Coker starting over - College Football - Rivals.com
SAN ANTONIO – He’s a regular now, partly because of the charcoal chicken, but mainly because the Roadrunner Café is a four minute walk from Larry Coker’s office, where there are calls to make, letters to send, a football program to construct.
Still, even though he’s become a common face to most of the faculty and students that frequent the cafeteria at the University of Texas-San Antonio, Coker still generates a few puzzled stares.
One of them came from a college student who approached Coker last month as he was eating.
“Aren’t you the former Miami coach?” the young man said. “What are you doing here?”
That seems to be the question everyone is asking about Coker.
The guy with a national championship on his resume said he’s turned down assistant coaching offers from the NFL and Division-I college jobs since his firing from Miami in 2006. All along, Coker said he was waiting for the “right opportunity.”
No one, though, figured that opportunity would be here, at a university in the nation’s seventh-largest city, where somehow, there’s no football field, and no football team.
The Roadrunners and Coker will be starting from scratch.
“I’m the kind of guy that likes a challenge,” said Coker, 61. “This situation is perfect for me.”
Instead of jet-setting around the country on a private plane to recruit, Coker and his staff spent May and June road-tripping through Texas, where they sometimes visited as many as eight schools in one day. UTSA is still trying to find office space for Coker’s assistants. As for equipment?
“Right now,” Coker said chuckling, “we’ve got two helmets – and zero footballs.”
Not that there’s any urgency.
The Roadrunners won’t welcome their first recruiting class until the fall of 2010 and won’t play their first game until 2011, when they’ll join the Football Championship Subdivision as an independent.
UTSA hopes to join the Southland Conference by 2013 and eventually become a Division-I program.
In the meantime, Coker is meeting with alumni groups, evaluating recruits and traveling the state to meet with high school coaches. He’s also found some time to catch up with colleagues such as Texas coach Mack Brown, one of his closest friends in the profession.
“Larry is the perfect guy to start a football program from the ground up,” Brown said. “He’s got name appeal, he’s won a national championship, all the high school coaches know him or know who he is. Plus, Larry knows what he’s doing.
“He knows what it’s like to be at the top of the mountain.”
And also at the bottom.
Jewelry, Larry Coker said, isn’t his thing. Yet more and more these days he wears his 2001 national championship ring to the office or on the recruiting trail.
“People are always asking to see it,” Coker said. “I don’t mind. I’m very proud of it.”
For the most part, Coker said he has fond memories of his 12 seasons at Miami. It’s an admirable stance, considering he has plenty of reasons to be bitter.
Coker had just ompleted his sixth year as the Hurricanes’ offensive coordinator when coach Butch Davis left following the 2000 season to coach the Cleveland Browns. The Hurricanes considered big names such as Dave Wannstedt and Barry Alvarez for the job, but when a group of players marched into the office of Paul Dee to express their support for Coker, the athletic director listened.
Things couldn’t have gotten off to a better start for Coker at Miami, where he guided the Hurricanes to an undefeated national championship season in 2001. The following season Miami went 12-0 and entered the title game with a 24-0 record under Coker, but a controversial pass interference call in the first overtime prevented a Miami win. Instead the game went to a second overtime, where Ohio State prevailed.
“Tough as that was,” Coker said, “I still felt really good about the direction of the program.”
Miami went 11-2 the next season and won the Orange Bowl, but Hurricanes fans began to get frustrated after back-to-back 9-3 finishes the following two years. Coker was bringing in top-10 recruiting classes, but questions lingered about whether players were being developed. Coker tried to alleviate the problem making changes to his staff, but that actually made matters worse.
By 2006 Hurricane fans had turned on Coker – and it certainly didn’t get any better when 13 of his players were among the 31 suspended for a bench-clearing brawl that occurred during Miami’s victory over Florida International. The incident made national news and brought back the thuggish perception of the program that Coker had worked so hard to erase.
Coker was fired after the Hurricanes finished the regular season 6-6.
“It was a reality check, because I think we did a good job there,” Coker said. “It’s like [former Texas Tech coach Spike Dykes] said: Every year you coach you lose 10 percent of your backing. I was there 12 years, so I guess I was 20 percent in the hole when I left.
“If you’re not wanted and you’re not supported, sometimes it’s just time to move on.”
Talk to Coker long enough, and it’s easy to tell that being fired at Miami still eats at him. Coker left Miami with a 60-15 record. He went 3-0 against Florida and 5-2 against Florida State, all the while raising the Hurricanes’ graduation rate.
As if the bench-clearing brawl wasn’t bad enough, Coker’s final season at Miami was marred by the shooting death of lineman Bryan Pata.
“You walk in and see his empty locker there and say, ‘OK, let’s go out and tackle people! Let’s get ready to beat Maryland!’” Coker said. “It was a tough situation, awkward. It was just hard for guys to get motivated after that. I really can’t say enough about the players we had because they stayed the course during some very difficult times.”
Four of Miami’s six losses that season came by a touchdown or less.
