Originally created 12/31/01

Rose Bowl coaches at top of the game



PASADENA, Calif. -- One grew up the son of an Oklahoma oil field pump man and his working wife, the other the only son of a Pennsylvania coal miner and his wife.

Their hardworking parents raised them well. After patiently waiting decades for a chance to fulfill lifelong dreams, Miami's Larry Coker and Nebraska's Frank Solich have quickly risen to the top of their game - as head coaches for two of college football's biggest powers.

On Thursday in the Rose Bowl, the top-ranked Hurricanes (11-0) play the fourth-ranked Cornhuskers (11-1) in the Bowl Championship Series' national title game.

Miami wins, and there's no No. 1 controversy; Nebraska wins, and it's likely the Huskers will split the national title with the Fiesta Bowl winner, No. 2 Oregon or No. 3 Colorado.

"They know why they're here, what they're capable of," says Coker, the 53-year-old rookie coach who grew up in Okemah, Okla. "It's probably going to be a close game. They're going to be Nebraska, we're going to be Miami."

Solich, 57 and finishing his fourth season since taking over for Tom Osborne, agrees another national title game between Miami and Nebraska could turn into a classic. This time, though, the former Huskers' fullback from Johnstown, Pa., is calling the shots.

"They're certainly as talented as the great Miami teams that have been there through the years," says Solich, perhaps shuddering at the thought of the Hurricanes winning two national titles after Orange Bowl wins over the Huskers. "They're playing at a very high level."

Coaching at the highest level took a while for Coker and Solich, guys with different demeanors but much in common:

- Coker waited 32 years to become a college head coach, Solich 33 years.

- Coker spent 23 seasons as an assistant at Tulsa, Oklahoma State, Oklahoma, Ohio State and Miami. Solich spent 19 seasons under Osborne before getting his shot in 1998.

- They were on opposite sidelines a number of times - Solich with the Huskers; Coker with the Cowboys and the Sooners.

- Solich's father, Frank Sr., was a coal miner before taking a job in Cleveland as a foreman for General Electric. His dad passed away in August at age 81; Coker's father, Edgar, died in March at age 89.

- Both took over programs unaccustomed to losing. Miami is shooting for its fifth national title since winning its first in 1983. Nebraska has won three titles (two AP, one coaches) since 1994. The Huskers have won at least nine games in each of the last 33 seasons.

There's history in the works, too.

A Rose Bowl win makes Coker the second rookie coach to capture a national title. Michigan's Bennie Oosterbaan did it in 1948.

If the Huskers gain a share of the title, Solich will have crown No. 1 in his fourth season. Osborne needed 22 before winning his first.

Early on, both knew they wanted to run their own show.

"My dreams weren't very high," says Coker, who was passed over for the Tulsa job two years ago. "My brother was a high school football coach, I always wanted to be a football coach. My teacher asked me in fourth grade what I wanted to do. I said, 'Be a football coach."'

Solich was a high school coach for 14 years before Osborne brought him back in '79. But after nearly 20 seasons, Solich thought time was running out. He considered leaving, but chose to hang with the Huskers. "There's continuity in everything you do," he says.

Four years earlier, in August 1997, Osborne told him a secret that made the wait worthwhile.

"I was sitting in my office, the door was open, he kind of knocked," Solich says. "Walked in. Asked me if I had a minute. I said I certainly did. Then he proceeded to tell me he was planning on retiring."

And Solich was going to be his successor.

"He asked me to keep it to myself, which I did," Solich says. "It was a little bit of a surprise to me, he did it very nonchalant. I started looking at things differently, I started looking at myself as the head coach at Nebraska. When I did take over, I felt very comfortable about it."

The coaching change at Miami was uneasy at first. When Butch Davis left abruptly to coach the Cleveland Browns, Miami looked to Wisconsin's Barry Alvarez and the Dolphins' Dave Wannstedt.

But quarterback Ken Dorsey, safety Ed Reed and other players wanted Coker, and that convinced athletic director Paul Dee the right man was already in the locker room. Coker became the first inside hire at Miami in 25 years.

"My elevation, there's no secret about it, it was great timing for me," Coker says. "There are a lot of timing things that made it right for me."

Solich can relate to the pressure Coker was under. Miami had just gone 11-1 with a win over Florida in the Sugar Bowl and was ranked No. 2 in the AP preseason poll - even with a new coach and two new coordinators.

In 1998, Solich took over a team that won a share of the '97 national title and proceeded to go 9-4 - the Huskers' first four-loss season since 1967.

"Certainly, I understand what all he went through and what all has to work in order to get yourself in a position to be a head coach at a Miami or a Nebraska," Solich says. "I know he's very appreciative of his staff, his players and the support that he's gotten. I think, to some degree, that was there when I took over this job."

Both are comfy as coaches, but only Coker shows it.

He's carefree with a friendly smile and soft drawl, and has no problem laughing at himself. Solich is more tightly wound. He's the serious coach, the one tough to imagine joking around with his players, a shorter version of Osborne.

"I think I'm like Tom in some ways, but I did not try to mold myself after Tom completely," he says. "I think you have to coach within your own personality no matter who you are in order to make it work. But, certainly being with Tom for so many years, I hope I picked up a lot of things he did. And how he operated. Because he did things well."

Coker and Solich are doing quite well, too.