Larry Coker - Looking Straight Ahead

All Larry Coker has to do is take one look around him and he might get the feeling Christmas morning has arrived. It would be difficult to blame Coker for dreaming about December in the middle of the fall season because he has been supplied with so many gifts.

Gifts that could lead Coker on a delightful journey to the pinnacle of his profession and have him smelling roses by the time the ride ends.

There is the Heisman Trophy candidate on the cover of every magazine, expected to make Coker's first ride through college football a smooth one. There is the collection of running backs that as a group is regarded the best in the nation.

If that wasn't enough Coker will have the services of a slew of talented defensive ends and linebackers. And as an added bonus- quite possibly the most fear secondary in the land.

But don't bother asking the new University of Miami head coach what it will be like to take the field for the first time with so many valuables by his side.

Coker is still trying to figure out all the electronic devices on another perk that comes with being named head coach: his Cadillac. Quite a task for a low-profile, small-town man that grew up in Okemah, Oklahoma.

"I'm still trying to learn what all those buttons are for. I'm not used to all that stuff where I'm from," said the 53-year-old Coker.

Coker had never owned such a big car. And never had he been given control of one of the premier Division I football programs and thrust into the spotlight.

Until now.

It all came down last January when Butch Davis left for the NFL's Cleveland Browns. Rumors ran wild on who the nineteenth head coach of the University of Miami would be. The list of candidates included Wisconsin's Barry Alvarez and Dave Wannstedt of the Dolphins. The players would have nothing to do with all the speculation. They were just intested in one man becoming their next coach.

"He's been around the program so long," says UM quarterback Ken Dorsey. "We all feel a certain level of comfort with him. We wanted somebody to come in here that would not change to many things. We wanted to keep it in the family and Coach Coker was the perfect choice."

And so University of Miami athletic director Paul Dee handed Coker the keys to the football program. Ready or not.

With that Coker, the Hurricanes offensive coordinator from 1995-2000, takes over what many are saying is the most talented team in the country, a squad that finished 11-1 last season and second in the polls to Oklahoma.

As the Hurricanes start the 2001 season Saturday night in State College, Pennsylvania, they sit ranked second to Florida in both major polls.

Did somebody say pressure?

"That just comes with the territory. There are a lot of schools throughout the country that their coach is expected to win conference titles and national championships. Miami is no differnt. I know what is expected of me, but that doesn't mean I'm going to lose ant sleep over it. I feel prepared for what lies ahead of me as head coach of this football team."

"Because of the players we have, the coaches we have and the type of leadership on this football team, I feel I will be sucessful as a head coach."

He just might be over-prepared.

Coker has devoted 30 years of his life to the game of football. Coker, who arrived in Miami at the urging of Davis six years ago, had waited almost a quarter of a century for the opportunity that awaits him.

Coker served as an assistant for 22 years including tenures at Ohio State, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and Tulsa, before coming to Coral Gables. A highly-regarded offensive mind, Coker had a hand in the development of NFL running backs Eddie George, Barry Sanders and Thurman Thomas.

With the Hurricanes, Coker has assisted four 1,000-yard rushers, over a handful of All-Americans and a Big East Player of the Year.

An impressive resume. One that didn't land him a high-profile head coaching job until February when the Hurricanes came calling.

"I don't hold any grudges because I didn't get calls from anybody offering me a head coaching job. But I'm thrilled to death that the University of Miami had enough faith in me to give me the opportunity. I don't even look at my watch. I love every minute of this job."

There is something about Coker as opposed to the four coaches that preceded him at UM.

Butch Davis, Jimmy Johnson, Dennis Erickson and Howard Schellenberger used their intensity and flair to motivate and get the most out of their players. All those former coaches let themselves be heard whenever they felt the Hurricanes needed a wake-up call. And sometimes even when they didn't need one.

From Schnellenberger on up all of them boosted their credentials by making a pit stop at Miami.

What a difference. Coker hardly even gets loud during a practice. And he has enough time to come over to the side and shake hands with several reporters during a practice.

He has the slighlest of egos compared to his predecessors. His travels to the job took a lot longer. He has earned the respect of his players with a confidence that is unheard and his knowlegde of everything that is transpiring in the surroundings.

"There is a strong bond with Coach Coker that wasn't there there with Coach Davis. We can talk to Coach Coker about anything. He is like a friend and at the same time the coach of this football team.

Although Coker hides his emotions well, he is determined to succeed just like the University of Miami coaches before him. If the situation where to present itself, Coker won't be afraid to let his team know exactly how he feels. He'll get in a player's face and straighten him out, if necessary.

"I won't mess with Coach Coker," said UM running back Clinton Portis. "If there is something he doesn't like he'll let you know about it."

Coker may not have the credentials or the name recognition in football circles that Jimmy Johnson, Dennis Erickson or a Bobby Bowden may have, but he feels that at 53 he is prepared for the challenge that awaits him.

"I may not have the experience as a head coach, but I certainly now that I've been around long enough to handle the situation at hand. Maybe it's a blessing that I got this shot at this stage in my life. Who knows? If I would have been presented with a head coaching job earlier I may have not approached it the same way.

"I prepare to the best of my ability and try in vain to put those young men in the best possible positions to excel on the football field and in life. Is that good enough? Only time will tell."

And that stuff about pressure, whoever said Coker didn't like it.

Coker believes that the Hurricanes were ranked second behind Florida in the preseason polls because of the coaching change at the top.

"I think if Butch we're still head coach here, we would have been No. 1," Coker said. "I know if we don't get it done people are going to point fingers at me. But I'm ready for all that. That's why I took this job."

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