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Chance of a lifetime

Larry Coker waited 22 years for a chance to run a program, any program. The one he got wasn't just any program.

[Special to the Times]
Larry Coker inherits a Hurricane program that former coach Butch Davis left after an 11-1 season, and nine days before signing day.

By BOB HARIG

© St. Petersburg Times,
published July 25, 2001


CORAL GABLES -- The big man has yet to sit in the big chair, but Larry Coker is not about to quibble. He'll be on the hot seat soon enough.

The Hecht Center at the University of Miami is making a summer transformation, so Coker, the new UM football coach, is in a small, temporary office, full of clutter, one that has the look of an assistant's home.

But after 22 years of preparing for the chance to run a college program, Coker, 53, is content to wait for the expansion and renovation to be complete. The amenities Butch Davis was so impatient about will be ready for Coker in a few weeks.

By then, practice will begin, and Coker will be immersed in the task of coaching the Hurricanes, who have national championship aspirations. They will be led by a man who never has been a head coach above the high school level, and not since 1978 in Clarmore, Okla.

"I have had time to reflect, and having been here it feels pretty comfortable," said Coker, who came to Miami under Davis in 1995 as offensive coordinator. "I think maybe if I had gotten the head coaching job, say, at Ohio State, I'd have been new to everybody, the players would have been new to me. So it's been a very, very comfortable transition.

"There have been a lot of positives and it's made the transition very smooth. I think it has soaked in. I feel like I'm the head coach at the University of Miami. I guess I really am. I guess it has soaked in."

If it seems as if Coker might still be pinching himself, it's because he waited so long. A career assistant who 18 months ago was turned down for the coaching job at Tulsa, Coker had worked under Jimmy Johnson, John Cooper and Davis. He had coached on offense and defense. He had done about all he could do.

The stops included Tulsa, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Ohio State and Miami.

"There were times we wondered if an opportunity like this would ever come along," said Coker's wife of 32 years, Dianna. "So many times we were up for something exciting and it didn't happen, and all we could do was figure that the time wasn't right for us."

"Maybe I was a little bit naive," Coker said. "I felt if you do a good job and you win that you're going to somehow be discovered, that 'This is the best guy for the job.' But sometimes, that's not how it works. Sometimes it's who you know. And in coaching, marketing has gotten big. A lot of assistant coaches have agents. Names immediately come to the top because they are promoted a little better. Maybe you don't get discovered."

Coker used the example of Bob Davie, who had no previous college head coaching experience when hired by Notre Dame. Davie has an impressive college coaching resume. But Coker thought he did, too. "I'm thinking, 'What does this guy have that I don't have?' So there is some uncertainty there. I'll say I probably did a poor job of marketing myself."

Another example: In the early 1980s, Coker and Davis were on Johnson's staff at Oklahoma State. Coker was offensive coordinator, Davis was receivers coach. In essence, Davis worked for Coker. More than a decade later, Davis, a head coach, hired Coker.

Then in January, after saying for weeks and months that he planned to stay at Miami, Davis bolted for a lucrative offer with the Cleveland Browns. National signing day for recruits was just nine days away. And a team that had finished 11-1 and second to Oklahoma in the national polls was without a coach.

Davis recommended Coker as his replacement, and the players wanted him as well. A group including quarterback Ken Dorsey, running back Clinton Portis, offensive lineman Joaquin Gonzalez and defensive back Edward Reed went to athletic director Paul Dee's office in a lobbying effort.

Dee asked Coker to take over on an interim basis, while he looked at candidates with head coaching experience, including Wisconsin's Barry Alvarez and the Miami Dolphins' Dave Wannstedt.

Coker never fretted. He and the other assistants went recruiting, trying to hold together an impressive class.

"I just felt strongly from the first meeting (with Dee) that I was going to get this job," Coker said. "I've applied for and been rejected for jobs in high school and college. ... I've had opportunities. But I never really felt the way I felt about this. I felt like I was going to get this job. I felt I was the best person for the job."

And ultimately, Dee and new Miami president Donna Shalala believed so, too.

"Wind back the clock six years, when Dennis (Erickson) left (for the NFL), and at that time I wanted to be sure that I got a coach with head coaching experience," Dee said. "At the end of the day, we went and found Butch and he had never been a head coach. He was perfect for what we were facing and what we went through (NCAA probation).

"So it was less difficult to look at myself and be broader than looking for someone who had only been a head coach. I had less concern about getting the right man."

Nobody questioned Coker's ability as an offensive coordinator. Dorsey, who threw for 2,737 yards and 25 touchdowns last season, credited Coker with helping his development. The Hurricanes set school and Big East records with 469 regular-season points and ranked fifth in the nation in total offense at 460.8 yards a game.

And good luck trying to find someone to say something negative about Coker.

"He's a terrific guy," Dee said. "We're very, very fortunate."

"I don't know if I've ever seen Larry Coker have a bad day," said Cooper, who coached with Coker at Tulsa and Ohio State. "I hired him twice, so I must think a lot of him. He did a great job. I think the world of Larry Coker. I think he was a very sound choice. I don't have any reason to believe he won't be successful."

'Canes fans will find out quick. Miami's first test under Coker will be Sept. 1 at Penn State, where coach Joe Paterno will be trying to tie Paul "Bear" Bryant for the most victories all-time while Coker is attempting to get his first.

"That's a little bit mind-boggling," Coker said.

By then, Coker should be in his new digs, sitting in that big chair, squirming like all coaches.

Larry Coker

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