“Maybe the players didn’t play as well as they should’ve,” Coker said. “Maybe we didn’t do a good job of coaching. But we had 19 starters coming back off that team. I felt like I could’ve gotten us back to where we needed to be – or at least headed that way – the following year.
“I had loved the opportunity to get it back on track, but I left there proud of the things we did.”
UTSA athletic director Lynn Hickey had just returned from lunch earlier this year when her secretary handed her a note.
“Larry Coker called,” it read. “He’s interested in the football coaching job.”
Hickey was still stunned when she relayed the message to a colleague next door.
“Larry Coker?” Hickey said. “Do you think this is THE Larry Coker? Do you think it’s really him?”
Hickey wasn’t the only one who was surprised. Coker, after all, had been linked to jobs at Division-I schools such as Rice, Tulsa, Minnesota, North Carolina State and Tulane. But for whatever reason, they never worked out. Coker once said that it usually took “about 30 seconds” for someone to bring up the infamous brawl during a job interview.
Instead of coaching, Coker spent most of 2007 and 2008 working as a college football analyst for ESPN, traveling the country to visit relatives and vacationing in Las Vegas.
“I’m not a big hobby guy,” Coker said. “I don’t play golf, and there are a lot of fish left in South Florida that I didn’t catch. My main thing is football.”
When Hickey called Coker she said it seemed like a “match made in heaven.” Both grew up in small Oklahoma towns – Hickey in Welch, Coker in Last Chance – and have an appreciation for hard work.
Larry’s father, Ed, labored for 75 cents a day, tending cattle and pumping oil while Larry rode his motor scooter seven miles into Okemah to work at the drugstore. He was the star quarterback at Okemah High School, but when he couldn’t land a scholarship he became a walk-on defensive back at Northeastern State.
Upon graduation he coached high school ball and then moved on to Tulsa, Oklahoma State, Oklahoma and Ohio State, where he worked for his mentor, John Cooper. Coker was in Columbus for three years before Davis hired him at Miami, where he experienced both the highest high and lowest low of his career.
“He didn’t have an easy ride to the top,” Brown said. “He worked really, really hard for many years at a lot of tough jobs, when he didn’t get a lot of attention. Then he wins the national championship and he’s one controversial play away from winning another one.
“All the while, he stayed the same person. He’s just so nice. I don’t know of anyone that doesn’t like Larry Coker. He’s that kind of a man.”
Hickey heard similar praise when she began researching Coker’s past. She said words such as “selfless” and “nice” and “character” came up repeatedly during conversations with former coaches such as Grant Teaff and R.C. Slocum as well as administrators at Miami and the ACC.
“Anytime you’re trying to build something from scratch,” Hickey said, “the leaders of that project can’t be consumed with themselves, where it’s all about them and not about what they’re going to have to sacrifice. It takes a unique individual. I don’t think he knows the meaning of the word ‘arrogance.’”
Coker did his research, too. He talked with colleagues that have taken on similar projects, such as Jim Leavitt at South Florida and Howard Schnellenberger at Florida Atlantic. He also sought out the advice of Cooper, who is now retired.
“He thought it was a mistake,” Coker said. ” [Cooper] said, ‘Don’t do that. You’ve got a great legacy. You’re well-respected in the profession. It’s going to be tough to start it and to win.’
“But the challenge of it is what appeals to me. If I didn’t think I could win here, I wouldn’t want to be here. I think I can win here.”
There is certainly plenty of talent from which to choose. Coker probably won’t be going head-to-head with Texas, Baylor and Texas A&M for recruits. But there are scores of athletes who might be an inch too short or a step too slow for the Big 12 that will fit in nicely at UTSA. Brown said an average of 375 Texans sign Division-I football scholarships each year.
“Sometimes we’ll be talking to a kid who is 6-1,” Coker said. “If he were 6-4 we wouldn’t be talking to him because he’d be going to Oklahoma or Texas. But instead we’re looking at him. He may be a little short, but he loves football, he loves the state of Texas, good student, good person … that’s the kind of kid we’re going to target.”
Coker already has four commitments, including one from San Antonio running back Chris Johnson, who combined for more than 3,200 rushing yards as a sophomore and junior. Johnson has offers from Colorado, Iowa State, SMU and others.
“Who wouldn’t want to play for a guy like Larry Coker?” Johnson said. “He’s a straightforward guy that tells it like it is – and he’s got a national championship ring. That tells you all you need to know.
“I’ve got a lot of friends that play for other [high schools] and they’re starting to think the same thing. I bet you’ll see him getting some more commitments really soon.”
Especially if Coker and his three-man staff continue to work as hard as they have this summer. They’ve already logged a combined 19,000 miles on their cars. Coker is busy with public speaking engagements and has even taken part in two parades.
“He was down here [in Austin] about a month ago, and you could just tell how excited he was,” Brown said. “All the negatives of the economy, the obstacles that come with starting over, all the unknowns that pop up … he’s not concerned with any of that. He’s like a kid with a new toy.
“After you get where he got – the national championship picture – and then step back … all you want to do is coach. He’s made the money, he’s won the big games. Now he just wants to get UTSA going, and I have no doubt that he will.”
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