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Coker prepares for Miami's title defense

His team, which went 12-0 but lost 11 players to the NFL draft, has major expectations.

By JAMAL THALJI, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published July 28, 2002

LAKE BUENA VISTA -- Miami's national title defense gets under way with a Sept. 7 trip to Florida Field, its first visit since 1986.

Rival Florida State travels to Coral Gables Oct. 12, and the 'Canes take a trip to Tennessee Nov.9. In addition to those big dates, Boston College, Pittsburgh and Virginia Tech visit the Orange Bowl this season to try to wrest the Big East title from Miami's grasp.

All formidable foes standing in the way of the Hurricanes' title defense.

But none is as formidable as complacency, coach Larry Coker said.

"You're always concerned about a new year and complacency," Coker said. "I don't sense that at the University of Miami. We've worked extremely hard, our players have had a great summer."

This season's schedule is more daunting than last season's, when the 'Canes embarked on one of the storied program's greatest campaigns. Miami finished 12-0 and beat Nebraska 37-14 in the Rose Bowl to secure the school's fifth national championship.

But that team also lost a record 11 players to the NFL draft, including five who went in the first round.

Yet Coker, who spoke Saturday at the annual Florida Sports Writers Association football coaches' conference, is demanding even more of those who return.

"We feel our schedule is tougher," Coker said. "So we're going to have to be a better team than we were a year ago. We have to raise our bar, raise our expectations."

The Hurricanes return 15 starters, including quarterback Ken Dorsey and his 26-1 record as a starter. What the coaches could not do this offseason to aid the title defense, the players did.

"I tell you what's exciting from our standpoint, it's that the players really took ownership out there," he said. "As you know, coaches can't coach football in the summer, but to see all our players out there passing and catching is really encouraging. They took a lot of pride and a lot of ownership in these things."

Though the I-A national champion Hurricanes open with Division I-AA power Florida A&M Aug.31 in the Orange Bowl, the real title defense starts a week later, when Miami takes on rookie coach Ron Zook's Gators.

It is just the start of a tougher road back to the national title game at the Sugar Bowl.

The 49-year-old Miami-Florida series, dormant since 1987 with the postseason exception of the 2000 Sugar Bowl, is renewed this season at the Swamp. Coker and his staff have the added challenge of scouting a staff and schemes no one has seen in action.

But Coker is most concerned with maturing Florida State, which has lost consecutive games to Miami, including last season's 49-27 rout.

"They may be as good as they've been in a long time," Coker said. "It really upsets me because I think they're just sitting back quietly ready to attack people."

Distractions also were a concern. The national champions had a busy social calendar after their Rose Bowl crowning.

There was a ticker-tape parade that wound through downtown Miami and ended at the Miami-Dade County Courthouse. Then July9 Coker and Dorsey were at the Academy of Victor Sports Awards show in Las Vegas, where Coker was named college football coach of the year and Dorsey the player of the year.

The next day Coker was in Hollywood, Calif., at the Kodak Theatre, where he was nominated for the 2002 ESPY coach of the year award ("I got beat by some basketball coach for the Lakers or something like that," he said, joking.)

But the award shows were just brief distractions. For Coker, the 2001 season officially ended when the 'Canes took a March 13 trip to the White House, where President Bush honored Miami's football and 2001 baseball champions with a Rose Garden ceremony.

"When we came back, that was a nice ending certainly to a great season for us," Coker said. "It's hard when everybody wants to talk (about the national title), and we still do at Miami. I'm sure it was the same way for the Florida people and the Florida State people.

"That's all well and good, but that's in the past, and that's not going to help us win the Florida A&M game this year."

FLORIDA: Zook spoke at the biggest Gator booster event of the year, in front of 1,200 in Jacksonville. "I've been fortunate enough to stay in coaching, be in some great places," he said. "Now, I've got the opportunity to do something I've been dreaming about."

-- Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.

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