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CORAL GABLES, Fla. (AP) — The first week of training camp at Miami had just ended, and Hurricanes coach Mark Richt made his way after practice into a luncheon to do some recruiting.
He wasn't seeking new players.
His aim was to assist past ones.
Richt calls it "The U Network," a program he's been plotting ever since he returned to his alma mater to coach 20 months ago. It is now off the ground with a simple mission: to help any former Miami player, especially those seeking a job. Richt, along with several members of his staff and other university personnel, set up what became a networking event and job fair — the first of what will be many, Richt hopes.
"The U Network is a 365-days-a-year adventure, so to speak," Richt said. "We just want to help our guys connect with each other in a reunion-type thing, help friendships that already exist and make new friends within the football alumni. But also, if anybody feels forgotten or anybody feels like nobody cares, we do care. And we want everybody to know that we're here to find work if they need work, or a good connection, or just know that you've got friends."
For the inaugural event, Miami had representatives from numerous sides of the business world — the plumbers' union, the Coral Gables Police Department, builders, roofers, a flooring company, the hospitality industry and others come out to talk to job-seeking 'Canes.
Dozens of former players from different generations and their families showed up — and at least one got a job on the spot. Others said they left with more meetings scheduled, or at least a better idea of what might be out there in the marketplace.
"I've been in business for over 30 years and it's hard for me to ask for help," said former Miami player John Fenton, who was a Richt teammate with the Hurricanes and now is a CEO coach in Atlanta. "I've come to the realization that I can't do it all myself. None of us have all the answers. So this is a great way to connect, build relationships and get the help we need."
Tolbert Bain has no problem asking for help.
He's been sufficiently humbled by what he's gone through.
Bain was a starting defensive back for Miami's national championship team in 1987. He went to prison in a heroin conspiracy case and served about three years, getting out in 2013. He went to the first U Network event in a suit, hoping someone will give him a chance.
"Coach is straight up, a great guy. We have the right guy back in place to take the program back to its glory days," Bain said. "When I heard about this, I knew it was a great idea. Brotherhood here at the University of Miami, it's for real. It's not just for TV. It's for real. This place, everybody truly supports one another."
Richt said he wants anyone who played for Miami involved. To illustrate that, placards were set up around the event naming all former Hurricanes who Richt's staff hasn't been able to reach. Those in attendance were asked to fill in the gaps with a phone number or an email address of anyone they knew who was on that list.
The way he sees it, investing in Miami's past will also help the present and the future.
"We want our current players to know that when it's all over, whether it's after a pro career or whatever it is, that when they need help they'll have a place to go," Richt said. "If they know that coach will care about them then, I think that helps them play even harder for each other now."
Richt originally hoped to start the program months ago, but planning took longer than first envisioned. It's training camp right now, and Miami goes into 2017 with the annual set of high expectations that all Hurricane teams carry.
Still, Richt and his coaching staff found the time to be at the network's debut event. Richt had practice film waiting for him when the event started; he didn't get to it for hours.
"Mark Richt is asking players to commit three, four or five years, the most important years of their lives to him and this program," said Don Bailey Jr., a former Richt teammate, the team's radio broadcast analyst and one of the business owners talking to players. "In turn, he's committing to them to make sure their life is secure after football. I think it's the ultimate payback."