Miami finds success by looking locally
Alonzo Highsmith knew it all along.
One of the most coveted high school football recruits in the class of 1982 foresaw his destiny while attending a Miami-Florida game in the Orange Bowl.
"I saw the Hurricanes run out on the field from under that smoke and there was no doubt where I was going," Highsmith said. "After that game I went home and did about 400 push-ups."
While the senior at Columbus High in Miami was certain about where he wanted to go, the people close to him were not as sold on the private school in Coral Gables. Alonzo's mother wanted him to go to Michigan or Notre Dame and others wondered whether Miami could compete at a higher level.
"Some coaches told me that if I went to Miami the only bowl I would go to was the Salad Bowl," Highsmith joked.
Nonetheless, Highsmith appreciated the message that coach Howard Schnellenberger was telling him and other local players.
"Coach Schnellenberger was very direct and honest, he wanted to build a powerhouse," Highsmith said. "He wanted to build a powerhouse with the local players."
Highsmith saw Schnellenberger's master plan come together during his official recruiting trip to Miami. He was joined by other local players like Melvin Bratton from Miami Northwestern and Winston Moss from Southridge High (Miami).
Bratton was of particular interest to Highsmith because he was considered to be the top player on the north side of Miami. Highsmith was the top player on the south side.
"I knew about Melvin, he was the star in the inner city," Highsmith said. "Columbus was a predominately white school and I was the star there. When we finally got to speaking with each other and some of the other locals like Winston, it was like the stars aligned. Like the forces from the north side and the south side came together and we knew we couldn't be stopped."
With that moment, the University of Miami developed a pipeline in Dade County that would help the school go on to dominate the landscape of college football for the next decade and leave an undeniable mark on the NFL.
Schnellenberger created what he called "the state of Miami" and focused the majority of his recruiting resources on the top kids in Dade County.
As each group came and went through Miami -- usually winning a national title in the process -- the next group of local kids would come in with hopes of equaling or quite possibly surpassing what the last group did.
"The neighbor kids would see their local heroes on television and then in the NFL and they wanted to follow them," said Larry Blustein, a lifelong Miami-area resident and Florida recruiting analyst. "They were successful; they had that sort of neighborhood swagger that the inner-city kids could relate to."
According to Highsmith, the players in Dade County also had chips on their shoulders and a dislike for the old-school traditions of college football.
"I hated tradition to be honest with you," Highsmith said. "I didn't want to hear about what Knute Rockne did or what happened when this school won the national title in 1974. The only way that was going to help me was if those guys were returning to be my teammates.
"Miami kids want to make their own impact. They don't care about what happened 10 and 15 years ago, they don't want to live up to someone else's standards. They want to be the guys who set the new standard."
Highsmith and his teammates set the new standard at Miami, and three Hurricanes were selected in the first nine picks of the 1987 NFL draft. Highsmith was selected third overall by the Houston Oilers.
In the 1988 draft, Bennie Blades and Michael Irvin, from nearby Fort Lauderdale, were selected third and 11th overall.
Manny Navarro has covered high school and University of Miami athletics for the Miami Herald for more than a decade. A lifelong Miami resident, Navarro grew up watching the Hurricanes of the '80s captivate a city of young football players.
"Once the kids saw that their local legends from the neighborhood could go to the pros, the floodgates opened," Navarro said. "Every kid that played football in Dade County wanted to play there."
Blustein said that the coaching staff at Miami was considered to be among the best at getting players prepped for the next level.
"Miami inherited coaches that had pro philosophies from Schnellenberger to Butch Davis," Blustein explained. "Jimmy Johnson became one of the NFL's most successful coaches after his time at Miami. They were not only winning in the college game but they carried themselves and trained like the pros."
One of the most successful members of those legendary Miami coaching staffs was running backs coach Don Soldinger.
During his tenure at Miami, Soldinger coached some of the best running backs to come through the Orange Bowl, including Willis McGahee, Clinton Portis, Edgerrin James and Frank Gore.
Soldinger's roots to the city extend deeper, however, as he was a player at Southwest Miami High and a head coach at Miami Southridge, where he won two state championships.
"The University of Miami is a unique place," Soldinger said. "It doesn't have a lot of the facilities or amenities that you see at other major programs. It does have the players that thrive off of competition be it against an opponent or against each other.
"Football is our sport here. In places like Indianapolis it might be basketball, but in South Florida, we are football players and the guys here want to prove they are the best football players."
It was the thirst for competition and the desire to live life outside the inner city that provided the motivation for success.
Highsmith, currently a scout for the Green Bay Packers, resides in the suburban Houston area and he sees the difference between the guys he played with in Miami and those in a similarly talented area like Houston.
