KANSAS CITY, Mo. (BP)–Not many people go the first two years on the job without making a mistake.
In spite of his perfect 24-0 record as a collegiate head football coach heading into a Jan. 3 Fiesta Bowl match-up against Ohio State for the national championship, the University of Miami’s Larry Coker will be the first one to say that he doesn’t belong on that list either.
“I’ve never felt like I was good enough,” he told Baptist Press. “I’ve grown to understand that none of us is good enough. Even if you always try to do the right things, you’re not going to be perfect.”
He also knows that his team is not perfect, even after the back-to-back undefeated seasons and 34-game winning streak that dates back to the second game of the 2000 season.
“You recognize your team is not perfect because you look at the video,” he said. “As coaches, you don’t look at the success of the big plays. You find mistakes in them and realize you need to get them corrected.”
There haven’t been a lot of mistakes, at least not game-breakers. The Hurricanes’ average margin of victory in the streak is 42-14. They have won 25 of those 34 games by 20 points or more. Coker feels blessed to be in charge of this victory machine.
“There are not many head coaching jobs out there, and for me to get one is an act of God,” he said at the conclusion of his first year. “To be at a place like Miami, where you have the vehicle to have great success, that’s great. Then, on top of that, to have excellent players and coaches and to play well and win a national championship, it’s been a wonderful first year.”
A native of Last Chance, Okla., where he was a member of the Last Chance Baptist Church, the 54-year-old Coker got his first chance to be an overnight success after toiling for many years as a high school and college assistant coach. Coker’s resume includes head coaching stops at two high schools in Oklahoma before jumping to college. He got his start at the University of Tulsa as the running backs and quarterbacks coach, then offensive coordinator posts at Tulsa, Oklahoma State and Oklahoma. He then went to Ohio State, where he coached defensive backs and later the quarterbacks, before becoming former Miami coach Butch Davis’ offensive coordinator in 1995.
Through those years, he developed a reputation as a players’ coach, so it was no surprise that when Davis announced that he was leaving the program to take the head coaching position with the NFL’s Cleveland Browns, the Miami players made a hard push to have Coker named the permanent replacement.
“We knew that Coach Coker was the right man for the job,” said Daryl Jones, a senior wide receiver on the 2001 squad. “He’s been in the business for a long time; he’s paid his dues. It wasn’t just because he is a great coach. There are a lot of good coaches out there. It was how he interacts with his players.
“You can see the aura of Jesus Christ all over his life. You can see Christ working in his life. We knew he could carry the burden of being a head coach.”
“I try to make a positive influence,” Coker responds. “Winning is important; I don’t care if it’s winning football games or winning people to Christ. There also is a proper way to conduct yourself. It’s a total package. I think the players knew that.”
Following his first season, in which he became the first coach in more than 50 years to win a national title in his first season as head coach, Coker was asked what he would do for an encore.
“We play 12 (regular season) games next year, so we’ve got a chance to win more games next year than we did this year,” he said. “I guess for an encore, you either retire undefeated or you come back and try to do the right things in the off-season. Hopefully, you can compete for a championship and have an opportunity to go to the Fiesta Bowl.”
That has come true, of course, and the party just keeps going. “There have been some highlights through my career,” he continued. “But as far as professionally, going through a 12-game season undefeated is the highlight of my career. Not many coaches have the opportunity to play for the national championship. We all could mention great coaches who never have won a national championship.”
Coker is ready for a chance at a second straight title. But he doesn’t get too caught up in the success of his teams. He deflects all praise to his players and assistants. It’s not false humility. “I think some of the experiences I had helped prepare me for this job,” he says. “Buddy Ryan once made the statement, ‘I’ve been ready for 20 years but nobody gave me a job.’ I don’t think that’s my case. I think I probably got the job at the right time. You think about 20 years ago, when you’re 30 or 35 years old, you think you’re ready to take on the world. In reality, I think the experiences I’ve had probably helped prepare me.”
In that humble beginning, he was taught that a relationship with Jesus Christ was the most important thing he could learn, more important than X’s and O’s.
“(The success) is something you need to keep in perspective,” he said. “I was the first rookie head coach to win a national championship in 53 years. It was 1948 when Bennie Oosterbaan from Michigan won one. Ironically, he was fired the next year.
“I think the point is to not take yourself too seriously. I think I did a good job, but you really can’t win enough games. I was walking off the field after the Rose Bowl (a 37-14 trouncing of Nebraska) when I was asked, ‘Can you repeat?’ The sweat hadn’t even dried yet. It was a great accomplishment, but you have to keep it in perspective.”
“Head coach is not who I am, it’s what I do. This position gives me a vehicle to share my faith. It gives me an opportunity to do some things that I would not be able to do. I was able to speak to a businessmen’s prayer breakfast. It was basically a talk about my faith and the season. I got the word back that some of those men actually had made commitments to attending churches and giving their lives to Christ. Those are opportunities I would have never had had I not gotten this job.”
Whether Coker extends his coaching record to 25-0 or not, there’s little doubt that he will have the same approach to his job the next day. Humbly, he’ll do his best to help the Hurricanes get better. And then he’ll turn the results over to the Lord.
(BP) photo posted in the BP Photo Library at http://www.bpnews.net. Photo title: LARRY COKER.