Tulane’s Johnson, UTSA’s Coker share long friendship, respect

When Curtis Johnson ran into Larry Coker at Conference USA Media Day in August, the two long-time colleagues had a chance to rekindle an old friendship.

Johnson, the coach at Tulane, and Coker, who coaches Texas-San Antonio, worked together for 10 years at the University of Miami.

For the first five, Johnson was receivers coach and Coker was offensive coordinator. For the next five, Coker was the head coach.

They won a national championship together in 2001 and lost the BCS title game in 2002 but will face each other for the first time Saturday when Tulane (6-3, 4-1 C-USA) plays UTSA (4-5, 3-2). Kickoff is 1 p.m. at the Alamodome.

“We were inseparable at media day,” Johnson said. “He is a phenomenal coach. Larry is truly a mentor to me. He is a great man. He is a better person than he is anything else. If you ever sit down with him, he is a really, really good, smart guy.”

The respect and admiration is mutual. Coker predated Johnson at Miami by one year and stayed one year longer after Johnson left for the Saints in 2006 to coach under Sean Payton.

“He was an outstanding football coach and recruiter,” Coker said of Johnson. “He recruited Reggie Wayne and Ed Reed to Miami, and he did a great job with the wide receivers. He has a very pleasant personality, but he is a very tough coach. He means what he says and says what he means, and his players respond to that.”

Both men have their programs on the upswing after taking tough jobs. Tulane had won four in a row for the first time since 2002 before losing at Florida Atlantic on Saturday, and the Green Wave still controls its destiny in Conference USA West.

UTSA, which hired Coker to start its program from scratch in 2011, has clobbered Alabama-Birmingham and Tulsa in consecutive weeks and can contend for the best record in the division if it beats Tulane.

“They (the Green Wave) are certainly a good team,” Coker said. “There’s a reason they’ve won all those games. They have an outstanding defense. They really run to the ball well. They are complicated to block, and they stay active defensively. Then offensively, they’re making plays to win games. That’s what I really like about them. Their defense is creating turnovers, and their offense is taking advantage of that.”

Coker, 65, could have eased into retirement after getting fired by Miami after the 2006 season. He went 60-15 with the Hurricanes as a head coach but could not survive a 7-6 dropoff in his final year.

After taking two years off, though, he got the itch to coach again and accepted the UTSA job in March of 2009, 30 months before the Roadrunners played their first game. He saw the opportunity for rapid growth in the fertile recruiting area around San Antonio, and after two years of playing a mix of non-FBS and FBS teams, UTSA is holding its own in its first year in Conference USA as a provisional FBS member.

“We play in a 65,000-seat indoor stadium and have had great crowds,” Coker said. “We’ve averaged about 30,000 a Saturday, which has been great for us. We’ve been well-received. Plus, we had the chance to recruit good football players. That’s the bottom line. We all know that. We’ve had an opportunity to get some better players at an earlier stage than normally you’d think we would.”

That’s one reason Johnson, who turned 52 on Tuesday, jumped at the Tulane job after a 25-year career as a receivers coach, the last six with the New Orleans Saints. He looked at the talent around New Orleans and made a commitment to bring in local guys.

Coker said he anticipated Johnson’s early success.

“I wouldn’t have been surprised if he had gotten an opportunity in the National Football League if he had stayed there,” Coker said. “I knew he had the potential. I really thought it was one of his goals, and being a coach in college may be more what he wanted in life than to do that in the NFL. Certainly there’s a lot of pressure, but there’s not the business aspect like professional football is.”

Likewise, Johnson is not surprised by UTSA’s rapid rise.

“There is no indication (Coker) is slowing down one bit,” he said. “He is always joking, and when he recently told me how old he is, I didn’t believe him. He is just a very conscientious guy.”