March 31, 2005
CORAL GABLES Knowing that Miami is in possession of one of college basketball's hot young coaches, UM's administration decided in late March to reward Frank Haith for the Hurricanes' surprising 16-13 season, tearing up his original contract and signing him to a new five-year pact.
Whether the Hurricanes were being proactive or simply reacting to outside interest was not exactly clear. The Tennessean newspaper reported (and other sources confirmed) that Tennessee associate athletic director John Currie had contacted Haith about the Volunteers' vacancy after the dismissal of Buzz Peterson. But all it took to get the Miami deal done was a few hours, an indication that it may have been in the works for some time.
Miami athletic director Paul Dee approached Haith on the morning of March 23 about finalizing a deal, and one was agreed upon by the afternoon.
"I want to be at Miami. I don't have interest in any other jobs," said Haith, who was named a National Association of Basketball Coaches district coach of the year for what he was able to accomplish with a transfer-depleted roster. "My loyalty is to Miami, because these are the people who gave me my start. Now they've given me a tremendous commitment, so we can continue to build."
Terms of Haith's new contract, which runs through the 2009-10 season, were not disclosed, but it is believed to average somewhere in the neighborhood of $550,000 to $600,000 a year. That still leaves him as one of the lowest-paid head coaches in the ACC in the two major sports. But no matter what the exact figure, it marked a substantial raise from the five-year deal Haith signed a year ago, which averaged about $450,000 per season.
Last spring, Miami's search for a new coach was limited by numerous financial restraints. UM owed Haith's predecessor, Perry Clark, the little over $2 million that was left on the remaining three years of his contract. The university also was responsible for its exit fee to the Big East, plus an entry fee for joining the ACC.
Some of those bills are still on the books, but after watching Haith work with his staff, develop players and put together one of the ACC's better 2004-05 recruiting classes, Dee felt a raise would be a wise investment. The program's continued success only would escalate the price to keep Haith, and any well-publicized outside interest in the coach might start to chip away at the program's recruiting efforts.
"We just wanted to be proactive, before the wolves started coming," Dee said. "We are extremely pleased with the success of the men's basketball program this season and look forward to the program's continued growth under Coach Haith."
The following day, Dee fired Ferne Labati, who had served as the head coach of the women's basketball team for the past 17 seasons. That decision came following Miami's disappointing 13-16 finish, which marked only the fifth time a Labati-led UM team finished below .500. Despite a close relationship with Labati, Dee was troubled by the team's inconsistency over the years and felt a change was needed.
Dee made both decisions after consulting with Miami president Donna Shalala, and it wouldn't be surprising if their conversations about the state of their various athletic programs also touched on the football team, and the status of contract talks with coach Larry Coker.
Miami's administration and Coker's agent have been discussing an extension for the past three months, but nothing has been agreed upon. That's likely an indication that this is a critical year for Coker and his staff.
Offensive Line Still Needs Work
Before the Hurricanes can make accurate assessments of the two young players who are battling for the starting quarterback spot in 2005, Miami will need to fortify its offensive line, which was erratic in pass protection early this spring.
Quarterbacks Kyle Wright and Kirby Freeman were constantly under pressure from UM's defensive front, and that hindered their efficiency during the team's early practices. It also raised some concern about their pocket presence and ability to sidestep pass-rushers.
In all fairness, the UM defense returns 10 of 11 starters from last season, and coordinator Randy Shannon has been working on a few new blitz packages. However, two of the defense's top performers, tackle Orien Harris (shoulder surgery) and linebacker Roger McIntosh (herniated disc), are sitting out during spring drills.
The offensive line also is working at a disadvantage, considering that two of the projected starters on the left side, tackle Eric Winston (ACL) and guard Tony Tella (shoulder), are sitting out the spring while rehabbing. Both are expected back in the fall. Three freshmen left tackles Tyrone Byrd and Chris Rutledge, plus redshirt freshman Derrick Morse, who started six games at right guard last season are getting most of the work in their places.
"When we have time, our passers throw completions, and that's what we have to get to," Coker said. "It is tough, because you want everything to be right. But we try to be positive about it. A lot of young players are getting playing time they wouldn't normally get. And I think, once we get our best people in there, we will be fine."
Last spring the Hurricanes had a similar problem with pass-rushing pressure, but the perception was that the defensive line would be a force in 2004-05, which wasn't the case.
It was UM's offensive line that proved to be the team's Achilles heel. The unit was plagued by inconsistency all season. Quarterback Brock Berlin was routinely under pressure, and the Hurricanes ended a six-year run in which they rushed for more than 2,000 yards in each season.
Without a vast improvement from the offensive line, it won't matter as much who's behind center, because whoever it is will be scrambling for his life much of the time. The good thing is that both Wright and Freeman have exhibited decent mobility.
"We've got a lot of work to do," offensive line coach Art Kehoe said. "You've got two young guys at left tackle. With Tella and Winston being out, you hope that changes a little bit. We're trying to build some depth, but eventually we're going to have to make some changes here."
The erratic play of the linemen at the interior spots was the most troubling to Kehoe. Neither Alex Pou nor Anthony Wollschlager, the frontrunners to start at center, was impressive early in spring drills. That prompted Coker to say that lineman A.J. Trump, a 2005 signee who didn't play center for even one down during his prep career, will have the opportunity to compete for the starting spot in the fall.
Similarly, neither Morse nor senior Tyler McMeans, who both have starting experience at right guard, has shown the coaches the consistency they hoped to see. That prompted Kehoe to give Andrew Bain and Jonathan St. Pierre opportunities to contend for the starting spots.
The one early positive was the line's ability to run-block, which allowed the coaches to get good looks at Charlie Jones, Derron Thomas and George Timmons, the team's three young tailbacks.