The Book of Mike

"This is no junior college. This is the notorious University of Miami.” -- Marlins starter Dontrelle Willis, after getting knocked around for six runs in 2 1/3 innings by the Canes.

Monday, November 01, 2004

Hurricanes Fall Victim to Early Halloween Trick

The Miami Hurricanes traveled to Chapel Hill, North Carolina on Saturday and were treated to an early Halloween trick, instead of the treat they were looking for. In the aftermath, aside from the dissipation of National Championship hopes and a significant tumble in the rankings, Hurricane fans are distraught, if not outright upset.

Fans want answers and feel entitled to an explanation as to why a berth in a national championship game has been taken away so early in the season. Mind you, with last weekend’s loss, Miami is now officially off to its “worst” start in the Larry Coker era and its worst since 2000. Each team since has started out at least 7 – 0, and this year’s Canes team is merely 6 – 1.
But Miami Hurricane fans have gotten spoiled. Nearly everyone who stuck with the team through the lean years of probation (does anyone remember the 5 – 6 team of 1997?) has forgotten about the brief drought the program suffered. Plus, there are a number of new fans who seemingly haven’t gotten over last year’s lack of a berth in the national title game and are now shocked that the Canes will go (at least) two years in a row without a shot at the title.

We’re spoiled folks. It’s as simple as that. Yesterday, on local sports talk radio, some folks went as far as to say that Head Coach Larry Coker should lose his job over Saturday’s loss to North Carolina. That’s simply absurd. Sure, firing coaches is a hot topic in Florida lately, with the University of Florida’s Ron Zook losing his job last week and Miami Dolphins’ head coach Dave Wannsdedt likely next on the block. But Larry Coker is 41 – 4 as the Hurricanes head coach. That’s not simply good or great, it’s historically great. It’s actually not even rivaled in anything near modern times. In fact, in Larry Coker’s lifetime no one has started out his career by winning 41 of his first 45 games as a head coach.

If you’re of the contingent that thinks Coker has outstayed his welcome in Miami, you’ll probably argue that Coker is winning with players that were recruited by Butch Davis and that the players Coker has brought in aren’t of the same caliber. That argument doesn’t hold water with me. First of all, if that’s your argument, you’re clearly forgetting the coach the Miami players wanted to replace the departed Butch Davis; the players wanted Larry Coker. They didn’t want Dave Wannesdedt, Jimmy Johnson, or Wisconsin’s Barry Alvarez. They wanted Coker. There likely would have been a wave of early departures prior to the 2001 season had anyone other than Coker been given the coaching job. Had only one signficiant player (say safety Ed Reed) left early over the coaching decision, the 2001 national title likely would not have been Miami.

Coker is also responsible for bringing in starting quarterback Brock Berlin (say what you will, but he’s 17 – 3 as a starter – a record few others can match, including many of the Hurricanes all-time greats) and starting wide receiver Roscoe Parrish (a player that Davis wanted to pass on because of his size). Coker has also been the head coach, and therefore lead recruiter, for some of the nation’s top recruiting classes over the past few seasons. Only the coming years will prove if his ability to recruit and retain talent is as great as it appears to be on paper.

At the very least, Coker has earned the right for everyone to wait to reserve judgment. He clearly does not deserve to have “fans” calling for his resignation or firing. If anything, I would think it would be reasonable for the University to offer Coker a contract extension (if not a lifetime contract). Not only have the results his team has produced been outstanding, but he represents what many want the University of Miami to represent both on and off the field. Players are graduating, players are generally not in trouble, and this program is generally one that you can be proud to say you cheer for.

What else do you want? Would you rather be in the position of perennial in state powers Florida and Florida State? Clearly not. The Gators are about to go through a coaching change. This year (so far) alone the Gators have lost four games, which is as many as the Hurricanes have lost in the past two and a half seasons. During Coach Ron Zook’s tenure (which began with the 2002 campaign), the Gators have lost fourteen games, which is three more than the Canes have lost – since 1998.

