Larry Coker had a hunch Barry Sanders might do something special in 1988.
“We were getting ready to play Texas A&M in our second game in Stillwater,” Coker recalled this week. “A good friend of mine told me, ‘Boy, you're really going to miss Thurman Thomas.' I said, ‘Yeah, you don't lose a guy like that without missing him.'
“But I said, ‘The Sanders kid has really looked good. We'll find out today.'”
And folks found out all right, with Sanders gashing a touted Aggies defense for 157 yards and two touchdowns and adding a 61-yard punt return for another score in a 52-15 rout.
As Oklahoma State's offensive coordinator in 1988, Coker was at the controls of Sanders' romp to the Heisman Trophy. He was in on the decision to throw Mike Gundy into action as a freshman quarterback, too. And he played a part in what was then OSU's best span of football in program history.
It was a seven-year stretch in what has become a fantastic journey that now includes a football startup project at Texas-San Antonio — OSU's opponent Saturday.
And Coker, an Okemah native, remembers his Stillwater stint fondly.
“We had some great success,” Coker said. “We won 10 games there two years in a row and I don't think they had done that before. But the greatest memories are the players we had and the coaches I worked with.
“I was with Jimmy Johnson and his staff. I really enjoyed my time with Pat Jones. And then you look at Barry Sanders and you look at Thurman Thomas and Mike Gundy and Hart Lee Dykes, some marquee names, and some others. There were just great, great people there. And it was a great place to live.”
Coker's coaching career didn't start in Stillwater, yet it might have taken off there.
His work with some of OSU's best offenses led him to Oklahoma — in a bold move — and on to Ohio State and Miami, where he eventually earned his first head coaching gig and led the Hurricanes to a national title in his first season, becoming the first rookie coach in 53 years and only the second ever to lead his team to the title.
Coker was a part of three 10-win teams with the Cowboys.
“Oklahoma State had been a competitive program, but we were really trying to step it up,” Coker said. “Once, maybe twice we had a chance to play for the Big Eight championship and go to the Orange Bowl. We didn't get it done. We had some really competitive games.
“I think it really regenerated excitement in Oklahoma State football. And Oklahoma State fans, they're some of the most loyal fans in the world. Whether you win all the games or are not winning all the games, they seem to be right in your corner.”
Coker said the decision to pull the trigger on Gundy in 1986, pushing aside veteran Ronnie Williams, was the call of Jones.
“I had some input, but it was Pat's decision,” Coker said. “He kind of had a gut feeling that Mike was a guy who was special. And Pat was right. He was right.”
Coker said he, too, saw something special in Gundy.
“Mike just had that innate ability,” Coker said “I had seen him play in high school, and you hear the coach-speak of ‘He's a winner,' and all that stuff, but Mike was a winner. He was a playmaker. He made the guys around him a lot better. And that's what it's all about.”
Gundy suggested there are pieces of Coker in his own coaching style, philosophies he's carried over into his career.
“I remember spending time with him in position meetings and as a player … He kept the game simple and it wasn't very complicated, and as a player I enjoyed that part,” Gundy said.
“Anything you needed, he'd do it for you. Great family, good people skills. And that's why he's having success. It's not all about the football aspect of it; he sees the big picture in my opinion. In looking back now, I've always enjoyed him.”
Coker, 73-25 as a head coach, continues to have success, even in UTSA's football beginnings. The Roadrunners are 13-10 in his two-plus seasons leading a program he's built from the ground up, literally.
The team practiced at a local high school facility until a couple of weeks ago, before on-campus fields were finished. They still don't have a permanent weight room. Still, many improvements are in the works, with 124 acres adjacent to campus available for use.
“That was pretty daunting, not to have any of those things,” Coker said. “And in Texas, these high school kids come from programs with great facilities. So it was a pretty tough chore to recruit in the beginning.
“But these kids want to stay in Texas. I think they've bought in to the vision we had. And the Alamodome has been a great selling tool. We've averaged over 30,000 fans at our games. It's been special for us.”
Now 65, Coker shows no signs of slowing. He talks fast. Works hard. And seems in a rush, whether to prepare his team or promote and build his program.
The locale, he said, makes all the difference. UTSA's roster features 80 players from Texas, including 30 from the San Antonio area.
“It is a startup football job, but it is in Texas,” Coker said. “And it's in the sixth-largest city in America now. And we have no Division I football. We have no professional football. We have a 65,000-seat indoor stadium to play in. We have 30,000 students. It's Texas recruiting.
“I just thought it was a great opportunity. And the leadership here was all on board. I've been so blessed in my career to be around some great kids and great players and great programs and to have an opportunity to be here and see this program grow has been a huge amount of fun for us.”