"The players in Dade County are nowhere near as pampered," Highsmith said. "Around here you have some of these schools with four practice fields, a 5,000-foot weight room and a $60 million stadium with a big JumboTron. I didn't have that stuff until I got into the NFL. That is unheard of in a place like Miami.
"In Miami you battle through high school and college to earn those things. But in some places they give it to you when you get into high school. Not taking anything away from the players [in Texas], they are very talented. But they don't have hunger that I saw with the inner-city kids in Miami."
While the hunger gets them through Miami and into the NFL, it is the sense of family and togetherness that brings the great players back every year after their time at Miami is done.
As each group left the University of Miami, they made it their priority to return to the sidelines in the following years and work out at the facilities during the offseason.
"Miami brought in the idea of the current NFL players coming back to the games and standing on the sidelines," Blustein said. "That brought another level of exposure to the pipeline. Imagine being a high school wide receiving prospect in the stands and seeing Michael Irvin on the sidelines. That was a big deal."
Soldinger says the family atmosphere that was developed at the University of Miami is still evident. As the former coach works football camps around the nation, he is often joined by his former players.
"Frank Gore calls me every time he's in town to see if my wife will make him lasagna," Soldinger said. "There's a guy that can eat anywhere he wants but when he's back home, he wants to come over and eat with us. Those are the types of relationships we had at Miami."
For most of the '80s and a good part of the '90s, Dade County completely belonged to the University of Miami, but with the new age of communication combined with the overpopulation of the area, Dade County has now become a recruiting destination for coaches from around the nation.
Purdue coach Danny Hope, who graduated from Killian High in Miami, has recruited and signed several area players since taking over the Boilermakers' head job.
"There are terrific players in the area that are hungry and excited for the opportunity to do something greater with their lives," Hope said. "They see what we've done here at Purdue with our athletics and our academics and we've been able to build strong relationships there."
Hope said more than half of his first two recruiting classes are players from Florida, with the majority from the talent-rich South Florida area.
"We aren't going to sign as many players this year, but the majority of the top players on our board are from South Florida," he added.
More than ever, major college programs from around the nation are putting together staffs that include coaches who either played in the Miami area or have strong relationships with the high school coaches in the Miami area.
Defensive coordinators Manny Diaz (Mississippi State) and Joe Tumpkin (Central Michigan) grew up and played high school football in Miami. Other assistant coaches like James Coley (Florida State) and Larry Brinson (Kentucky) were also born in Miami and have used their local ties to draw players from Dade County into their programs.
Soldinger says it's going to get harder for Miami to keep all the top talent in the city as recruiting changes.
"Everyone's trying to get into Dade County and why wouldn't you?" he said. "These coaches saw what Miami did in the '80s and '90s. They won championships. If you want to win championships, you have to try to get the Miami players."
Marshall head coach Doc Holliday built his reputation as a powerful recruiter in South Florida. In a career that has spanned more than 30 years, Holliday has been credited for helping the resurgence of programs like West Virginia and Florida before taking over the program at Marshall.
In his first recruiting class with the Thundering Herd, Holliday signed nine players from South Florida.
"The people in the area have to trust you as a head coach," Holliday said. "If you have living proof that they can trust you to help them succeed on the field and in the classroom, the players from the Miami area will support the program.
"We have built relationships in Miami area for years. I have former players that have become doctors that still live in the area and those are the people you can lean on."
It's a big change from the '80s and '90s, when most major programs wouldn't think of stepping into Dade County and battling the Hurricanes for talent.
Navarro says the Internet has been a huge part of changing the landscape.
"The world is much smaller now, and kids can see the opportunities elsewhere," Navarro said. "Back in the '80s you didn't have this virtual exposure to places like Texas Tech or LSU, but now it's much different. There is a world outside of Miami and kids can win championships at other places."
While this all seems like bad news for Hurricanes fans, that isn't necessarily the case. Miami is still the big man on the high school campuses in Dade County.
And when the majority of the top players from state championship teams at Northwestern and Booker T. Washington signed with the Hurricanes in 2008, it was with the hope of re-establishing Miami as the dominant pipeline in Dade County.
"The fact is that if Miami aggressive goes after the top five players in Dade County, they will still sign at least three," Blustein said. "The one or two they might miss out on will be magnified, but they are still going to get most of the players in Dade County that they want."
Navarro adds that the pressure to win is always surrounding the program -- something magnified by Miami's recent struggles. The Hurricanes haven't won the conference or appeared in a BCS bowl since 2003.
"Right now it's on Coach [Randy] Shannon and his staff to bring the victories back to Miami," Navarro said. "These days there is no state of Miami. But if he can lead the program back to prominence with Jacory [Harris]. They will close off this area from the outsiders once again."
Corey Long covers college football recruiting for ESPN.com. Check out his recruiting blog here. Send questions or comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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