Miami sticks to plan, justifies Coker's faith

At strategy's heart: quick, coachable, in-state players

College Football

January 05, 2002|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

PASADENA, Calif. - Larry Coker was in his second year as an assistant coach at the University of Miami. Having lost 31 scholarships after going on NCAA probation in 1995, the Hurricanes were in the midst of their first losing season since 1979. The low point of the team's 5-6 record that year was a 47-0 loss to archrival Florida State.

"I knew we'd recover, but there were a lot of people who didn't think we would compete on a national level again," Coker said Thursday night.

With his team's 37-14 victory over Nebraska earlier in the evening at the Rose Bowl, Coker's faith in a program he took over after the departure a year ago of his former boss, Butch Davis, was rewarded. The dominant performance by the top-ranked Hurricanes completed a 12-0 season and gave Miami its fifth national championship since 1983.

"This was not only a win by the team, but by the coaching staff," said Donna Shalala, the former secretary of Health and Human Services in the Clinton administration who became the university's president last year. "They were determined to change the image of the school. They recruited young men with great character and proved you can do that and win."

While recruiting players less likely to get into trouble off the field, as was de rigeur during the team's dynasty in the 1980s, the Hurricanes didn't change the profile of the kind of talent they wanted to put on the field. Their recruiting base remained the well-stocked rosters of high school teams all over the state of Florida.

Tailback Clinton Portis came from Gainesville, cornerback Phillip Buchanon from Fort Myers. Defensive tackle William Joseph, offensive tackle Joaquin Gonzales, fullback Najeh Davenport and wide-out Andre Johnson all grew up in Miami. Linebacker Jonathan Vilma lived near the campus in Coral Gables.

Coker used his connections from his years coaching in Oklahoma to bring in tight end Jeremy Shockey from Ada, Okla. Another assistant, offensive line coach Art Kehoe, found massive tackle Bryant McKinnie at Lackawanna (Pa.) Junior College. There was quarterback Ken Dorsey out of Orinda, Calif., and safety Ed Reed from St. Rose, La.

They all came together over the past two seasons. The Hurricanes finished 11-1 last year, and only an early-season loss at Washington prevented Miami from playing in the national championship game. The win over the Cornhuskers was the 22nd straight for a team that has won 27 of its past 28 games.

The difference was obvious.

"This is the fastest team I've ever been around," Coker said yesterday morning during a news conference in Los Angeles. "The thing we really try to stress is to practice at game speed. We really stress speed - not just at the skill positions [like tailback and wide-out], but also on our defensive line as you can see."

If there was a question about the Hurricanes going into the season, it was at wide receiver. Miami had lost its top three wide-outs, including first-round draft choices Santana Moss and Reggie Wayne. Dorsey spent most of the summer working out with Johnson and the team's other receivers.

"There was never a question in my mind how good these guys were going to be," said Dorsey, who threw for 335 yards and three touchdowns against Nebraska, including seven passes for 199 yards and two touchdowns to Johnson. "When I came in before my freshman year, these guys were out there, too."

Said Johnson, who along with Dorsey was named the Rose Bowl's co-MVP: "Coming into the season, we knew the receiver position would be a big question. We took it upon ourselves by working out four times a week with him [Dorsey]. He's like a coach on the field."

The hardest part now for the Hurricanes will be repeating.

While Dorsey plans to come back for his senior year, juniors Shockey, Portis and Buchanon, as well as Johnson, a sophomore, are reportedly contemplating turning pro. Coker hopes they see the benefit of coming back, as Reed did this year and Moss the year before.

"I don't know if it [winning the championship] will be more difficult. It was difficult this year," said Coker, whose Hurricanes will get their first test Sept. 7 at Florida and will also play at Tennessee and be host to Florida State. "I don't see any complacency. Our coaches won't allow it."

Going into this season, Miami was motivated by being snubbed by the Bowl Championship Series last year and being sent to the Sugar Bowl, where the Hurricanes took their frustrations out on the Gators. They were second behind Florida in the preseason rankings, mostly because of doubts surrounding Coker and new defensive coordinator Randy Shannon.

Those doubts are gone, but Miami could find itself ranked behind Florida going into next year. Dorsey will have to live without protection from McKinnie, Gonzales and Davenport. The defense will have to replace Reed and free safety James Lewis, who had a 47-yard interception return for a touchdown against Nebraska.

"It's going to be a very big test," said Dorsey.

But this program has been tested more severely before. Coker remembers what it was like to come to Miami from Ohio State. Assistants at other schools were telling recruits that the Hurricanes would get the death penalty from the NCAA, or maybe the school would shut the program down.

One of those recruits turned out to be Johnson, who grew up a Miami fan.

"It was one of the reasons I came to Miami," Johnson said yesterday. "They would take off their helmets and do back flips in the end zone. It was fun to watch."

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