Chilly 'Canes try to give Coker a warm send-off

Tonight's game: Miami vs. Nevada, 7:30 p.m., Broncos Stadium, Boise, Idaho. TV: ESPN.

By MICHAEL SNYDER Times Correspondent
Published December 31, 2006

The long, strange journey that was Miami's 2006 football season will, perhaps, fittingly come to an end on blue turf, in frigid weather conditions and before a lot of empty seats.

That begs the question: If you play in a bowl game and everyone is looking toward next season does it still count?

How much the Hurricanes (6-6) are looking ahead will likely be apparent early when they take on Nevada (8-4) in the MPC Computers Bowl in Boise, Idaho, tonight.

"It certainly hasn't gone the way we wanted, that's for sure," said center Anthony Wollschlager, who'll be making his 24th consecutive - and last - start.

Last week, many Hurricanes saw snow for the first time. Guard Derrick Morse, a junior from Fort Myers, said it never occurred to him that he would play in a bowl game in a state famous for its potatoes.

"Never in my life," he said. "But you know, we're here and we need to make the most of it. I'll probably never be here again. I don't know what the attraction of Boise is."

A season that started with a loss to FSU spiraled downhill quickly. It included a brawl with Florida International and the still-unsolved shooting of defensive tackle Bryan Pata. Coach Larry Coker was fired a day after the regular-season finale victory over Boston College and replaced by defensive coordinator Randy Shannon. But Coker will coach tonight with Shannon managing the defense and the team determined to avoid a letdown.

"You don't go to schools like Miami, top-echelon programs, and just lay down and walk on the field and say you don't want to win because there's nothing on the line," junior tight end Greg Olsen said. "We could be 0-11 and that 12th game, you want to go out and win."

Junior linebacker Jon Beason added: "Everybody has the same mind-set, that we have to go out with a win, especially for Coach Coker. We all like the guy."

Miami faces the No. 3 finisher in the Western Athletic Conference with a few significant vacancies on the staff already. Offensive coordinator Rich Olson joined former UM coach and mentor Dennis Erickson at Arizona State. And offensive line coach Mario Cristobal replaced Don Strock as coach at FIU.

Todd Berry, quarterbacks coach, will call the plays tonight, and is expected to open things up.

With Boise State playing Monday in the Fiesta Bowl and many locals in sunny and warm Arizona, a crowd of some 23,000 is expected in the 30,000-seat Broncos Stadium for the Coker farewell. He won more games in his first six seasons than any other Hurricanes coach except Erickson, and he has won more games since 2001 than all but five Division I-A coaches. Coker, 58, had a 59-15 record, won a national title after the 2001 season and played for another the next season.

"The whole team was recruited by him," Morse said. "To see him go is sad because he's the reason we're here. It's very important to send him out with a win."

Coker said: "It means a lot. It means that they care. I think they know I'm in it for the right reasons. I'm in it for them."

Why else would he be in Boise on New Year's Eve?