Coker isn't hiding disappointment over Miami's three-loss season

Saturday, December 25th 2004, 11:10 am
By: News On 6

CORAL GABLES, Fla. (AP) _ With one glimpse inside Larry Coker's office, expectations for Miami's football team are instantly made clear.

Plaques and trophies from championship years past adorn the walls, and directly behind Coker's desk sits the pedestal holding a crystal football _ one the Hurricanes were awarded for winning the 2001 national title.

The collection isn't expanding this year, and for the first time in Coker's four seasons at the school, Miami is mired in a slump.

The Hurricanes lost three of their final five games to end at 8-3, a freefall that kept them from winning the Atlantic Coast Conference title and snapped a four-year run of reaching a Bowl Championship Series game.

On Sunday, Coker and the Hurricanes leave for Atlanta and a Dec. 31 Peach Bowl matchup with Florida. Ever the class act, Coker is saying all the right things, like how Miami can sweep its in-state rivals with a win and how he expects the matchup to be another classic between the Hurricanes and Gators.

Deep down, though, he's pained by the passing of another year where the ultimate goal wasn't realized.

``We've set the bar pretty high here, not just me, but a lot of coaches before me,'' Coker said in an interview with The Associated Press. ``It doesn't take long for that to happen. And we want to keep it high. I don't have a problem with that. I'm not happy with 8-3. I don't think our staff is and I don't think our players are.''

Cynics say Miami is on a downward cycle, and indeed, Miami clearly isn't where it was four seasons ago.

Yet when a coach starts 12-0 and becomes the first sideline rookie in 53 years to win a national title, how do the numbers not eventually go down?

``There's no doubt in my mind that coach Coker is going to be here for a long time,'' senior offensive lineman Chris Myers said. ``For him to have the success that he does, for our 'down' season to be 8-3, for us to be going to a bowl game that a lot of teams would die to go to, it's pretty ridiculous.''

Miami lost one game in Coker's second season, a 31-24 double-overtime defeat against Ohio State in the Fiesta Bowl _ the 2002 season's national title game. The Hurricanes were beaten twice last year, yet still managed to win the Big East and then knock off Florida State in the Orange Bowl.

This year, the loss total climbed by one again. The record ranks in the top 15 nationally, but at Miami, that's barely satisfactory.

``To say it doesn't bother you is a big understatement,'' said Coker, whose 43-6 career record is the fourth-best start in history. ``Sure, it bothers you. All coaches will tell you that the losses stand out more than the wins. That part of it takes a toll, but as far as emotionally and physically, I don't think it takes a toll.''

It's certainly possible that past Miami success doomed this year's team.

Buffalo running back Willis McGahee, Washington safety Sean Taylor, New England offensive lineman Vince Wilfork and Cleveland tight end Kellen Winslow all would have been seniors on this year's Miami squad, had the lure of NFL millions not brought them into the 2004 draft.

In all, Miami had six players chosen in the first round of that draft, and have sent 19 first-rounders to the NFL over the past four years. This year, only cornerback Antrel Rolle seems a sure-fire first-round pick, and the only player who may leave early is running back Frank Gore _ who hasn't announced his decision.

``It will be a little more pleasurable not losing so many players, let's put it that way,'' Coker said. ``You'll have some of these older players who've been there before giving you leadership in the offseason and the spring and next fall.''

Miami has about 15 scholarships to fill for 2005, and probably has more talent coming back than at any time in Coker's tenure leading the program.

And he'd love to find room in his office for another trophy.

``We've been spoiled here,'' Coker said. ``But our goal will still be to win another national championship.''