So Long Larry Coker… Reflecting on a Roadrunner career:
It Almost Wasn’t Coker
I remember it like it was yesterday. I was having dinner with some colleagues in a small crowded restaurant in Katy, Texas. UTSA’s men’s basketball program was in the midst of the Southland Conference Tournament there in Katy. Sitting next to us was a group of UTSA administrative staff. It was the day news broke that Larry Coker would be UTSA’s first-ever head coach. And the staff, many since departed but some still at UTSA, celebrated. Overheard throughout the night was a chant of “Larrrrrrryyy-Coker clap-clap-clap-clap-clap”. Looking back at it now, the choice to select Coker seemed easy. A national championship winning coach or two other guys. The two other guys, then-Tulsa Co-Defensive Coordinator Paul Randolph and then-Northwest Missouri State Head Coach Mel Tjeerdsma. But you’d be surprised to learn that Tjeerdsma was considered the favorite by many insiders back then. There was some serious concern about whether or not Coker, who had been out of the coaching game for several years, would be a good fit. And several key people at UTSA liked what Tjeerdsma brought to the table. Athletic Director Lynn Hickey mentioned yesterday she did her due diligence in evaluating Coker saying she looked hard at him for six to eight weeks before making the decision. It turned out to be the right one, and UTSA was well on their way to history.
The Early Years
Larry Coker was everything UTSA could have dreamed for and more. An energetic coach with a first-class pedigree. Not only was Coker great at being the new face of a face-less program, his charm and charisma was top-notch. Not long after he was hired, he brought in three assistant coaches to start recruiting. Along with Coker, Assistants Mike Menefee, Eric Roark, and David Ross began shaping UTSA football. One year after being hired, UTSA announced their inaugural signing class of 25. Just some of the players in that inaugural class: Crosby Adams, Brandon Armstrong, Richard Burge, David Glasco, Scott Inskeep, Nic Johnston, Kam Jones, Nate Leonard, Ferrington Macon, Darrien Starling, and others. These players would begin practicing in the fall of 2010 and would go an entire year without playing before the first game in 2011. Mind you, at this time UTSA had no facilities. No locker room, a worn down weight room, minimal equipment, and no practice fields. Football staff spent the first few years working out of a portable behind the PE Building. Practices here held at a nearby high school stadium. It was a logistical nightmare. But one that Coker and his staff were able to navigate almost flawlessly. This was the origins of UTSA and Coker had his hands all over it.
Years One and Two
Do you remember where you were on September 3, 2011? It’s another moment I remember like yesterday. The first time the Spirit of San Antonio marching band stepped out onto the field. The first time the team took the field to an explosion of fireworks. President Dr. Ricardo Romo and other dignitaries with the first coin toss. The opening kickoff. The first touchdown on QB Eric Soza’s 14 yard keeper. The first passing touchdown, a 6 yard striek to Jake Wannamaker. The second passing touchdown, a 3 yard toss to Kam Jones. It was 21-0 before the end of the first quarter. It was all so surreal and had happened so quickly. The 56,743 attendance of the inaugural game remains a modern record for an NCAA startup program. UTSA would struggle at times in the remainder of the 2011 season. They would post just a 4-6 record and suffer some disappointments along the way, but the Roadrunners were on the rise. The following season, 2012, was the year that signaled UTSA was on their way. It was the first season in WAC play. UTSA was 4-2 at home, 4-2 on the road and 3-3 in the WAC. An 8-4 record overall was pretty good. The season started out with a hurricane-delayed game at South Alabama. It was the hottest, most humid environment I’ve ever been a part of. I remember feeling terrible that day. The humidity and heat had taken a toll. All of the concession stands in Mobile had run out of water. I had a feeling like I wasn’t going to make it. Then midway through the game, I looked down at the bench and saw Coker pacing up and down the sidelines. I told myself that if he could suck it up, so could I, and I was just sitting there watching it. That game ended with a late field goal that avenged a loss from the previous season. There were other notable moments in 2012: the domination of Georgia State in the Georgia Dome, a lopsided win at New Mexico State in front of a large crowd, and more. But 2012 was all about November 24. If you don’t remember where you were for the inaugural game in 2011, you certainly remember where you were for the Texas State game in 2012. It’s still the one and only meeting between the long-time rival schools. UTSA took a huge early lead and ended up holding on for the 38-31 win. But one moment that happened during the game may go down as one the most exciting in program history. UTSA had just put a field goal on the board. After holding Texas State to a three and out, Wide Receiver Kenny Harrison fielded a Bobcat punt. A few seconds later, Harrison had scampered 79 yards and returned it for the first touchdown of the game. It was one of the signature moments in program history that propelled UTSA to the win that day. The win and the season was a foreshadowing of success to come.
