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Quiet Coker content to let 24-0 do the talking

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By GARY SHELTON, Times Sports Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times
published January 3, 2003


TEMPE, Ariz. -- Maybe what Larry, good old Larry, Coker needs is a better nickname. Maybe then people would pay attention to him.

It would have to be something tough, something ruthless, one of those no-nonsense nicknames that grabs your attention. Crusher, maybe. Or Hacksaw. Or Woody or Bo or General. Or Bear, maybe. When you think about it, after all, Bear Bryant had a heck of a year for a man who has been dead two decades.

But Larry?

Who shudders at the name Larry?

The truth be told, there was a time, back when he was an assistant coach, the University of Miami players had a couple of nicknames for Coker.

"Gargamel," they called him, after the balding villain from the Smurfs.

"Mr. Burns," they called him, after the balding baddie from the Simpsons.

Such is the lot in life for Larry, good old Larry, Coker, coach of the Miami Hurricanes. Even when players talk about his dark side, they don't take it any more seriously than a cartoon.

Gargamel? Mr. Burns? Yep, that'll get you sprinting toward the end zone.

Perhaps this is the reason no one talks of the greatness of the job Coker has done in his first two seasons. No one takes the guy seriously. In a program that projects more light than any, the head coach casts no shadow.

It's a funny thing, because the world loves nothing as much as throwing adjectives at winners. But over the past two seasons, as Miami has ticked off victory after victory, two dozen in a row, the strangest thing has occurred. Coker keeps talking as if he has nothing to do with it and darned if people don't seem to agree.

Coker, 54, is the most successful coach in college football, yet he is invisible. He is driving the most powerful program in the nation, yet people act as if he is along for the ride. He is unbeaten, untied, unrecognized. Coach Autopilot.

For instance, Coker sat at the front of the room during Wednesday's news conference, and someone asked him this question:

"Larry, do you think you're still under Butch Davis' shadow?"

Huh? Are we to believe that Coker, on the verge of a second title, is still under the shadow of Butch? No offense to Butch, but does he even leave a shadow at UM?

Part of it is Coker's fault, of course. He's a little too pleasant, a little too passive to come across as a coach. Most coaches know the art of slicing a little credit off the top. They won't say they're geniuses, but they won't mind if you do. They want you to believe how tough they are, how hard they work, how deep they think.

Coker has no idea about this part of the profession. He has the smallest ego in college football. Suggest that the Miami program is self-perpetuating, as some have, and Coker simply grins and nods. Suggest that it's all about the players and the program, and he'll agree. Suggest that anyone could coach this team, and that Coker simply drew the winning ticket, and he'll provide quotes for your story.

It's all bunk, of course. A team doesn't win this many games without leadership. Of course Coker has great players. And Alexander had great soldiers. You still have to make a plan along the way.

Put it this way: If UM wins tonight, Coker will become the first coach in history to win national titles in his first two seasons. More is at play than simply talent.

Another coach would probably point that out a time or a hundred. Not Coker, who genuinely is a good guy. If he were at Junction, Texas, for instance, he'd have brought lemonade.

You want to know who Coker is? Try this: As coach of the national champions, Coker received an invitation to the Playboy Mansion. He went. And watched a fight. That's Coker, surrounded by beauty, watching boxing.

Maybe, then, what Coker needs is a little lore. Maybe then, fans would speak his name.

Maybe he should give a fire and brimstone speech in the locker room. Maybe he should wake up the echoes. Hey, it worked for Knute Rockne.

The truth be told, Coker does give a speech here and there. For instance, center Brett Romberg tells the story of Coker watching an opponent's game with his team and trying to convince his team the other team had a chance.

"He's always telling us that they have athletes just like we have athletes, that they give scholarships just like we give scholarships," Romberg said. "So we're watching this game, and he's saying that kind of stuff, and the camera goes to a couple of pretty girls in the stands. So Coach says, "They've got girls just like we've got girls. They've got honeys just like we've got honeys."

Inside of Coker, Romberg says, there is a fun guy just dying to get out.

For instance, after Miami beat FSU this season, Coker danced with his team. He danced. From all reports, it looked like your Uncle Ned with ice down his back.

"On a scale of 10, I'd give it about a 2," said linebacker Jonathan Vilma. "It was ugly."

The message is clear. There is more to Coker than first appearances. He can be funnier than you'd think. Smarter. Tougher. Louder.

He cannot, however, be more successful. Twenty-four up, twenty-four down. One title in the bank, one that can be claimed.

Three more, you figure, and people will learn his name.

Five more, perhaps, and he'll get a little credit.

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