||Wednesday, January 2
Coker coaches like championship coach
By Bruce Feldman
ESPN The Magazine
PASADENA, Calif. -- Larry Coker doesn't look the part. With his slender frame, deep-set Bassett Hound eyes and big coffee-mug handle ears, he appears practically gaunt. Coker is also as unassuming as a picture in a hotel room. Big-time football coaches, we have come to believe, are dashing, robust characters with brash personas, like Steve Spurrier or Jon Gruden. Or Butch Davis.
But here he is, on the eve of leading Miami to a national title in his rookie season as a head coach, and you can see the 53-year-old career assistant is loving every second of his time in the spotlight. He is making jokes, spinning tales and coming off as downright folksy. Those who know him well know say he is one of the nicest people they've ever met. Coker loves meeting people and sharing stories, and before Wednesday's 45-minute media session was over, both of those things were obvious.
But at the same time, he understands his worth to his program and what was involved in keying a national title run -- no matter how many All-Americans Miami has on its roster. "Could somebody else have stepped in and done it? I don't know. Maybe, but in reality, I don't think so," says Coker. "There would've been a new system, new numbering, not knowing the players, I think it would've been very difficult."
Coker wasn't Miami's first choice when Davis abruptly bolted for the NFL's Cleveland Browns in January. The school courted Wisconsin's Barry Alvarez, who had become close to Miami President Donna Shalala during her tenure at Wisconsin. But when contract talks between Alvarez and Miami bogged down, the Hurricanes looked inside.
Coker's candidacy was bolstered when a number of players pleaded his case with Hurricanes AD Paul Dee. The players were delighted when Dee gave Coker the job. "A lot of guys were adamant about Coach Coker," says QB Ken Dorsey. "We felt coach was a perfect fit."
But what ultimately had sold the Miami brass on Coker was when he showed them his plan to run a powerhouse program, his philosophy and the kind of staff he'd use to orchestrate a top team. Dee then asked Coker if he could save Miami's recruiting class in the eleventh hour, and Coker, looked him in the eye, and said "Yes, I can do that. I think we can save 90 percent of it."
He did better than that. Miami retained all over the dozen or so commitments, except for wide receiver Charles Murray, who bolted for N.C. State. Better still, Coker's presence atop the program helped UM snag TB Frank Gore, arguably the top recruit in its class, WR Roscoe Parrish, DT Orien Harris, TE Kellen Winslow Jr. and LB Rocky McIntosh.
Coker is still close to Butch Davis. He talked to him on Christmas Day and earlier this week. Coker realizes that even if Miami wins Thursday that many will say, Coker was merely a caretaker. That he won with someone else's players. Just as Miami's Dennis Erickson won in '89, his first season at UM, with Jimmy Johnson's old players. But while Coker says Davis deserves a lot of credit, he is quick to point that he and many of his assistants were the ones who recruited and landed all of that talent.
Coker is immensely popular with his players, offensive ones and defensive ones. But he doesn't hesitate to hammer home the discipline. Last week he suspended wide receiver Ethenic Sands from the Rose Bowl for an undisclosed violation of team rules.
Coker inherited his toughness from his mother, Vera, who survived breast cancer in the '60s. Now 84, she plans to be at the Rose Bowl when her son's team goes for the national title.
He has relied on that strength during a career that long seemed destined for obscurity. Over the years, Coker was a finalist in head-coaching searches at Tulsa and Oklahoma State. But even as he watched younger men land bigger head coaching jobs, Coker took the disappointments philosophically. In retrospect, he concedes he probably wasn't the right man for those job anyhow.
"I always somehow knew that I was going to be a head coach at this level," Coker said. "I didn't know where. I didn't know when or how. But I really believed that I would be a head coach. And I also resigned myself that, at my age, it might not happen."
As he gets set for Thursday, he already knows what the first part of his pregame pep talk will be inside the locker room in Pasadena: "Just let's be who we are. Don't try and play outside the lines. Let's be as good as we can be. But don't try to be more than we are."
For Larry Coker, that finally appears to be enough to get the job done.
Bruce Feldman covers college football for ESPN The Magazine. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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