Column: Hands clean, Golden holds all the cards

August 31, 2011 - 3:35 AM

The first of what could be several NCAA shoes dropped on Miami's football program Tuesday. The first thing most people thought is "poor Al Golden."

But after some quick math, what poor Al Golden probably thought was this: "Eight players in all, six starters, suspended for a total of 19 games. Five return after the opener. That's it?"

Yes. For the moment, anyway.

So just to remind everyone how serious he was about rebuilding the Hurricanes — even with one hand tied behind his back — Miami's first-year coach went ahead and suspended a ninth player on his own.

Senior receiver Aldarius Johnson was named as yet one more beneficiary by none other than jailed booster Nevin Shapiro himself, but didn't make it onto the NCAA's hit list. No matter. Golden sat him down indefinitely for what was termed a violation of team rules.

Then, always looking on the bright side, he said, "We clearly have identified what our travel team is now."

The man is nothing if not confident, and for good reason.

At 42, Golden already has a resume to die for: he played tight end and later worked as linebackers coach and recruiting coordinator for Joe Paterno at Penn State; then was the youngest defensive coordinator in Division I-A for Al Groh at Virginia; then second-youngest head coach in D-I at Temple, a job he held from December 2005 until last winter.

In those five years, while turning around an Owls program that seemed hopeless, Golden's name also turned up on the wish lists of UCLA, Cincinnati and Tennessee. And now? Instead of wishing he'd taken one of those jobs, Golden might be occupying the safest seat in college football.

After all, he was in Philadelphia while the monkey business with Shapiro was going down in Miami. He was hired without being told the higher-ups at Miami had already contacted the NCAA about the serial glad-handing, something they conveniently failed to mention.

He's made clear they owed him that much, but refused to speculate what difference it would have made, saying what's done is done.

When asked whether his contract contains an escape clause covering just such an eventuality, Golden has been similarly coy. "I'm not going to get into all that," he said.

"Listen, my family and I are excited about being here, OK?," he added. "This is a great place, and we're going to get this fixed."

Yet no one would blame Golden for feeling betrayed, nor would they if the NCAA wound up dropping several more shoes — loss of scholarships, postseason and TV bans — and Golden bailed after just one season to take another job.

That includes prospective employers. Nothing having to do with the scandal will stick to him. In the meantime, so long as the program doesn't implode and lose all of its games, basically, he's golden.

But that's the funny thing. Miami might have been good this season — still could be — and Golden already has plenty of promising recruits in the pipeline.

The Hurricanes open the season Monday at Maryland without projected starting quarterback Jacory Harris, but with backup Stephen Morris — who beat the Terps last season — in his place.

Assuming they make restitution on the impermissible benefits laid out in the NCAA bill of particulars, Harris and four others will be eligible by the time similarly decimated Ohio State comes to town Sept. 17.

Olivier Vernon will be the only player still missing by Miami's second Atlantic Coast Conference game, Oct. 8 against Virginia Tech.

So long as nobody else on the team gets suspended, a Coastal Division title is not out of the question.

That, in part, explains why Golden can afford to be magnanimous.

"I think it was probably fair," Golden said about the NCAA action. "Clearly, whatever transpired, it wasn't as over-the-top as everybody was initially reporting and all of those things. The NCAA and the university felt there was mistakes made ... and I've accepted that. And now we're moving forward."

What remains to be seen is how far forward, and whether by season's end, it's enough to convince Golden to stick around.

And make no mistake, for at least the next few seasons, he will be holding most of the cards. The administration owes him.

Besides, he was a hot prospect when Miami came calling and no matter how things go, Golden is bound to be one of the favorites whenever Joe Pa calls it a career.

So far, though, he sounds like a keeper

"We have a plan and a culture that is part of our DNA, and everyone in here knows what we're about. If we didn't have that, we'd be scrambling right now. And we're not scrambling."

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Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke(at)ap.org. Follow him at http://twitter.com/JimLitke.