Andre Fernandez here covering the Conference USA Media Day in Irving, Texas.
The morning sessions, however, had a distinct UM flavor with former Canes coaches Larry Coker (Texas San Antonio) and Curtis Johnson (Tulane) in attendance.
Coker, who was proudly sporting his UM 2001 national championship ring, is in a much different coaching situation these days than he was at UM.
Coker is in his third season at the UTSA, which joins C-USA this season after a season in the WAC. The Roadrunners are still not a full FBS member school and bowl eligible until 2014.
UTSA went 8-4 and finished fourth in the WAC last season and Coker is 12-10 in his two seasons at a relatively new program that despite its infancy gets to play in San Antonio’s Alamodome (65,000 capacity) and averaged 38,000 in attendance over the past two seasons.
“I talked to Howard Schnellenberger before I got the job about building a program from scratch,” Coker said. “He said it’s one of the greatest things I’m ever going to do. But it’s definitely a challenge. I think the fertile recruiting environment in Texas and the Alamodome give us a big advantage.”
Coker talked about the differences between the high-pressure environment he coached at while he was with UM as opposed to the “everything’s brand-new” feeling at UTSA. In a market where the only other big-ticket sports team is the San Antonio Spurs, Coker said when it comes to football, the San Antonio fans have embraced the fledgling program.
“My athletic director said I’m on honeymoon right now,” Coker said. “We won eight games last year. In Miami, if you win eight games, you get fired. But that’s part of the pleasure of [coaching at UTSA]. It’s a tough task, but a good task.”
Coker, who turned 65 last month, has no plans on retiring soon, but hopes to see the program through to a point where it can establish itself competitively on an annual basis.
“I feel great and I love what I do and as long as I do,” Coker said. “I hope to stay. What I hope to do when I leave this is leave the program in great shape and [in a position] where they can really take the next step. I don’t have any illusions that we are going to be a national power while I’m the coach there, but I’d like our players to get a chance to play in a bowl game.
“I’d love to see these guys get that chance and to see good facilities built. Our practice fields and weight rooms we just put a half million into the whole weight room. We have a new lighted practice field on-campus. We didn’t have lights in Miami on practice field. Those are the things, I’d love to see continue to happen.”
Sitting at the Tulane table set across from Coker was his former assistant coach Curtis Johnson. Johnson was not sporting his UM bling Wednesday, however.
“I usually have my Super Bowl ring on one finger and national title ring on the other,” Johnson said. “My wife told me to wear my wedding ring to this so that’s what I brought to this.”
Johnson, who is in his second year at Tulane, is coming off a 2-10 season and is preparing the team for its final season in Conference USA. Sitting across from Coker at Media Day, Johnson reflected on what he learned from his time at UM and what he still applies to his coaching at Tulane.
“We took a program on probation with the leadership of Butch Davis and Larry Coker and we were bad for one year. We started Reggie Wayne, Santana Moss and Dan Morgan and went 5-6 and were almost run out of town.
“But we built a program and once you do that, you develop toward winning a national championship.
“Miami had a great atmosphere, but I think the biggest mistake was not figuring out how to keep them in the Orange Bowl. When we walked on that field, we knew we’re going to win. That’s the kind of environment and culture you want to create and what we’re trying to build at Tulane.”
Johnson and Coker will coach against each other Nov. 9 when Tulane visits the Alamodome to take on UTSA. It will be a rare chance for them to face each other since Tulane is set to move to the American Athletic Conference in 2014.
“Larry’s like my dad so it’s going to be hard,” Johnson said. He’s got a tough, hard-nosed team. It’s going to be a competitive game and a big challenge.”