Larry Coker had to do something. Maybe a tongue-lashing or a demotion or two, you'd figure, after an altogether unacceptable second consecutive 9-3 season.
|Like Coker, John Cooper fired assistants. His fate? The boot from OSU. (Getty Images)|
Was it his idea or that of a higher power (AD Paul Dee)?
Following a national championship in 2001, Coker's program lost all of nine games over the last four years. We were all thinking the same thing: How could he keep his job?
Only in South Florida is that last statement uttered with a straight face. Coker kept the dynasty afloat after Butch Davis bolted a week before signing day in 2001. The little-known assistant salvaged a recruiting class that would contribute to a national championship less than a year later and a title game berth in 2002.
That championship, being only four years old, hasn't built up much equity for the coach. In fact, when Coker fired those four assistants shortly after an embarrassing 40-3 Peach Bowl loss to LSU last month, perhaps his last firewall had been breached.
"It's the hardest thing I've ever done in coaching," he said.
Hard because he cut loose offensive line coach Art Kehoe, a 27-year veteran who was a part of all five national championships and is a member of the school's sports hall of fame. Hard because running backs coach Don Soldinger has eight running backs in the NFL.
Hard because linebackers coach Vernon Hargreaves and offensive coordinator Dan Werner were let go, too. Their departure was less controversial, but taken altogether the upheaval was one of the biggest in the program's history.
Coker has lost five assistants since midway through the 2005 season. Defensive line coach Greg Mark was fired under mysterious circumstances on Oct. 17.
Now it's on Coker. Mission: Get the program back on track by the standard it has set for itself. Consecutive 9-3 seasons do not measure up to that standard.
Games have been lost. Assistants have been sacrificed. There's no place else to look but in the mirror.
Trust us, it's written somewhere in some coach's code: Excuses for losing last only slightly longer than assistants' contracts.
None of this is fair, of course. Former Nebraska coach Frank Solich got fired with a 58-19 career record. He followed a familiar path to the unemployment line. Solich threw three assistants on the trash heap a year after playing in that national championship game against Miami. After the firings, Nebraska's former coach actually improved from 7-7 in 2002 to 9-3 in 2003. And he still got canned.
John Cooper went 6-6 with Ohio State in 1999, sacrificed two coaches, improved to 7-4 in 2000 and was fired with a .715 winning percentage. His fatal flaw, of course, a slight problem beating Michigan.
Coker, 53-9 in Coral Gables, has a similar problem. A proud dynasty cannot lose to Clemson and Georgia Tech in the past two seasons. It cannot be punked by LSU's backup quarterback, Matt Flynn. The only sign of the old Miami in that Peach Bowl was a wild brawl at the end of the game.
Maybe there is hope, after all.
Or maybe something is missing. Seems that way ever since Brock Berlin arrived three years ago. That flamboyant "Miami gene" was mostly missing from the offense. After the recent firings there were hints there had been a lack of chemistry among the coaching staff.
"We've got some playmakers, but we've got to get those guys the football," Coker said. "We're going to be an explosive offensive football team, we're going to be an attacking team."
Has Miami's offense lost those attributes that it patented over the past two-plus decades?
"I think we got away from it some, yes," Coker said.
Kehoe's offensive line gave up nine sacks in the opener against Florida State and 32 overall in '05. But after almost three decades, didn't Kehoe deserve at least to be shuffled to another job within the program?
The special teams struggled. That was Soldinger's other responsibility. He put in 16 years at Miami. Hargreaves was suddenly the fall guy after his linebackers had been part of one of the nation's best defenses most of the season.
Coker suggested he wants to go downfield more, take advantage of Greg Olsen, a good pass-catching tight end, but not in the Jeremy Shockey/Kellen Winslow II class.
Former Army coach Todd Berry was hired last week as the new quarterbacks coach. He might become offensive coordinator or share play-calling duties with Coker. It's not clear yet.
Berry played under Coker, then an assistant at Tulsa, in 1979-80. However, he simply had the wrong philosophy at Army. Berry tried to institute a passing offense at a place that has a difficult time recruiting skill players. His 5-35 record with the Black Knights is hardly inspiring.
The lasting image of Berry is guiding Army through the 9/11 aftermath. Many of his players knew that after the 2001 season, they were destined to be shipped overseas to fight the war on terror.
Miami is still landing recruits because it is Miami. The firings (and one hiring) haven't had too big an impact in that area. And as recent as two months ago, the 'Canes looked like the old Miami, winning a huge game at Virginia Tech.
Then they went 2-2 down the stretch.
Depressing finishes seem to be a pattern. Miami is a combined 9-6 after Nov. 1 the past three seasons.
Critics have been waiting to pounce because Coker doesn't have the swagger of Howard Schnellenberger or Jimmy Johnson. He is, well, mostly friendly. Sort of a grandfatherly type.
At Miami, those qualities can be interpreted as signs of weakness. One hack's opinion? Coker should get a lifetime pass for holding the recruiting class, dynasty and program together after Davis left.
But that's far-sighted. The myopians will tell you that averaging more than 10 wins over the last four years isn't enough.
"I just signed a new contract, so I don't feel (pressure)," Coker said.
Yes, but buyouts are forever and Coker did just fire four coaches -- which tends to foreshadows bad things to come. Ask Cooper or Solich.