MIAMI – Maybe Larry Coker ought to hire his old assistants back. Or fire some new ones. Or exert some form of authority while he still has it.
Because if the new-look/old-school Miami Hurricanes he trotted out Monday is what he had in mind, he isn't going to be calling the shots down here much longer.
That's the reality for Coker after a 13-10 loss to arch-rival Florida State on a warm, rainy night in the Orange Bowl, and he knows it.
As if the meager 17 second-half yards, nine penalties and two total rushing yards weren't ugly enough, by the fourth quarter the ESPN announcers were already offering spin cycle apologies about Coker molding young men and things like that in the ultimate sign of a dead coach walking.
"I just want to make sure our fans don't give up on this football team," Coker himself would implore in his postgame press conference, hoping to weaken the wave of talk show callers and Internet posters.
How quaint. How unrealistic.
"People are going to do what they are going to do," he admitted. "I just want our fans to know this is a good football team [with] good young men. Don't give up on us just because we lost one game to a very good football team. Don't give up on this team."
It ain't pretty in Miami, where the expectations are gobbling up Coker the way the Seminoles' defense did with his running game. The party line is that the fan demands are out of control – after all, even after this loss Coker is 53-10 with a national title.
But it was Coker who canned six assistants, including both coordinators, after a 40-3 loss to Louisiana State in the Peach Bowl capped a 9-3 season. If there was truly nothing wrong – and with no reason to panic – why clean house?
Then his new system came out and did nothing offensively against FSU.
"We did not run the ball well. We did not throw the ball well," Coker admitted.
Other than that, things were great.
And so the coach who started his career 24-0 now has 11 games to figure out how to make it to next fall because this gold standard program is showing signs of rust. Anything less than a run of the regular season table and he'll struggle to survive. The talk-show heat is inevitable.
"Well, that goes with the territory," said FSU's Bobby Bowden, who picked up his Division I-best 360th career victory in his 41st season opener. "If you are a football coach, you are going to catch that.
"I've been under the heat, too. Especially West Virginia, when they wanted me to leave town. It's part of coaching. And if you can't handle it, you have to get out of it. A lot of coaches get out of it because they can't handle criticism. You have to learn to handle it."
Bowden survived it because he kept winning and he rarely changed course. Calls to fire his coordinators following last season's disappointing 7-5 campaign fell on deaf ears. Of course, he has that power. No one is pushing Bobby Bowden out of Tallahassee.
As for Coker, Bowden understands the fans are angry. He doesn't think they should mutiny yet, though.
"They'd be making a mistake," Bowden said. "There is one thing about both of us. These people who open – and we probably will next year – with somebody and they are 30-point favorites, after they win they still don't know what they've got. They ain't been tested. We play Miami and they play us [and] we know what we got.
"We could open with Northeastern Canada and Southwestern Mexico and beat them by 40. Or we can play Miami and know what we got. And they know what they got. If we get things corrected, both of us can be pretty darn good football teams.
"You don't know; he may win the rest of his ball games. We came here (in 1988) and got beat 31-nothing and won the rest of our games."
That might be what it takes for Coker. Miami has the highest winning percentage in college football since 1983 (.824) and own five national titles, so the bar is high. This is a big media, pro sports market and the thought of any kind of step back by the program will not be tolerated. Coker may have won the 2001 title, but critics note it was with players signed by Butch Davis.
Coker made a point of complimenting the FSU defense for his team's struggles, which isn't what the fans want to hear. There is little question that in a game that so often is decided by speed, the Seminoles – especially on defense – had more of it.
Not that FSU was brilliant or anything. It gained just one yard rushing and struggled often. But it won. And that's the point. "This is one of those games [where] you know it's going to be ugly [and] I hope we win," Bowden said.
At the very least, the 'Noles cobbled together some recognizable drives against what is unquestionably a great Miami defensive front.
"In my estimation, his front four has three first-rounders, I bet ya," Bowden said.
Which Miami fans also don't want to hear (all that talent going to waste?). At this stage, what's fair or not doesn't matter. The reality for Coker is to win now or perish. That's how it is at this level, at this pay scale and on this stage.
"It is a long season," Coker cautioned.
He may find out just how long.
- Larry Coker
- Bobby Bowden