, only to say that both times he turned to Shannon for advice on how to survive it all.
"It's not about football," Cooper said. "He teaches you how to be a man."
Then there's the off-the-field schedule that few are ever made privy to. Shannon — whose father was murdered and who lost three siblings to drug- and AIDS-related issues — goes into prisons, jails, halfway houses, wherever he can find a captive audience to talk about dealing with the adversities.
And those talks rarely revolve around football.
Miami was 5-7 his first season, then 7-6, then 9-4 a year ago. The Hurricanes haven't won an Atlantic Coast Conference title yet, and haven't won a bowl game since squeaking past Nevada in 2006 — the final game before Shannon took over the program.
Just about everything about the Hurricanes has changed since.
"We do not want to mess up coach Shannon's image, or tarnish his name or the University of Miami program," quarterback Jacory Harris said. "We're not kids who were raised doing things that way. Some of us may have broken pasts, but at the same time, we understand that we're in college now. We're grown men. We have to be mature young adults."
When players understand that, the winning simply has to fall into place, Shannon said.
Those close to Shannon — his tight circle of friends, his assistants, even some of Miami's upperclassmen — say he's calmer entering this season than any of his three previous with the Hurricanes.
Maybe it's the new contract. Maybe it's the sense Miami could be in the Bowl Championship Series hunt again.
Whatever it is, Shannon insists he's no different now than he was when the rebuilding process started in 2007, or when the contract talks were going nowhere in 2009.
"I'm kind of a confident guy," Shannon said. "I take pride in the guys I work with and the players are those guys. I don't know if there's pressure. I think you can see some great things about to happen here. You know when you're about to take that next step and go over the top. I think we're sitting there right now."