He grew up as a Cuban-American in Little Havana two blocks from the Orange Bowl — “on Northwest Fourth Street and 18th Avenue” — and occasionally would sneak into football games with other neighborhood kids to catch his hometown Hurricanes bully the competition.
“Or if it was a big game, there were scalpers and you’d wait until after it started and see it basically for free,” James Coley said. “Growing up in the Orange Bowl you’re a Miami fan, right?”
Until you go to college at Florida State, get your undergraduate degree there in 1997, attend every game you can at Doak Campbell Stadium and eventually become the Seminoles offensive coordinator.
“A lot of winning going on,” Coley said.
A lot of winning going on now, too.
Coley, 40, returned to his roots in January to become UM’s offensive coordinator for a substantial raise, expanded role in calling the plays and a chance to be near his folks in South Florida.
He might not have envisioned his new team being 7-0 and ranked seventh in the nation when it was time to meet his old team — ranked third and also 7-0 — on Saturday in Tallahassee, but he expects his return to Doak Campbell will “be everything it’s cracked up to be. It’s a fun game.”
Last October, the Seminoles came into Sun Life Stadium ranked 14th with a 6-1 record and defeated the 4-3 Canes 33-20, outgaining Miami 447 to 258 yards — 218 of those rushing. This year, FSU has a Heisman Trophy candidate in redshirt freshman quarterback Jameis Winston and a team that is dominating in pretty much every way imaginable.
But Coley and UM coach Al Golden insist that the Canes gain no advantage with Coley’s vast knowledge of FSU coach Jimbo Fisher’s system.
“I don’t think it helps at all,” Golden said. “The whole defense has changed. So, it’s not like we can learn about what they’re doing differently on defense” with new coordinator Jeremy Pruitt. “It’s really a nonfactor.”
Coley spent the past five seasons as an assistant to Fisher, the past three as Fisher’s offensive coordinator. But it was Fisher who called the plays on game day, while Coley — known as one of the finest recruiters in the country — spent every week studying the defense of FSU’s next opponent, scripting the plays and teaching his offense.
“I always said Coley’s a great offensive mind,” Fisher said Monday. “He’s got a great future in this business.”
Golden is especially pleased with Coley’s sideline deportment in stressful situations and his ability to calmly overcome deficits with play-calling that mixes various elements of the offense.
“I’ve been really impressed with the poise and experience and his maturity in terms of having a good grasp of what’s going on and a plan for each series,” Golden said, citing Coley’s “adjustments” and skill in “going with his gut in terms of what he sees.”
Coley’s philosophy has always been to do the best with what he has at that moment: “Work the job you have now, not the one you want in the future. Eventually you’re going to get what you want.”
Personable, full of energy and nonetheless soft-spoken, Coley has been warmly accepted by his new players, despite the departure of popular coordinator Jedd Fisch, who left for the NFL.
Coley is married to his Miami Senior High sweetheart Kenia, a native of Cuba like his mom, and father to a 5-year-old daughter and 2-year-old son. He speaks fluent Spanish, which he learned before English, drinks plenty of Cuban coffee and is a huge boxing fan.
“James Coley is a cool dude and down-to-earth person,” said freshman receiver Stacy Coley (no relation), who at one time planned to go to FSU but said Monday that Coley’s switch to Miami did not precipitate his decision to attend UM. “He’s a great person inside and out and a good play-caller.’’
Said receiver Allen Hurns: “James Coley gives everybody the ball.”
When Coley switched allegiances, quarterback Stephen Morris and other UM players got an earful about what opponents viewed as their weaknesses.
After all, Coley used to be one of them.
“At this level it’s all business,” said Morris, who said Coley is easy to talk to and has taught him “so much on and off the field. I don’t know what was said back [at FSU], but I’m pretty sure it’s all good now.”
Miami Herald sportswriter Patrik Nohe contributed to this report.