First and Goals
Coker, Hickey have plans to score big with Roadrunner football
When Larry Coker took over the head coaching duties at the University of Miami in 2001, the athletics department was in the midst of an $8 million expansion of the Hecht Athletic Center, adding a players’ lounge and an outdoor terrace overlooking Greentree Practice Field.
When Coker took on the head coaching duties at The University of Texas at San Antonio early this year, the athletics department was expanding to include football for the first time.
They had a helmet.
“That’s it,” says UTSA Athletics Director Lynn Hickey. “That’s how we’re starting. I think we’ve actually added another helmet. Now I think we have two helmets.”
Hickey invested the better part of this decade to start Roadrunner football. The road has been long and hard and promises to remain difficult. “It’s going to be tough, and we’re not doing it in the easiest of economic times,” says Hickey. “But, hey, we’ve got a great university. We have a great student body that’s 100 percent behind us, and we’re going to go forward.”
There is no players’ lounge or outdoor terrace. There isn’t a practice field or locker rooms or posh offices—yet. What the Roadrunners do have is one of this decade’s most successful college football coaches. With Coker quarterbacking, suddenly the end zone doesn’t seem so far away. Yard-by-yard, Hickey and her coach think they’ll make it there just fine.
“I have one of the most experienced coaches in America by my side helping me know how to plan this and to put things in place one step at a time,” says Hickey.
Coker led the 2001 Miami Hurricanes to an undefeated season and a national championship. He earned the Bear Bryant and American Football Coaches Association Coach of the Year honors for the feat. In the seasons that followed, he guided the ’Canes to another Bowl Championship Series title game and three BCS bowl games, finishing up with a 60–15 overall record.
He’s coached Heisman Trophy winners and NFL greats (Barry Sanders, Eddie George, Thurman Thomas, Santana Moss, Jeremy Shockey, Ken Dorsey—the list goes on and on).
Now he’s left a cushy ESPN analyst job for a nonexistent football program. Of all the options open to someone with Coker’s impressive résumé, why a university hanging by the chin strap of its lone helmet?
“The challenge, and the fact that it’s an opportunity to do something that hasn’t been done before,” says Coker. “It’s such a unique legacy to leave a program like this, but the other part of it is I see great potential here. You have to see the future, see the vision of what can be.”
Coker’s vision is a competitive Division I football program and a lot of young men earning an education. He knows the field stretched before him is fraught with obstacles, but he sees a path and, more important, he has a plan. Already he has hired three assistant coaches and been to more than 100 high schools on recruiting visits. Next year, he will add more staff and bring in his first round of about 25 redshirt players. Meanwhile, each day he does something for his football program, even if it has nothing to do with X’s and O’s. Some days he’s a fundraiser. Some days he’s a recruiter. Some days he’s a PR man. But every day he sticks to the plan and works hard to gain a few more inches of ground.
While Hickey works on facilities, Coker and his staff work on filling the stands, and he has no plans to skimp on his first Roadrunner recruiting class. “We’re not selling ourselves short as far as the players we recruit,” says Coker. “We’re definitely trying to recruit Division I players.”
Still, he’s choosy about his players, and not just on the field.
“I like players with character,” Coker says flatly. He expects his players to be responsible, go to class, be prepared and respectful. In short, he plans to surround himself with good people who work hard.
Of course, he’s trying to recruit those players to a vision, not an actual existing football powerhouse. While there are no football traditions at UTSA, there is an advantage in the relative youth of the university. Lots of things are shiny and new. “It’s a beautiful campus, a beautiful area of San Antonio,” he says. “There’s so much out here, so much new and so much going on and being built down here. There’s just so much for students.”
Coker is excited about the university. He’s excited about playing in the Alamodome, calling it a big “wow” factor. He knows he has to wait two years before the Roadrunners get to play their first game. It’s already been too long. Sure, he’s had plenty of game days working as an analyst for ESPN in the two seasons since he left Miami. But those weren’t his game days. There was no adrenaline rush. There are no wins to enjoy or losses to endure when the games aren’t his. “I got to stand around and talk football,” says Coker. “But the thing about being an analyst is you don’t have the ups and downs, and you leave the stadium, and you really don’t know if you’ve won or lost.”
No wins and losses? That’s no life for a man who always wanted to be a football coach. So, Coker started searching. The University of Texas at San Antonio, deep in the land of Friday Night Lights glory where football is king, was starting a program and needed a coach to lead the way. He could have gone anywhere, but to coach college football in Texas? “It just doesn’t get any better than that,” says Coker.
Imagine Hickey’s surprise when Coker came calling. Her voice still betrays the shock she felt over the first phone message she received from the coach expressing his interest in the job. But he was so easy to talk to, so nice, so sincere. She called more people and it seemed as though each person said the same thing, “Larry Coker is probably the nicest man I’ve ever met.”
Knowing Coker would do things the right way, Hickey couldn’t think of a better way to start a football program. “He’s such a stable person and understands long-term goals,” she says. “He’s at a point in his career where he wants to do the same thing we want to do. He wants to build a program and leave a legacy. So I think the timing with his career, with the timing of what we want to do, is just a perfect fit.”
Coker was just as impressed with Hickey. “She really has a detailed plan,” he says. “She’s really part of the intrigue, the interest I had in coming here.”
The match has been made and the plans are in place. Now it’s up to Coker and Hickey to move the chains and keep progressing toward that 2011 kickoff.
Coker has tripled his coaching staff and doubled his equipment (two helmets) since he took the job in March. Now somebody get this man a clipboard and whistle. He has practices to plan.
- Leigh Anne Gullet
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