||Monday, December 30
Updated: December 31, 6:13 PM ET
Coker changing the rules of coaching
By Ivan Maisel
PHOENIX -- Larry Coker is the worst thing to happen to coaches since talk radio.
In a profession whose role models have been autocrats and egoists, Coker deflects credit. In a sport in which coaches adapt all too well to the militaristic nature of the game, Coker refuses to wield an iron hand.
The coach as tyrant is a well-known figure, for the two or three of you who didn't see a commercial for The Junction Boys. Coker, after two seasons as head coach at Miami, is loved by his players and admired by his assistants. Leo Durocher couldn't have been more wrong about Coker. Nice guys no longer finish last. Coker has won the first 24 games of his head-coaching career, second only to Walter Camp's streak of 28 wins to start his career.
"He's a really tremendous human being," said Miami athletic director Paul Dee, the man who promoted Coker in February 2001. "Nice family. Low-key. There are people who, it's about them. Not him. It's not about him."
It's not about him, even when he has done things no coach before him has ever done. "I think so much of it is that you can't take yourself too seriously," Coker said. "It doesn't take very long to be humbled. This has not been coaching reality for anybody. We never went in there saying, 'You know what? We're going to win all our games.' That's not reality. Being a little older, I appreciate it a little more. I've had people tell me how much I deserve this job. That's not true. There are plenty of people who deserve this job."
He paused a beat. "But they can't have it," he said.
Coker laughed. While it may be easier to tell jokes when you win, Coker's sense of humor is an oasis in the desert of serious coaching personalities. On the day after Miami defeated Virginia Tech, 56-45, to clinch a berth in the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl, Coker recounted his postgame comments to his players concerning their celebration.
"Guys," Coker said, "I think that's a great idea. You deserve a party. We'll all go party together."
Pause a beat.
"They didn't think that was such a great idea."
He feels comfortable enough about who he is and who the Hurricanes are to tease about the deep reservoir of talent on the team. "It's sad when you lose a Jason Geathers and have to put an Andre Johnson back there to return kickoffs," Coker said, referring to Geathers getting dinged up against the Hokies. Johnson, of course, is the split end who doubles as Big East sprint champion.
His demeanor is not the only ground Coker has broken in coaching. For one thing, the head coaching parade nearly passed him by. After 31 seasons in the business, Coker had never been a collegiate head coach. Coaching lifers rarely get such a chance to prove themselves.
Once upon a time, Coker had been an up-and-comer. In nine years, he climbed from his first job, a $7,000 gig as assistant football coach and science teacher at Fairfax (Okla.) High in 1971, to become an offensive coordinator at Tulsa under John Cooper. When Cooper took the Arizona State job two years later, Coker responded by asking Cooper to help him land the Tulsa job.
"He said, 'Why?,' Coker recalled. "'Larry, do you remember how miserable it was on Saturday night and Sunday morning when we got our brains beat in?'"
In February 2001, Coker was no longer an up-and-comer. He had an impeccable pedigree, serving as offensive coordinator for Jimmy Johnson and Pat Jones at Oklahoma State and Gary Gibbs at Oklahoma before rejoining Cooper at Ohio State. He left Columbus in 1995 to work at Miami for Butch Davis, whom he knew as an Oklahoma prep coach nearly 25 years before.
Good coaches, all, and Coker learned from them. But the head coaching itch never became so strong that he needed to medicate it.
"I hadn't marketed myself as well as need be. That's hard when you're preparing for games, bowls, and you're also marketing and interviewing for jobs. It's difficult. You feel like you're taking away from the job you're supposed to be doing," Coker said. "There was a little bit of a comfort zone and satisfaction from being at Oklahoma, Ohio State and Miami. Good programs. Good money. Some of those head coaching jobs aren't good enough. I didn't want to be a head coach that bad. I wanted to win."
Which leads to another method Coker used to break the coaching mold. The Miami players lobbied Dee to hire Coker. Coaches hired because their players wanted them are as successful a pairing as Trent Lott and a microphone. Michigan State hired Bobby Williams in December 1999 because the Spartans beseeched athletic director Clarence Underwood to promote him. We all saw how well that worked out. Williams didn't last three full seasons.
