Miami Coaching & Intangibles

I am almost certain my counterpart will have a few thousand or so kind words to drop about the man, the myth, the legend Joe Paterno. The thing is nobody is in the mood for a bedtime story. No one cares to hear tales of yesteryear. In this day and age the question remains, "what have you done lately?" In JoePa's case the answer is "not much."

Paterno may be aiming at a record tying victory this Saturday but the truth remains he should've broken the Bear's record a year ago. A 6-10 record since late 1999 prevented that. No one will come out and say the game has passed the little man by, but PSU faithful have to agree he has lost a step the past few seasons.

October 30, 1999 Penn State defeated Illinois and was 9-0 on the season. National Championship hopes were high, the meat of their schedule was behind them and the Nittany Lions were performing like a well-oiled machine.

Then the wheels fell off.

Sugar Bowl dreams were dashed after three consecutive losses. There was no bounce back after the one point loss to Minnesota. Instead Michigan came calling and hand delivered a loss, followed by another the next week at Michigan State. It only got worse in 2000 with an embarrassing 5-7 run.

Who is to blame for this downward spiral? One man -- Joe Paterno.

Penn State pays this man a hefty sum each year to have his players ready to compete at the highest level every Saturday. A 9-0 squad with a number two ranking is not supposed to lose three games in a row. They are to shrug off that first defeat and make a statement the following. Paterno didn't have his team ready to play. They hung their heads in shame, went through the motions, wound up in the Alamo Bowl and beat a sub par Texas A&M team.

When a team loses, the head coach has six days to play daddy and psychologist. Give them Sunday to sulk and Monday morning it is back to business with a revised version of the same goal at hand. Learn for the mistakes, put them behind you and move on. There is no other way. Somehow that message never got from Paterno's mouth to his player's ears.

Sports Psychology 101: Rewind to 1998 when Miami faced a loaded Syracuse team for the unofficial BIG EAST Championship. The Canes entered the Carrier Dome with a 7-2 record and hopes of a BCS bowl berth. A win would put Miami in a prestigious bowl for the first time since 1994. Everything was on the table and the Canes completely fell apart. Sixty minutes later the scoreboard read 66-13. Six days later undefeated UCLA was headed to the Orange Bowl with a number two ranking and dreams of the Fiesta Bowl. They could taste that title game. Cade McNown and crew were the most explosive offensive unit in the country while Miami's defense showed they couldn't even stop Donovan McNabb's one-man show. On paper this was going to be a blowout.

Larry Coker was Miami's offensive coordinator in 1998. That flight from Syracuse to Miami had to be the longest of his life. To muster up only 13 points against the Orangemen was an embarrassment. Many coaches would have played UCLA conservatively to avoid the blowout. Make it respectable, keep the ball out of McNown's hands and call a vanilla game plan to avoid costly mistakes and turnovers.

No chance. Larry came out guns a blazing.

Butch Davis used his six days to give his young men an attitude adjustment. Coker used his to write up an offensive game plan guaranteed to score 40 plus points. Final score -- Miami 49, UCLA 45. Both men succeeded. Mission accomplished.

The Najeh and Edgerrin wrecking crew chewed up 367 yards on the ground while Scott Covington hit three different receivers for touchdowns and had an interception free day. Coker utilized his running backs, fullbacks, tight end and three wide receivers. Play to keep it close? Never. A conservative game plan? Leave that mentality to the Big Ten and their "three yards and a cloud of dust" approach to football. Speed and confusion were on tap that day. UCLA was left teary-eyed, distraught and with their first loss in twenty games.

In Miami respect come from hard work and winning – not from keeping it close or playing not to lose.

Joe Paterno has lost a step while Larry Coker is about to take his first. A 0-0 head coaching record and six years running Miami's offense and are what Coker brings to the table. Is he a born leader? The college football world will soon find out. What is known about Larry Coker is that his players love and respect him. They lobbied for him to take over the program when Davis departed. When feelings are that strong for a coach, his players will play hard for him. They'll lie down in traffic for him. They'll make it their business to win for him.

The Canes have a team full of talented leaders and more depth than any other program in the country. They know how to win. They know how to bounce back from a loss. They can get up for the big games and can put away a team on the ropes. All qualities of a true champion. There was no whining after last year's BCS snub. Instead this squad arrived in New Orleans, mopped up Florida – on Bourbon Street and in the Superdome – came back to Miami and awaited their fate with class and dignity. When the Canes took on that "we'll get ‘em next year" mentality, they meant it. First obstacle is Penn State. Miami will be ready.

Nay Sayers and haters will say that Larry Coker cannot win a National Championship in his first year with the Miami program. The environment is too tense. The media will eat him alive. The big road games will do him in. I have two words for those who doubt:

Dennis Erickson

In 1989 Erickson took over a Jimmy Johnson assembled team, led them to an 11-1 season and a National Championship in his first year at Miami. A far cry from running the show at Idaho, Wyoming or Washington State. He brought his skills to a major program and found a way to win. He focused on the task at hand, earned his players' trust, had them working for him. Together they brought home their first of two Erickson titles.

The University of Miami is a family. You are either with UM or against them. Love or loathe – there is no in between. Howard, Jimmy, Dennis and Butch all understood the family mentality. Larry has caught on rather quickly as well.

When putting together a staff of assistant coaches where else to look than your own backyard? When wanting to pick the brains and adapt the styles of your predecessors, what better way than to identify their best pupils and invite them to be a part of your team?

New defensive coordinator Randy Shannon can attribute most of his knowledge to former coach and former boss Jimmy Johnson. A stellar linebacker on Johnson's 1987 National Championship team, Shannon spent the early nineties at UM on both Erickson's and Davis' staff only to be reunited with JJ and his Dolphins' defensive unit for three years. Shannon has worked with three of Canes' four most recent leaders. He has been affiliated with the University of Miami program for eleven years now. You think he hasn't been licking his chops awaiting this opportunity? Shannon is ready to make his mark. This man has a point to prove.

On the other side of the ball new offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski never strayed far from Coral Gables. Entering his seventh year on the UM staff, he is a former player under both Johnson and Erickson and a tight ends coach under Davis. Chud has seen every recent variation of UM's offense. He knows the ins and outs of the program and knows to stick with the formula that works. When he needs guidance, the new head coach and former coordinator is only a few doors down.

Coker kept six other assistants from Davis' staff. He knew better than to break up a good thing. He has also selected some new talent from around the country and brought them aboard.

When Saturday's kickoff comes around, Joe Paterno will be in the limelight. A fan favorite and a class act, there is little bad to say about the man. Still, he is just one man. An old man at that. One on the decline of a tremendous career. He is clutching at straws. His tank is on fumes. This is his inevitable "last hurrah." He will break Bear Bryant's record – just not this Saturday.

Larry Coker – though unproven – is wise enough to know that it's an uphill battle if he attempts to face these challenges alone. The Canes are tight knit family, which explains the tenacity to successfully make it through the highs and lows of this past decade. Coker and his staff will rely on each other heavily this weekend, as families are known to do. Standing individually they are weakened. When pulled close together they represent a clenched fist, ready to deliver a blow that could knock Papa Joe down and out for the count.

Born and raised in Miami, Chris Bello now lives in San Diego, CA and works as a freelance writer. Feel free to send your comments or to contact him for potential writing assignments at cbello@san.rr.com

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