Alonzo Highsmith loved his job. He really did.
He wouldn’t have lasted as long as he did if that wasn’t the case. There was only one thing that could have convinced the third overall pick of the 1986 NFL draft to finally leave the NFL. And it happened.
Highsmith, after a six-year NFL playing career and a 25-year career as an NFL scout and executive in personnel, returned to the University of Miami as the football team’s General Manager of Operations where he will work with the Hurricanes’ first-year head coach Mario Cristobal.
“It’s been great,’’ Highsmith said after a little over a week on the job. “It’s even better than I thought it would be.’’
You spend any time in an NFL locker room and you’ll hear the players talk about their college days. A former Ohio State guy will get on a former Michigan guy, or the SEC guys will banter together and dog the other conferences.
Then there are the players who went to Miami. There was just something different and more special about the guys from The U and the stories they shared.
“There’s definitely a brotherhood that others don’t have,’’ Highsmith said. “It goes back to Miami didn’t have what some of the other schools have, that pageantry of college football. Alabama, LSU, Tennessee, they’re going to play in front 80-90,000 people no matter who the coach is, no matter how many wins they have. Miami is always going to be that school that always has to prove itself, and you have to prove yourself by winning. As players we knew we didn’t have the best facilities. We didn’t have the best anything. What we had was the best of family. ‘I got your back. You got my back.’ We were a brotherhood. And it was more like a chip on our shoulder that you might have all the fancy, glory stuff, but we’re going to come to your stadium and beat you. And when you come to our stadium, we’re going to beat you. That’s how the Miami atmosphere was created.’’
Highsmith was a star for the ‘Canes in the ‘80s, was a key part of their 1983 National Title and upset of unbeaten and No. 1 Nebraska in the ’84 Orange Bowl. Houston made him the No. 3 pick in that 1987 draft, but knee injuries shortened his career.
In 1995 he tried professional boxing and went 27-1-2 as a heavyweight over a four-year span. Then in 1999 he joined General Manager Ron Wolf’s personnel department with the Green Bay Packers as a scout.
Highsmith spent 20 years with the Packers, working under general managers Wolf, Mike Sherman and Ted Thompson before he moved to Cleveland with fellow Packers’ scout turned GM John Dorsey for two years. The past three seasons he worked for the Seattle Seahawks and another former Packers personnel man, John Schneider.
When Miami called, or texted, Highsmith couldn’t say no. Although it wasn’t that easy.
“I told John Schneider I didn’t think it was going to happen. And that I was going to stay in Seattle,’’ Highsmith said. “And that would have been fine. I love John. I love Seattle. I loved being part of the NFL for the past 25 years.’’
So, what happened?
“Mario texted me one day and said come on down. I went and told John and he was happier for me than I was happy,’’ Highsmith continued. “That’s why I love John so much. He knew the only way I would leave Seattle was to go back to Miami. I had to take this chance.’’
The general manager in college football is a relatively new position. Some schools, such as Alabama, have had them, but now with the transfer portal and NIL [Editor’s note: NIL refers to the marketing and promotional use of an athlete’s Name, Image and Likeness.], it’s just too much for a head coach to do it all. Highsmith, who has known Cristobal since the coach’s high school days — they both went to Miami’s powerful Columbus High, although Highsmith is seven years older — is the perfect man for the job.
“The face of college football has changed,’’ Highsmith said. “With the portal and NIL, you have elements of pro football’s free agency now. It really has changed college football. And there’s just so much going on now. So, to be an ear to the head coach, helping develop the scouting department and analysis and all those things. Basically, I’m doing what a GM does in pro football.’’
Highsmith worked with the Hall of Famer Wolf and Super Bowl winners Thompson and Schneider. He’s learned and been a part of each of their successes.
“Evaluating is evaluating,’’ he said of the personnel decisions. “Understanding what these college kids are going through is another thing. I’ve been where these college kids want to go. I’ve been the highly recruited kid. I’ve been the high draft pick. I won a national championship. I’ve been part of Super Bowls. Now I can use that to help these kids get to the next level. We used to get these kids at 21 years old, or so. Now I’m going to get a chance to see them at the beginning when they’re teenagers.’’
That’s just one of the duties Highsmith has as he and Cristobal try to bring the Hurricanes back to national prominence.
“I’ve got my hands everywhere,’’ he said. “I’m working with Mario to make the whole football program better. Right now, I’m watching and learning, seeing how everything operates. But I’ll be involved on a day-to-day basis with everything. I’m doing everything I did in pro football, but with more responsibility.’’
And he’s back full circle. After years as a player in the NFL in Houston and Dallas, four years in the boxing ring, and as an executive in Green Bay, Cleveland and Seattle, he’s back in Miami. He’s back at The U.
“Going back to Miami is special,’’ Highsmith said. “I would have never gone anywhere else. I would have just stayed in Seattle and I would have been happy there. And I never really anticipated this happening. When it did happen, and Mario was becoming the head coach and Dan Radakovich was becoming the athletic director I knew what their plan was and what their vision was. It’s what we never finished under [former Miami coach] Howard Schnellenberger. I came back because now is the time to finish that vision, to win national championships, to have one of the best facilities in the nation and build a legacy to the players who created this place.
“The new leadership sees the value of building a good football program and they’re doing the things that need to be done.’’
Like hiring Alonzo Highsmith.