Old Dominion's football revival kicks off in 13 days, and no one more appreciates the university's efforts than a former national-championship coach relocated to the shadows of the Alamo.
Larry Coker guided the
to the 2001 national title. He won his first 30 regular-season games as their head coach and is among the most affable chaps you'd hope to meet.
But the university terminated Coker in 2006 following a 6-6 decline that included a helmet-swinging brawl with Florida International. Foolish and short-sighted don't begin to describe, but Coker understood, said nary a disparaging word and moved on.
Today, he's five-plus months into a job he never envisioned: head coach of Texas-San Antonio's 2011 start-up program.
"It's an exciting process, but it's a unique process," Coker said. "We don't have helmets, shoestrings, footballs or anything. All that's got to be done, and hiring (assistant) coaches. ... It's been a real challenge."
college football fans are accustomed to such tales. Christopher Newport debuted its Division III program in 2001, and Old Dominion follows suit in the Football Championship Subdivision (formerly Division I-AA) with its Sept. 5 opener against Chowan — the Monarchs last fielded a team in 1940.
But in Matt Kelchner and Bobby Wilder, CNU and
hired career assistants in their 40s, neither of whom had tasted the big time. Cut the grass? Order jockstraps? No problem.
Coker, 61, worked for more than 20 years at programs where others not only handle the minutiae, but also fetch your coffee. From Oklahoma State to Oklahoma to
to Miami, he climbed the assistant ladder until the Hurricanes promoted him to head coach when Butch Davis bailed for the
In Coker's six years, Miami was 60-15, with the national title in his rookie season and a return to the championship game 12 months later — the Hurricanes lost to Ohio State in double overtime.
Texas-San Antonio couldn't have unearthed a more qualified candidate, starting with Coker's personal and professional Southwestern roots — he's an Oklahoma native.
At Oklahoma State and Oklahoma, "we recruited heavily in Texas and we haven't left the state of Texas since we've been here," Coker said. "There's such good talent here. We've had high expectations, and we haven't been disappointed. Our expectations even have been exceeded."
For example, Coker's one-day camp for advanced players attracted about 500 participants. Shrewdly, Coker staged the camp at the Alamodome, the
-caliber stadium UTSA will call home.
Several prospects committed on the spot, he said.
Coaches will conduct walk-on tryouts this fall, sign a complete recruiting class in February and hold spring practice soon thereafter. UTSA will compete as an independent in 2011 and '12, with Georgia State, led by former Georgia Tech and Alabama coach
, among the opponents.
The Roadrunners — love the nickname — will join the FCS Southland Conference in 2013, with an aim of upgrading to the Football Bowl Subdivision as soon as possible.
Toward that end, Coker has huddled with old friends
and Jim Leavitt, who navigated similarly treacherous waters with Florida Atlantic and South Florida, respectively. Buoyed by Big East membership, the latter has earned four consecutive bowl bids.
Like South Florida in Tampa, UTSA offers an urban campus in a football-mad state. The school's more than 28,000 undergraduates voted overwhelmingly to raise student fees in support of football — more than $80 million is earmarked for a practice facility on 125 acres adjacent to campus.
"The people are so hungry here and so supportive and so looking forward to it, it's really been a pleasure," Coker said. "I know there's a recession. But San Antonio, we kind of missed that recession. Somebody forgot to tell us, so that's worked really well for us as far as raising money."
Working as an
analyst the last two seasons, Coker knew nothing of the UTSA opportunity until a coaching friend called him.
"He basically said, 'I'd love to have the job, but I don't think I can get it. You can,' " Coker said. "I just called the athletic director (Lynn Hickey) about it, followed up and when I got here I (thought) this has a chance to be really special.
"I never dreamed of starting up a program. ... We're working on a vision. We've got to see it rather than just realize where we are now."