Nick Gholson, Times Record News
May 4, 2003
The bowls on Larry Coker’s college coaching resume’ include: one Rose, Sugar, Bluebonnet, Sun, Citrus, Miocron PC and Carquest; two Holidays and four Gators.
But despite a distinguished career that finally led him to Miami and an undefeated national championship season two years ago, Coker still fondly remembers the week he spent here in Wichita Falls 25 years ago.
In 1978, 30-year-old Larry Coker – then the head coach in Claremore, Okla. – was one of the three Oklahoma coaches selected for the Oil Bowl.
“The Oil Bowl back then was THE all-star game. It was the best in the country,” Coker told me in a recent telephone conversation.
“Other than winning a state championship, that was the biggest thing that had happened to me in coaching at that time, to go to Wichita Falls and that terrific stadium you had with Astroturf and everything. It was a great privilege for me. The only thing that wasn’t great was we lost the game.”
Coker and Oklahoma were on the losing end of a 27-5 final score against Texas in the 41st Oil Bowl.
“I remember we had the top two quarterbacks in Oklahoma tell us they were coming, but at the last minute both opted not to play in the game,” he recalled.
Growing up in Okemah, Okla., Coker said he had always known about and followed the Oil Bowl. He played quarterback and defensive back for Class B Okemah in 1964 and 1965 but admits, “basically I wasn’t good enough to be chosen to play in the game.”
“I played college football only after I walked on at Northeastern State (in Tahlequah, Okla.),” he said.
Coker was chosen to coach in the Oil Bowl after taking Fairfax, Okla., to two state championships and posting a 72-12-3 record in his first eight seasons as a head coach.
But what would happen to him in the next 25 years was beyond anyone’s imagination.
“I never dreamed anything could happen like this,” he said.
I was happy coaching high school football, but in Oklahoma there wasn’t much more that I could do as a high school coach, so I always had the ambition to move to the next level,” he said. “I call it the peak-to-peak principle. If you’re a successful junior high coach, you wonder what kind of success you can have at the high school level. If you’re a successful high school coach, you want to go and try being a college coach.”
Coker got his first break as a college coach when he caught the eye of John Cooper, then the Tulsa head coach. After four seasons – three as offensive coordinator – at Tulsa, Coker was lured to Oklahoma State by Jimmy Johnson.
“Jimmy gave me a chance to coach in the Big 8 Conference, and I learned a lot from him,” Coker said of Johnson, whom he worked with at OSU for just one year before Johnson moved on to Miami and then the Dallas Cowboys. “He lives here now and I still talk to him. He’s the biggest name I ever coached for, but I also learned a lot from Butch (Davis).
“Jimmy wasn’t a guy who would come and show you the 25 plays you were going to run and how to block each one of them. He was a great personnel guy and an outstanding recruiter.”
Coker was also an assistant at Oklahoma under Gary Gibbs and at Ohio State under Cooper before going to Miami as offensive coordinator in 1995. When Butch Davis left the Hurricanes to coach the Cleveland Browns, Coker was promoted to head coach at Miami.
He was 52 when he finally got his first college head coaching job.
“I have often been asked if it would have been a downer if I had not been hired to be a college head coach, but I really would have been happy because even as an assistant coach, I had been fortunate to have been around so many great players, great programs, great coaches, great stadiums. Had I never been a head coach, I still don’t think I would have been unhappy,” he said.
Coker got the promotion because the Miami players went to bat for him. As a group, they pushed to get him hired, and the administration gave them what they wanted.
“It was a huge compliment, but even if I hadn’t got this job, it would have still been a huge compliment,” he said.
When I referred to him as a “players’ coach,” he cringed, but just for a second or two.
“You want to be careful because they often fire players’ coaches,” he joked.
Nobody was going to fire Coker after the first two seasons he had as Miami’s head coach. The Hurricanes went 12-0 and won the national championship in 2001 and then stretched that winning streak to 24 in a row last season before losing the national championship game to Ohio State, 31-24, in two overtimes.
Coker has never wanted or accepted the credit for what has been accomplished the last two years. Instead, he just calls himself “lucky.”
“Sometimes an assistant isn’t successful as a head coach because the timing wasn’t right. You take over a program that’s bad, and that’s the reason they are hiring a new coach. I was lucky. Butch had a solid program here,” he said.
Larry Coker is one of the really nice guys in sports, so if he isn’t going to pat himself on the back for 24-1, let me do it for him.
Great job, coach.
But don’t get the big head. Remember you’re still 0-1 in Wichita Falls.
Sports Editor Nick Gholson can be reached before 4 p.m. weekdays by calling (940) 720-3447 or 1-800-627-1646 (ext. 447). Or you can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.