“We’ll Go The 99”
There’s a lot for Coach Coker to be proud of. Tons. His class, his grace, his willingness to come to and build UTSA’s program from scratch, and many more things that are difficult to accurately gauge. But if there is one tangible thing he can grasp a hold of, it is the 2013 season. Season three. It began in New Mexico. It was a cool early evening game in Albuquerque. It was Bob Davey bubblehead night and there was a lot of excitement surrounding the Lobos’ program. UTSA and New Mexico engaged in a gritty battle. Following a late punt that looked like it rolled into the endzone, officials determined that ball was to be spotted the ball at UTSA’s one yard line. Center Nate Leonard, who wrote a weekly blog during his playing days, wrote then that Coker was not happy with the officials’ call. It was a critical moment, in a closely contested game. As Leonard wrote, midway through his discussion with officials, Coker stopped and told them, never mind, “We’ll go the ’99”, referring to the 99 yards UTSA would have to go to score the touchdown needed to secure the win. What ensued was the stuff of legends. Eight plays, 99 yards, 4 minutes of clock that culminated with an adlib pass from QB Eric Soza to RB David Glasco to seal the game. In the following weeks, UTSA would put up valiant efforts vs Oklahoma State and Arizona. What followed next is something I’m not sure will be ever duplicated. UTSA would win six of their final nine games, including five straight to close the season. In just their third season of existence, UTSA had beat seven full-fledged FBS programs and had earned the right to play in a bowl game. And while several bowl committees were in fact interested in extending UTSA an invitation, an NCAA regulation prevented UTSA from playing in a bowl that season because they were in their final year of transitioning to FBS. Regardless, the seven FBS wins is a rare accomplishment by a third year startup program that will be very difficult to be duplicated. It was the pinnacle of Coker’s tenure at UTSA.
The Lean Years
The signature win for Larry Coker at UTSA came at the beginning of the 2014 season in Houston. The Roadrunners dominated the Cougars 27-7 and looked as though there were well on their way making even more history. Even a narrow loss vs Arizona in the home opener did not seem to slow the momentum of the season. Then, in the third game of the season at Oklahoma State, starting QB Tucker Carter was replaced by true freshman Blake Bogenschutz. At the time, the replacement was thought to be performance-related. As it turns out, Carter was battling a shoulder injury. The next week, UTSA lost a nail biter on the road to Florida Atlantic. Following a pedestrian offensive effort vs New Mexico, the decision was made to start Bogenschutz as Carter was still banged up. Early in his first-career start, Bogenschutz broke a bone in his hand and his season was over. UTSA would have to go to their third string QB and struggled to a 4-8 season. In the offseason between 2014 and 2015, there was much promise surrounding the program. Bogenschutz was healthy. The Roadrunners were implementing a new up tempo offense and the defense was expected to be good again. After a gauntlet of a non-conference schedule, UTSA began CUSA play with a gritty win at UTEP. But that win came with a price. Bogenschutz suffered a concussion at the end of the game and would not return. Reserve QB’s Austin Robinson and Russell Bellomy had left the program in previous weeks. UTSA would be forced to go with fourth string QB Dalton Sturm, a sophomore walk-on from Goliad. While Sturm showed improvement, the youth and inexperience at the position compounded struggles with other units in the offense. UTSA would finish 2015 with a 3-9 record, the worst in program history. The 2014 and 2015 seasons ultimately led to the end of Coker’s tenure as Roadrunners’ Head Coach. Back-to-back losing seasons would take a toll on anyone. But what I’ll think I’ll remember most about these last few seasons is Coker’s candor. I travelled to many road games the last few seasons. A lot of times, I would be the only media member asking Coach questions in post game. No matter what, Coker showed up and never mailed it in. He was always thoughtful, straightforward, and appreciative of the questions being asked. What was more telling were the Monday morning media round tables. Down the stretch of 2015, some of those were hard to go to. Tough questions about retaining staff and disappointments. Yet through it all, Coker showed up and answered every question in a professional and classy manner.
The circumstances surrounding Coker’s departure are strange, to say the least. Comments made by AD Lynn Hickey suggest there was more to Coker’s decision to leave. Coker released a written statement through UTSA and was not present at the press conference. Hickey called the departure Coker’s decision. Hickey also stated that it wasn’t one specific issue that led to Coker’s decision. Since the 2015 season ended, Coker lost his offensive coordinator, defensive coordinator, safeties/special teams coach, and director of operations. There was also chatter about health issues, something Hickey declined to specifically comment on. Coach Coker has been a class act during his tenure at UTSA. Regardless of the circumstances surrounding how his career at UTSA came to an end, he will always be remembered as a thoughtful and caring person who cared more about the program than about himself.
You always remember your first. And no matter what happens with UTSA football, Larry Coker will always be an important reason for the program’s success. He’s helped guide UTSA from nothing to something. Think about it, UTSA’s moved from an independent program to a member of the Western Athletic Conference to now a member of Confernece USA. He helped build a locker room, a weight room, and on-campus practice fields. His Roadrunner legacy is cemented in stone and UTSA will forever be indebted him. In an email to fans, Lynn Hickey said that if she could write one line on her Wikipedia page it would be: “Her first hire as head coach for the UTSA football program was Larry Coker. She got it right.” Indeed she did. So long to a legend.