- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 30, 2006

CORAL GABLES, Fla. — Kelly Jennings was going out for something to eat last weekend when he saw his sister’s number pop up on the cell phone.

She had bad news: His alma mater, Miami, had just lost to Louisville by 24 points and fallen to 1-2 on the season.

“I lost my appetite,” said Jennings, a rookie defensive back for the Seattle Seahawks.

By any measure, it’s not an appetizing time for the Miami football program, which has lost four of six games dating to last season, two of them blowouts. It gets no easier today, with unbeaten Houston (4-0) coming to the Orange Bowl.

There’s no chance at a national title this year. The Hurricanes are out of the AP Top 25 rankings for the first time since 1999 and coach Larry Coker — once revered in South Florida after a 23-0 start to his career — may be hanging on to his job by a slippery thread.

Coker insists he’s not bothered by the chatter, saying “winning is what matters right now.”

University officials say Coker — whose record is now 54-11 and who has 31/2 years left on a contract worth a reported $8 million — will finish the season and be evaluated afterward.

Players say they are the ones at fault.

“I would never blame the coaches,” senior linebacker Jon Beason said. “I didn’t blame the coaches last season. I don’t blame the coaches this season. … To say it’s Coach Coker, that’s false. It’s on us.”

Not all the blame is pointed at Coker. Some prominent NFL players who represented “The U” aren’t pleased with the on-field efforts, either.

“They don’t have the same attitude,” said Minnesota Vikings offensive lineman Bryant McKinnie, who starred on Miami’s last national title team in 2001. “They’re just happy to be there. That’s not what we do. That’s not the way we do it.”

Added Buffalo running back Willis McGahee: “They’re not the same now. That’s all I can say.”

When asked about the state of the program, Miami athletic director Paul Dee rattles the stats off fast; the Hurricanes have played for 10 national championships in 23 years and won five — six, he often says, half-kidding about the game-changing pass interference call in the 2002 title game against Ohio State.

But this will be the fourth straight season with Miami out of the championship picture. The best Miami can hope for is an ACC title shot — and there’s a sense that if the Hurricanes aren’t successful, Coker will be in big trouble.

“We were good for a good stretch and guys can’t ride on past guys’ coattails,” said former UM linebacker D.J. Williams, now with the Denver Broncos. “They got to go in there on their own, make their own name and make their own legacy.”

The current Hurricanes agree.

Many Miami players said the way most of the Hurricanes jumped on Louisville’s midfield Cardinals logo before last weekend’s game was an embarrassing and silly mistake, one that shows the team has some belief that just because the “U” is on their helmet, opponents will simply roll over, intimidated.

Not anymore, quarterback Kyle Wright says.

“Those Miami teams that won all those games, they had swagger because they went out and kicked people’s [butt] every weekend,” Wright said. “That’s what gave them swagger and gave them confidence. They didn’t just have swagger in that they went out and won games off of that. They were great teams that struck fear in people.”

Negativity is everywhere. Some Miami recruits are talking about breaking commitments, fans who call sports radio programs claim to be sending back season tickets and forgoing donations until changes come.

On the Internet, anti-Coker buzz is growing wildly. Someone bought the domain www.firelarrycoker.com on Nov. 8, 2003 — a day Miami lost to Tennessee at home 10-6, dropping Coker’s career record to 31-3.

The domain www.firecoker.com was registered Dec. 11, 2004, one week after Miami was beaten at home by Virginia Tech in a game that decided that year’s ACC title.

And www.cokermustgo.com was born Dec. 31, 2005, hours after the Hurricanes were pounded the previous night by LSU in the Peach Bowl, a 40-3 debacle that wound up being the last game for a quartet of four Miami assistants — fired by Coker.

“I just want what’s best for the University of Miami,” said Chris David, a Georgia resident who runs the www.cokermustgo.com site. “And I think that’s getting rid of Larry Coker.”

David said the site got about 4,000 hits after Miami’s season-opening loss to Florida State — and nearly four times that many the day after the Hurricanes lost to Louisville.

“It’s not personal,” said David, who began following the Hurricanes as a child. “He’s a great person and I love that he disciplined the kids like [suspended wide receiver] Ryan Moore and those guys who miss study halls. I just think he’s not a good head coach.”

One of Coker’s top rivals, though, is quick to jump to his defense.

“There are two messages coming out. It’s not right,” Florida State coach Bobby Bowden said. “One of ‘em is, ‘Coach, get all our boys graduated. Coach, keep your kids out of trouble, make ‘em go to class, and, oh, Coach, if you don’t win, you’re fired.’

“His kids are getting graduated down there, behaving themselves pretty good,” Bowden said. “But that’s the way our profession is right now.”

The Hurricanes are off this week, getting some extra practice time before opening a three-game homestand against Houston. After that, North Carolina and Florida International come to the Orange Bowl, followed by a Miami trip to Duke.

Miami should be 5-2 after that stretch, and perhaps back in the rankings. And, at long last, lost momentum might be restored — maybe in time to make an ACC title run, maybe in time to save Coker.

“We’ve got to go out and we’ve got to bury those teams,” Wright said. “I’m kind of tired about just talking about going out and beating people up and burying teams. The last couple years, we’ve done way too much of that. We’ve got to go out and show it.”

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