Little more than a year later, Dee came out of a meeting with his players convinced that he should do what they asked and promote Coker. Dee challenged the Hurricanes, asking, "Is this the easy way out?" Quarterback Ken Dorsey convinced him that Coker knew how to teach. Safety Ed Reed, now with the Baltimore Ravens, pleaded that the players would respond to Coker. "I just felt stability was what we needed," Dee said. Coker got the job. We all saw how well that worked out.
"We all had a very good relationship with him," guard Sherko Haji-Rasouli said. "We knew he was a good person. We knew he would be a players' coach. We didn't want the whole staff to change. We knew we had the potential to do better. We had a lot of players coming back. We wanted to do everything the same."
Instead, they have done everything better. Only Coker has remained the same.
"The thing about Larry," said Hurricanes offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski, "when you watch him on a day-to-day basis, is that he just enjoys what he is doing. You see head coaches who are stressed out. Whenever you see him, he's enjoying it."
Chudzinski worked with Coker as a graduate assistant and a fellow assistant before Coker promoted him, at age 32, to become offensive coordinator. Most first-time head coaches would hesitate before exposing themselves to the criticism of hiring such a young coordinator. Coker made what proved to be an inspired choice.
Asked about his friend and boss, Chudzinski referred to the period five years ago when Miami tried to climb out of the hole it had dug for itself through NCAA probation. Coker took a lot of heat for the relative ineptitude of the offense.
"Everybody likes him now, when he is winning," Chudzinski said. "But I saw him when they were calling for his head, and he's the exact same guy. It was a tough time to be him, and you really find out what people are made of. To see the class he showed was something."
In a city that has had to live with Pat Riley as his preening egotism has given way to the Heat's perennial mediocrity, Coker's ever-present smile has become a landmark. That smile, which never strays too far from Coker's features, connects what may be the two biggest ears in college coaching today. If Coker, as the old line about the former major reliever Don Mossi goes, looks like a car with its front doors open, then this car is well-appointed.
Coker's success hasn't gone to his head; it's gone to his closet. Ironically, he cites Riley as an influence in his decision to coach well. The guy who started his career in tight polyester coaching shorts now favors the tight look of Italian designers. "Zanella slacks and Canali coats," Coker said. "That's what (I bought) after I became head coach."
Coker is concerned about his appearance. He regularly wears a coat and tie to press conferences. He initially donned a tuxedo for the Heisman Trophy announcement in New York on Dec. 14. When he came down to dinner and saw no one else in formal wear, he returned upstairs and changed to a dark coat, deep blue shirt and tie.
Coker maintains that he has no interest in the NFL. A few of his old colleagues from Oklahoma State are across town with the Dolphins, including head coach Dave Wannstedt. Coker has no interest to do anything but what he is doing, which is winning games and changing the definition of a successful coach.
"To whip people into a frenzy, kick them in the rear, yelling -- none of those techniques work with today's players," Dee said. "Today's youth is not about that. It's about setting standards. Reward performance. Encouragement. Direction. They react well to Larry. That's the way he is and it works with these kids. They are looking for someone to give them direction, leadership, the plan, but not cram it down their throat.
"He is today like he was two years ago when we hired him. His personality, his temperament, his way of dealing with people. He has flourished in his persona but it hasn't overwhelmed him."
The term Machiavellian fits football coaches as tautly as an offensive lineman's jersey stretches over his shoulder pads. Niccolo Machiavelli wrote the 16th-century political treatise "The Prince," which describes the ruthless behavior he believed necessary to get on top and stay there. From that book, his surname lengthened into an adjective that, despite him being from Italy and never having wrestled a bear as a child, described the 20th-century football coach.
A ruling prince should, Machiavelli wrote, "be held in constant fear, owing to the punishment he may inflict." Coaches rule by fear. They are macho CEOs in a macho enterprise. Society and the NCAA rule book ask them not to win at all costs, but they are celebrated and well-compensated when they do.
"I don't feel any different than when I made $7,000 at Fairfax," Coker said. "Winning there was great. Winning here is great. Losing there hurt. Losing here, well, I haven't had to do that yet.
"I tell a story at luncheons that I was the first new head coach to win a national championship in 53 years. Bennie Oosterbaan did it at Michigan. He got fired the very next year. I remind myself of that as I go out and do this thing. Maybe that's why we did well this year. You know what? I'm not safe yet."
Actually, Oosterbaan coached for 10 more years. He had nothing to worry about, and neither does Coker. He is safe. It's his opponents that have to do the worrying.
Ivan Maisel is a senior writer at ESPN.com. He can reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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