Randy Shannon’s official bio reads that his coaching career began in 1991, when he was a graduate assistant at the University of Miami under then-coach Dennis Erickson. But talk to any of his former teammates, and they’ll tell you that Shannon was a coaching prodigy before he even reached his teens.

Blanton Harris, who played with Shannon on a Scott Lake Optimist youth football squad, recalls Shannon explaining drills to his teammates when he was as young as 12. And Melvin Bratton, B.B.A. ’88, a former UM teammate of Shannon’s, likened him to a “coach on the field” for his uncanny ability to make defensive adjustments on his own.

Now Shannon, B.G.S. ’89, has entered the biggest coaching chapter of his young 41 years—head coach of his alma mater, a legendary program that, since 1983, has won more national championships (five), a higher percentage of its games, and produced more first-round NFL draft picks than any other Division I school.

“This is my dream job—always has been,” Shannon says.

Indeed, Shannon has been a Miami Hurricane his entire life. He applied himself in the classroom just as diligently as he did on the football field, taking several sociology, behavioral science, and education courses that taught him about the intricacies of the brain and the human learning process—lessons he would sometimes apply during game-day situations. As a player, Shannon was a four-year letterman at linebacker and the starter on the 1987 national championship team. During a nationally televised game in the Orange Bowl against the University of Florida on September 5, 1987, he ran back an interception for a 41-yard touchdown in his team’s 31-4 romp over the Gators. A year later as a senior, he received the Christopher Plumer Award for most inspirational player.

“Once you’re a part of the University of Miami, you’ll always bleed orange and green. You never forget those experiences as a player or coach because they’ll always be a part of your life,” Shannon says.

Shannon calls UM the “cradle of coaches,” noting many who learned their craft here—from Ron Meeks, defensive coordinator of the Super Bowl champion Indianapolis Colts who was the secondary coach at UM from 1986 to 1987, to Dave Wannstedt, head coach of the University of Pittsburgh Panthers who was defensive coordinator at UM under Jimmy Johnson.

An 11th-round draft choice of the Dallas Cowboys in 1989, Shannon became the first rookie since 1963 to start at outside linebacker for Dallas. He played for the Cowboys for two seasons before going into coaching. He was a graduate assistant in 1991 when the Hurricanes won their fourth national championship. In 1992 he became a full-time assistant coach, working with the defensive line, and from 1993 to 1997 he coached the team’s linebackers. He was a defensive assistant with the Miami Dolphins in 1998 and 1999 before assuming the role of linebackers coach in 2000.

Shannon returned to Miami in 2001 as defensive coordinator, and since then his defenses have been among the highest-rated in the nation. During his tenure as defensive coordinator, the Hurricanes had seven All-America defensive players. Many of the players he recruited and coached at the University of Miami have gone on to star in the NFL, from All-Pro safeties Ed Reed, B.L.A. ’02, and Sean Taylor of the Baltimore Ravens and Washington Redskins, respectively, to nose tackle Vince Wilfork of the New England Patriots. But Shannon is most proud of his former players for more than athletics.

“I’m excited for them because they’ve earned their college degrees,” Shannon says, noting former players such as Cortez Kennedy, B.L.A. ’06, and Duane Starks, B.L.A. ’05, who have come back to UM to complete their academic studies. “Football is your life when you’re playing, but when it’s over and you sit down and realize that there are no more cheers from the crowds, you realize how special academics really is.”

UM, Shannon says, “is not a football factory. We’re an academic institution that does a tremendous job in educating student-athletes and preparing them for life after sports.” Eight members of the 2006 Miami Hurricanes football team, for example, were named to the Atlantic Coast Conference Academic Football Team, the highest in the conference.

Discipline is also a priority for Shannon. During his hiring process, he surprised many by submitting a list of team rules by which his players must abide, in addition to the standard UM student regulations. At his hiring press conference, President Donna E. Shalala called him “tough, disciplined, smart, caring, passionate, enthusiastic, and no-nonsense.”

Shannon also is not one to back away from a challenge. He saw three siblings lose their battles with cocaine addiction and die from the complications of AIDS. His father was murdered in Miami’s Liberty City when he was 3. When he was named the University’s head football coach in December, he faced two of the biggest challenges of his career: assemble a coaching staff and lure top recruits with less than two months left before National Signing Day. Shannon, a man known for his quiet yet strong demeanor, hired a new staff within weeks and signed a top-20 recruiting class despite the coaching change.

Shannon is the first black head football coach in UM history and currently one of only six in NCAA Division I. But he downplays any mention of breaking barriers. “I’m a ball coach. That’s the No. 1 thing.”

Robert C. Jones Jr. is an editor at the University of Miami.