Coker sitting pretty in Miami after being bypassed for dream job -- at Tulsa
Posted: Wednesday October 6, 2004 4:59PM; Updated: Wednesday October 6, 2004 5:10PM
Sitting down with Larry Coker is like huddling with the neighborhood plumber. After a quarter century as a high school or college assistant coach before landing the sweetheart gig in Coral Gables, Fla., the bald, bland Oklahoman remains as unassuming as the guy who lugs his lunch pail to the job.
And why wouldn't he? Sure, he calls the sideline shots for the Miami Hurricanes, one of the sexy college programs and currently the No. 4 team in the land. But the guy ranks among the luckiest characters in sport -- and he knows it. Talk about being touched by fate and decisions that went the other way.
If he'd landed his dream job, Coker would right now be happy as a lark coaching at Tulsa -- the third-rate program in his home state behind Oklahoma and Oklahoma State. Twice he applied for the head job, only to be flatly rejected.
When Butch Davis bolted Miami for NFL dollars after the 2000 season, the school's administration didn't immediately toss Coker the keys to their back-from-probation powerhouse, either. They looked first to Barry Alvarez of Wisconsin and Miami Dolphins coach Dave Wannstedt, offering the ex-'Canes defensive coordinator a 10-year, $20 million deal.
The rest is history. The two favorites reached decisions they may well come to regret, especially Wannstedt, whose Fish are so inept that he'll be lucky to make it through the current NFL season. All mild-mannered Ol' Larry has done is rack up a 39-3 record (outdone for starters by only the legendary Walter Camp), win a national championship and see another lost in overtime by a questionable official's call, and just as importantly, not embarrass UM President Donna Shalala.
Think about it: If Wannstedt took the Hurricanes job, Coker might have been given a chance to stay on as Wannstedt's offensive coordinator. But reflecting on what might have been, Coker says it's more likely he would have accepted an open invitation from Davis to join the Cleveland Browns staff -- not as the offensive coordinator, but as the running backs coach.
"I had the opportunity to go to Cleveland, and I was really appreciative of coach Davis for giving me that opportunity,'' Coker said in his easy-going, humble fashion. "The Tulsa situation, I thought that would be a natural job with me being from there. In fact, I was really good friends with one of the people on the [search] committee and he probably didn't vote to hire me. So I can't tell you how really fortunate I am to be at Miami.''
A month into another college season, the Coker-led 'Canes are 4-0 and by all indications blessed with enough talent to mount another serious championship run, which says a lot about the coaching staff's ability to recruit and fit players into its system. The only question, and it's a tough one, is whether Miami can muster enough offense to win a title?
Right now, the offense isn't to be confused with the slick machine ran by Ken Dorsey. Frank Gore and Tyrone Moss make for a terrific running back tandem, but the offensive line has struggled to protect the passer -- and a season-ending knee injury to all-everything left tackle Eric Winston brings no comfort -- the receiving corps has yet to perform to Miami's usual high standards and the quarterback play of fifth-year senior Brock Berlin remains a weekly bone of contention with Miami fans.
"Well, I think we can win a national championship with our offense,'' Coker said this week. "I don't know that you have to be great on offense to do it. There have been some teams that win national championships that haven't been great offenses. We're still a work in progress, but I think we can be a good offensive football team.''
Maybe down the road, but not today. And it better shape up before Miami entertains the likes of Louisville, North Carolina State, Virginia and Virginia Tech.
As we speak, Miami's success is heavily skewed by the work of its defense -- ranked second nationally in points allowed -- and special teams. The offense ranks only 76th out of 118 programs, with four of its touchdowns scored by the defense or special teams.
The initial reaction is to lay the blame on Berlin, who is no Mike Vick in the pocket and seemingly ducks for cover at the first hint of pressure. Coker has called out his quarterback at times, but he also knows Berlin is his best hope of leading Miami to a championship. That doesn't mean he won't give quality time to backup Kyle Wright, the future at the position.
What the opposition won't see is Miami toss aside its two-back, pro style offense in favor of the shotgun, even if it best suits Berlin. Game situations may dictate it, but Coker says an analysis of game film reveals Berlin isn't a dramatically more accurate passer from the shotgun, certainly not enough so to abandon a balanced attack.
"The key thing now is everybody is trying to pressure the quarterback,'' Coker said. "We're doing the same thing with the teams we play. We're definitely going to get that the entire season. The thing we've got to do is create opportunities for the big play. Get the ball in the hands of the playmakers, those receivers who can really run.
"If you look, the whole thing with defenses is, 'Hey, let's make him uncomfortable.' Just reverse it and look at what our defense does to quarterbacks. We've just got to make our guy as comfortable as we can. If he gets time to set his feet and throw, he can pass the football.''
The easy thing would be to yank the quarterback, whether he's comfortable or not. It's just that bland ol' Larry knows better.
Mike Fish is a senior writer for SI.com.