CORAL GABLES, Fla. Halfway around the world, on a number of military bases, Randy Shannon felt right at home.
At one hospital in Germany, the Miami football coach totally by happenstance met an injured soldier who he first crossed paths with on a recruiting trip to Louisiana years ago. Aboard the USS Nassau, Shannon met the kicker on a state championship team at his alma mater, Miami Norland High. Later he met another South Florida soldier who only wanted to know who the Hurricanes' starting quarterback will be this year.
Sometimes, he forgot that he was a long, long way from Miami.
"I'm watching 19-, 20-, 21-year-olds do various jobs and do it with perfection," Shannon said. "You get amazed, because I'm coaching 19-, 20-, 21-year-olds in football and it's the same type of thing. You want perfection."
Shannon was one of five coaches who spent a week last month meeting soldiers in the Middle East and Southwest Asia, a trip that wrapped up with a meeting in the Oval Office with President Bush.
The trip was designed to boost troop morale.
That's not to say it didn't give Shannon a boost as well.
"I'm happy to be an American," Shannon said. "And I'm happy that these 19- and 20-year-olds are, what I call, running the country. Because without their protection, we wouldn't have protection."
Notre Dame's Charlie Weis, Georgia's Mark Richt, Auburn's Tommy Tuberville and Yale's Jack Siedlecki joined Shannon on the trip, which ran from May 20-26. They flew on C-130 planes, which were so cold bottles of water left on the floor would become icy within minutes. They bunked where soldiers sleep, dined on the same chow, interacting with troops 18 hours a day in some cases.
Most of the time, the talks weren't about football.
"The biggest questions that they had was, 'Does everybody back at home still respect us? How is the mind-set of everybody at home about what we're doing over here? Is everybody OK believing what we're doing? Does everybody still have confidence in us?'" Shannon said. "That's what they wanted to know."
Shannon said he and the other coaches autographed thousands of items, from jerseys to pictures and just about anything else thrust their way.
But for Shannon, this trip had personal significance.
His daughter, Tyquitah, wanted to "see the world" after graduating from high school, so Shannon gave her two options: College or the military. She chose the U.S. Navy, was on a medical ship in the Middle East starting in 2003, and could only check in with her father about once every month by e-mail. She left the Navy in April.
"Now I've got a better perception of what they do and how they function and how it all works together," Shannon said.
He said he never feared for his daughter's safety, and now, he understands why.
"By me being over there now, I would never be concerned, because of what I've seen and how each phase protects each force," Shannon said.
It was the first time college football coaches took a formal tour of U.S. military installations overseas, at least in a trip sanctioned by Armed Forces Entertainment. Shannon was approached about taking the trip by university president Donna Shalala, who was a member of President Clinton's Cabinet.
Shalala was relaying a request from a high-ranking military official who wondered if the Miami coach would be willing to participate, Shannon said.
"Intercollegiate athletics is important in the social environment in which we live in today," Miami athletic director Kirby Hocutt said. "But it does not compare to what the troops are doing and what they're involved in each and every day, as Randy said. I think it says a lot about the five men that went, but also about what's important today. They took time to say 'thank you' to those who are protecting our safety."
Shannon wouldn't mind saying thank you again, either.
He invited some of the South Florida soldiers he met to future Hurricanes games, and hasn't ruled out making another military tour someday.
Plus, he's already figuring out how to incorporate the lessons he learned into his coaching repertoire.
"I'll share with them the fact that I expect those guys to perform under stress at all times and I expect them to have the team aspect of what we're trying to accomplish at the University of Miami on and off the field," Shannon said. "And if they believe and trust each other, they can accomplish a lot of things."
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