- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 7, 2002

MIAMI These aren't your daddy's 'Canes.

Nope, according to Miami defensive tackle Matt Walters, this group belongs to grandaddy. That's Walters' nickname for second-year coach Larry Coker, whom he jokingly calls a "grandfather figure."

At 56, Coker is the man behind college football's new-look dynasty in Coral Gables. In just two seasons, the coach who looks like a librarian on leave has posted a 23-0 record while completely reshaping the image of a program that once typified institutional anarchy.

Gone is the swagger and smirk of the '80s and '90s. The loutish juggernaut that Jimmy Johnson built in the '80s and Dennis Erickson nurtured to maximum chaos in the early '90s has been replaced by a regime where the only commodity that outstrips humility is success.

In typical fashion, Coker gives all the credit for Miami's image renaissance to predecessor Butch Davis, who left for the Cleveland Browns after the 2000 season. But even last year, as the 'Canes sprinted to a national title with the players Davis had assembled, the Miami team had a different feel to it.

"Last season was more about unfinished business," says quarterback and Heisman Trophy hopeful Ken Dorsey, who will lead the top-ranked Hurricanes (11-0) against No.18 Virginia Tech (9-3) at the Orange Bowl today. "We had some very strong personalities and an extremely serious attitude. This season I think we've stayed focused, but we've also had more fun."

Last season's team was a complex stew of massive egos (see Clinton Portis, Jeremy Shockey and Bryant McKinnie) that required the constant supervision of team captains Ed Reed and Joaquin Gonzalez to keep from spoiling. This season's group is more homogenous and far less volatile. None of the current standout 'Canes seem to need coercion to perform within the framework of team.

That attitude is exemplified by the relationship between Miami's two Heisman candidates, Dorsey and sophomore tailback Willis McGahee.

Ask Dorsey, who is 37-1 as a starter at Miami and owns virtually every school passing record, whom he would choose as his Heisman favorite, and the senior immediately tabs his backfield mate.

"To be honest, if it were up to me, I'd like to see Willis win the Heisman," says Dorsey with enough conviction that you are forced to believe him. "We joke around about it, and I let him know that he's going to win it, but he doesn't seem to believe me."

Ask McGahee, who already has broken the single-season school rushing record previously held by Edgerrin James, and he'll start lobbying for Dorsey.

"I just came on the scene," says McGahee, who has carried 221 times for 1,481 yards (6.6 average) and 21 touchdowns as a first-year starter. "Ken Dorsey is a great player. He was there before me. He's the one who has only lost one game out of his entire starting career."

McGahee, of course, is the same player who refused to join the rest of Miami's Rose Bowl starters after the Hurricanes demolished Nebraska in last season's BCS behemoth. Why?

"Because I hadn't done enough to help the team earn the title," says McGahee, who started at fullback in Pasadena in place of injured regular Najeh Davenport.

He's certainly done more than his share this season, but the 6-foot-1, 220-pound blur of knees still eschews the spotlight. And while Dorsey spent all last season passing out plaudits to his teammates as well, it's unlikely that Portis would have handled the attention with the same grace as McGahee. Therein lies the primary difference between the two squads.

"Those players are very unselfish," says Coker. "That's one of the reasons we're in the position we're in. Willis doesn't talk like Portis does. He has no dance in the end zone like Portis has, thank heavens. He's a stronger player who has a little better speed than Portis. If you look at the [weightlifting] charts downstairs, it's almost a Willis McGahee highlight show."

And if things go as expected today against the Hokies, next Saturday's Heisman presentation could turn into a Miami highlight show, with both Dorsey and McGahee among a handful of finalists. The accounting firm of Deloitte and Touche will tally the votes (due Wednesday by noon) and decide how many players to invite to New York for the ceremony, based on a percentage of the vote they consider substantial. They could invite as many as eight players or as few as three.

In the meantime, don't ask Coker to pick a favorite.

"I would just like to see them both invited to New York," says Coker, whom you can almost hear smiling as his thugs-to-hugs creation garners ever more positive publicity. "If Kenny wins it, I think Willis will be extremely happy for Kenny. And if Willis wins it, I think Kenny will be the happiest person in America."

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