A crooked smile creased Miami coach Larry Coker's face when his 21-year-old cornerback walked off the field after touching the national championship trophy and told his friends he would savor this win for a ''lifetime.''
As if the kid had any idea how long that was.
As if any kid knew how far you had to travel and how much you had to endure to savor this win the way Coker could now.
Thirty-two seasons in the football business, 22 as an assistant, longer than most of the kids who played for him had been alive, and until this one, they all ended pretty much the same way -- with someone else in charge. With someone else covered with glory or draped with blame.
And really, how could any kid know how long and how hard Coker ached to be that guy?
''It's really hard to say now because everything hasn't soaked in,'' he said after the Hurricanes overwhelmed Nebraska 37-14 Thursday night at the Rose Bowl. ''It's an unbelievable honor, it's tremendously gratifying to be around such great players, to be able to coach kids at such a high level.
''I'm just so grateful,'' Coker said, his voice softening, ''for this opportunity.''
Talk about a dream deferred. Coker was 52 years old when his finally came true. The fifth head coach he'd worked for, Butch Davis, announced he was leaving Miami the day after last year's Super Bowl to take the same job with the NFL's Cleveland Browns.
By then, Coker had worked as a high school coach, as the offensive coordinator for flamboyant Jimmy Johnson at Oklahoma State, for solid John Cooper at both Tulsa and Ohio State, and for Gary Gibbs at Oklahoma. He had managed to bring out the best in future NFL stars Barry Sanders, Thurman Thomas, Eddie George, Orlando Pace and Edgerrin James. And yet, nobody but real college football insiders could have picked Coker out of a lineup.
It wasn't so much that he wanted it that way, only that he was raised to work hard, to serve others and let that carry him as far as it might.
Coker grew up in Oklahoma the son of an oil field pump man who died in March at age 89 and a mother whose successful fight against cancer 40 years ago taught him lessons about toughness and survival that still drive him today. He played defensive back at Northeastern State University, then made the segue into coaching at Fairfax (Okla.) High, where he won two state titles. In 1978, after moving to nearby Claremore High, he caught Cooper's eye and joined the staff at Tulsa. Thus began the life of a coaching gypsy.
Coker was always an easy guy to miss, a coach who did his job without complaint or calling attention to himself. He never felt too accomplished to pass up a chance to learn or ambitious enough to sell himself to the athletic directors whose big-time programs were always on the prowl for rising young stars of the profession.
Typically, when Coker's first-ever interview for a head-coaching position at Tulsa two years ago ended without an offer, he blamed himself for failing to lay out a vision grand enough to sweep the administration off its feet. Unassuming to a fault, he went back to Miami and redoubled his effort.
Last year's offense was the most prolific in the Hurricanes' storied history. Coker promptly eclipsed that benchmark in his first season in charge. To top it off, he became only the second coach ever in college football to win the national championship as a rookie, joining Bennie Oosterbaan of Michigan, who turned the trick in 1948.
And the story of how Coker got into position to match it says as much about him as anything.
Not long after Davis called the team together and announced he was leaving, a handful of still-stunned Miami seniors marched from the locker room straight into athletic director Paul Dee's office.
''The first time was two hours later,'' recalled tackle Joaquin Gonzalez. ''Then we went back two hours after that, the next day and the day after that. We knew coach Coker would have a hard time lobbying for himself and so we made it our job.''
And when they finished, when juniors Bryant McKinnie and Ed Reed, the two most promising NFL prospects in the program, announced that they would make themselves eligible for the supplemental pro draft unless Coker got the job, he did.
Coker never forgot that.
It's why he deflected every question about himself back to his kids, to the parents who taught him about perseverance, the coaches who showed him the tricks of the trade, and the Miami administration that broke with tradition by promoting from within.
''To all those people,'' Coker said, finally, ''who gave an old guy who never thought he'd have the chance to be a head coach the opportunity.
Jim Litke is the national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org
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