Florida State has also suffered through some down years, although they appear to be back on the map this year. Still, since winning a national title in 1999 (so beginning with the 2000 season), the Seminoles have lost 17 games – or as many as Miami has lost going back through the 1997 season, when the Canes bottomed out due to the effects of probation.

A comparison to the in state powers is not fair you say - fine. How about Oklahoma, USC, and Auburn? Each of those schools is at the top of the rankings this year and has enjoyed something of a renaissance of their historically strong football programs in recent years. Let’s take a look at it in reverse order of current rankings, starting with Auburn first.

Yes, Auburn is undefeated this year and challenging for a national championship game berth. How did they get here you ask? Well, last year was supposed to be the Tigers return to glory. There were some bumps on that road though, and the Tigers lost five games in 2003 (more than Larry Coker has lost in his career). Prior to that Auburn had seasons of 8 – 5, 9 – 4, 7 – 5, 9 – 4, 5 – 6, and 3 – 8. Miami fans surely shriek in horror when they see those win totals of less than ten games. Its been a rough ride for Auburn fans these past few years, and I’m sure they’re enjoying the highs of this year’s great season.

How about Oklahoma then? We always hear that they have the greatest team and the greatest program in the nation. Surely they’ve been on a better run than Miami these past few years, right? Well, they haven’t been. Sure, they’re 8 – 0 this year and have the inside track to a national championship game. But in each of the past three years they’ve lost two games. For you non-math majors that adds up to six losses, which again, is more in three years than Larry Coker and Miami lost (actually, it’s more losses than Miami has in the past four and a half years). Prior to that Oklahoma did win the 2000 national championship, but in 1999 and 1998 they combined to lose 11 games (or as many as Miami has lost since 1998 cumulatively). In 1998 the Sooners weren’t even eligible for a bowl. So on the whole, both Miami and Oklahoma have won an equal number of championships since 1998, but Miami has won more games.

What about USC? Well, I’m sure you know how hot they’ve been this year, last year, and even the year before that (2002). But do you remember where the Trojans were in 2001 or the few years prior to that, probably not. In 2001 the Trojans went 6 – 6, which was a nice rebound from the 2000 season, as it came on the heels of 4 – 7, 6 – 5, and 8 – 5 campaigns. Since 2002 USC has lost only three games. This is about the only way you can slice it for a college football team to compete with Miami’s recent run. With Saturday’s loss to North Carolina, Miami has now lost four games since the start of the 2002 season. If you go back any farther than that, Miami has a decisive edge.

Still, many will be quick to point out that Miami lost to an inferior team on Saturday. They most definitely did. North Carolina has been handled by a number of teams, and other than on Saturday, has rarely looked anything like a team that could compete with a top 25 opponent. Still, this isn’t something that Miami does regularly. Let’s review their recent losses.

In 2003, Miami lost twice – once (always referring to the team’s rank at the time the game was played) to 10th ranked Virginia Tech and once to 18th ranked Tennessee. In 2002, Miami lost to then second ranked Ohio State. In 2001, Miami was undefeated. In 2000, Miami lost to a Washington team that was then ranked 15th in the country (that team ultimately finished the year in the top 5). Going back to 1999, when the Canes lost four games, you’ll see that Miami lost to 3rd ranked Penn State, 2nd ranked Virginia Tech, and top ranked Florida State. Tough losses, but there’s no shame in falling to the top teams. Miami did lose one game that year to an unranked team – the East Carolina Pirates. The game was early in the year and played at a neutral site because East Carolina’s campus had been heavily damaged by a hurricane.

So yes, it’s not unprecedented that Miami loses to an unranked team in a game where they’re favored, but you have to go back more than five years to find an instance of it happening before Saturday night’s debacle.

I’m not saying Saturday night’s loss was a good thing or is something that Hurricane fans should come to accept or expect. It wasn’t and shouldn’t be. Still though, we’re getting to enjoy an incredible and likely historic run of winning college football here and we should enjoy it while we can. The run will inevitably be over before too long and then we’ll only have the memories to enjoy.


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