From Shuttered to Sensational: Miami’s Rise to Prominence

Jim Larranaga has taken the Miami Hurricanes to new heights in 2013.
Jim Larranaga has taken the Miami Hurricanes to new heights in 2013.

For Miami, Saturday’s win over Clemson marked more than the end of a long regular season or the triumph of taking home the ACC regular season championship.  It also marked the culmination of a journey spanning four decades to the national forefront.

When Miami joined the Atlantic Coast Conference in 2004, it was the Hurricanes’ football program garnering headlines nationally.  The 1980s saw the explosion of Miami football from private school afterthought to national championship contender.  Miami boasted five national championships, two Heisman Trophy winners, nine Big East Conference championships, and four consecutive BCS bowl appearances when they made the jump to the ACC. Relatively speaking, Miami basketball was an afterthought.

While documentaries and books have been written about the revival of Miami football, the lack of success surrounding their basketball counterpart has kept that program under wraps.  If Jim Larranaga is able to build on this season and turn the Hurricanes into a perennial contender, it would be an even greater turnaround story.

The Hurricanes had three All-Americans during the 1960s, including eventual NBA All-Star Rick Barry, but attendance issues left the university no choice but to shutter the program. Miami’s last basketball game prior to that date was March 2, 1971, when the Hurricanes defeated the Jacksonville Dolphins 94-75.  While Howard Schnellenberger was leading the Hurricanes to their first football national championship in the fall of 1983, the University’s Board of Trustees were voting to reinstate the men’s basketball program.

The Hurricanes hired Bill Foster from Clemson, where he had coached for the past nine seasons, to lead Miami upon its return.  Foster hired Clint Bryant, an assistant of his from Clemson, and Seth Greenberg, then an assistant under Terry Holland at Virginia, to join the new staff.

The new Hurricanes first took the floor against The Citadel on November 22, 1985, winning 85-77.  Miami posted a 14-14 record in that opening season and were 78-71 overall under Foster.  The Hurricanes had some bright moments, such as an upset of Kansas in 1989 and Florida in 1990.  After Bill Foster announced his resignation, Miami hired Leonard Hamilton from Oklahoma State to lead the Hurricanes, while they transitioned to the Big East.  They struggled mightily during the first four seasons under Hamllton, going 34-80 overall and 8-46 against Big East opponents.

Hamilton turned a corner starting with the 1994-95 season.  That year, the Hurricanes made their first postseason appearance in 31 years with a bid to the National Invitation Tournament.  Miami lost 62-56 in the opening round to Penn State, but the 15-13 season was good enough to earn Hamilton the National Coach of the Year award from United Press International.  Miami would make its first NCAA Tournament three seasons later, receiving the 11th seed in the South Regional of the 1998 NCAA Tournament after finishing second in the Big East.  Miami’s Tim James was named third-team All-American in 1999, and the Hurricanes reached the NCAA Sweet Sixteen in 2000.

Following that 2000 season, Hamilton was hired by the NBA’s Washington Wizards.  Hamilton’s replacement, Perry Clark, struggled to find similar success at the helm of the program.  While the Hurricanes would reach the NCAA Tournament in 2002 with a 24-8 record, they followed that season with records of 11-17 and 14-16, with eight conference wins combined during the two years.

Frank Haith was hired to replace Clark as the Hurricanes moved to the ACC. While he returned the program to the NCAA Tournament in 2008 with a 23-11 (8-8 ACC) season, the team never finished above .500 in conference play.  They also finished last in the conference twice (2007 and 2010), going 4-12 in the ACC during both of those seasons.

This season, Larranaga’s second, marks the first time Miami has won a conference regular season championship since that Sweet Sixteen season under Leonard Hamilton in 2000.  In 2000, the expectations were somewhat higher, as Miami began that season as a preseason top 25 program thanks to their NCAA Tournament appearances the previous two seasons.  However, they would spend most of that season on the border of the polls, largely overshadowed on the national stage.

There has been no such hiding in 2013.  By blowing out Duke in January, the Hurricanes emphatically announced their arrival to prominence.  When it was time for North Carolina to come to town, LeBron James and Dwyane Wade paid a visit to the BankUnited Center to see Miami give them similar treatment.  In a city loaded with entertainment options, the Miami Hurricanes basketball team has grabbed the attention of those near and far, much like the university’s football team first did thirty years ago.

Next season, Larranaga will be tasked with using this season as a foundation for future success, even with many of his players leaving  Just as Leonard Hamilton’s departure ended Miami’s run at the turn of the century, the Hurricanes will face considerable turnover next season when Reggie Johnson, Durand Scott, Julian Gamble, and Trey McKinney Jones graduate.  

For now, though, there is a lot to love about Miami basketball.

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  1. Worth noting: Miami’s attendance this year went from 3,936 to 5,814. My trusty HP calculator says that’s an increase of 51.4%. Yowza.

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