One thing is for sure when you take over as the head coach at THE Ohio State University, you better know what it means to be an Ohio person. A lot of people believe Coach John Cooper got the top post at Ohio State back in 1988 simply because he beat TTUN in the Rose Bowl the year before while at Arizona State. Truth is he really probably got the job because of his history as a head coach and as a person.
John Cooper grew up in Knoxville, Tennessee in the 1940’s and 50’s. He went into the U.S. Army right out of high school for two years before playing college ball at Iowa State. People then knew he was going to have a special talent for coaching with his abilities on the field that eventually led to him being team MVP and captain his senior year. He stayed on as an assistant coach with the Cyclones before taking a similar position with Oregon State. He made stops at UCLA, Kansas, and Kentucky before landing his first head coaching position at Tulsa in 1977.
His first season with the Golden Hurricane was 3-8 but they became pretty good after that winning five straight Missouri Valley Conference titles. Tulsa was in and out of the MVC for a year and when they returned Coach Cooper had them loaded. He began to put together a system for how he would recruit players and used it to bolster his resume. In the Top 25 ranked season of 1982, Cooper and the Golden Hurricanes went 10-1 and their only loss on the season was to Arkansas. This same year that SMU had the Pony Express, Coach Cooper had himself two 1,000 rushers in Michael Gunter and Ken Lacy and was called the Palomino Express. Despite its ranking and great season Tulsa wasn’t invited to a bowl game. Coach Cooper had the makings of a top-notch coach and was hired to take over at Arizona State in 1985.
His impact was immediate at Arizona State, taking over for Darryl Rogers who left for the NFL and the Detroit Lions, Cooper finished second in the conference his first year. He won it outright his second season and it was one of the best in the history of the Sun Devil program having been only one of three times they have one the PAC10 title. In spite of winning records and defeating TTUN in the Rose Bowl, one thing that might have been overlooked was his record against ASU’s rival. Cooper was 0-2-1 against Arizona during his brief stay in the desert, something that would haunt Buckeye fans while he was in Columbus. That being said, he did something that only Bruce Snyder and Dennis Erickson have been able to duplicate with longer tenures there; win the conference title one time. Coach Cooper would be announced as the new head coach at Ohio State on New Years Eve headed into 1988.
His first season in Columbus wasn’t a very good one. In all honesty he was probably very lucky to survive it and win four games. He was replacing a very well liked and loved head coach in Earl Bruce. Mr. 9 and 3 as I have always called him was dismissed as the head coach prior to the game with TTUN in 1987. One of my favorite moments in all of sports is that those players wore head bands with the simple letters EARL for that game. Of course the lame duck coach defeated the enemy, which he had during his career. Coming in as quickly as Coach Cooper did was critical for his success. He wasn’t going to have a lot of talent left to work with, and like Luke Fickell this past year, what he did have been young and inexperienced. He wasn’t everybody’s first choice and he had to deal with a growing sentiment that I remember very well. “What does John Cooper know about being an Ohio person?”
It took Coach a few years to start getting the players in that he wanted and get his system in place. Once he did, it was a well oiled machine that most teams feared playing with the exception of TTUN. By the 1993 season he had assembled one of the best rosters in the entire country and for the first time since Earl Bruce’s first season at the helm, the Buckeyes were contenders for the National Title. For the next six seasons the Buckeyes dominated the conference and non-conference schedule with the exception of TTUN. In 1993, 1995 and 1996 the Buckeyes were undefeated and poised to win it all and their seasons upended by TTUN. Rebounding with a victory over his previous employer and a #2 finish in the polls salvaged the ’96 season and left hope from the fans he would soon win it all. The victory over Arizona State gave him the distinction of being the only coach to win a Rose Bowl as a PAC10 and B1G coach.
In 1998 it was Michigan State that prevented the Buckeyes from enjoying and undefeated regular season and national title. The end of that season was really the beginning of the end for Coach Cooper’s tenure at tOSU. The next two seasons were dismal at best and he was fired after a loss in the Outback Bowl to South Carolina. Ryan Brewer, a Ohio product, torched the Buckeyes during the contest. This led to increased awareness from fans over the fact that a lot of the better recruits from Ohio were getting out and going elsewhere. It wasn’t that he wasn’t recruited by tOSU; it was that Coach Cooper didn’t get him and typically in state players play great against their home state team. Of course he was replaced with Jim Tressel who put up a fence around the state of Ohio and recruited nationally for needs.
Coach Cooper was enshrined in the College Football Hall of Fame in 2008 and very deserving of the honor. Most of what he did as a head coach should be honored. What he did do is give Buckeye fans plenty to cheer about during his time and had the program at some pretty high peaks. The biggest knock about Coach Cooper was that he couldn’t beat TTUN and was 3-8 in bowl games. Others would add that maybe he never really got what it meant to be an Ohio person. I will humbly disagree with the latter. I have seen a different man in the years since being fired from what is his last coaching job. Coach Cooper has great connections and friendships that were made from being at Ohio State. I for one can remember the looks on his face as those critical games with TTUN were slipping away. I have heard him say on more than one occasion that he loves Ohio Sate and what it stands for. And then there’s this statement he made to Matt Loede of 92.3 the Fan back in January.
Cooper also spoke about the issues the past 12 months at Ohio State, with the breakdowns with former head coach Jim Tressel, what happened there, and now the program hopefully coming back on the rise with new hire Urban Meyer.
“I thought coach Tressel was a great, great football coach, and I still think he is,” Cooper said. “I hate to see him go out like he did. He’s a good friend of mine, we’re gonna miss him. I think with Urban, no matter who coaches atOhioStateit’s going to win. He’ll never win enough games to satisfy everybody, but he’s a great coach and is gonna win.”
I personally believe that Coach Cooper knows what it means to be an Ohio person now. The proof is in his actions since being fired and his remarks today. He’s not out west supporting his alma mater in Iowa State, or being the AD at Tulsa. He’s enjoying life, living in the Buckeye State and supporting the school he loves, THE Ohio State University. A close writing friend of mine recently told a story about being a huge fan and having never been to Ohio Stadium. I loved his story because what you are able to do to be an Ohio State person has nothing to do with how you become one. Being an Ohio person is more of a state of mind and a belief in an institution that you love and how you represent it. I’d say that John Cooper, who is an Ohio person, gets it now and I am proud to have him call Ohio home. Fact is, he isn’t a Cyclone, a Golden Hurricane, or a Sun Devil. He is a Buckeye.
Coach Cooper is still currently working as a consultant for the Cincinnati Bemgals and makes occasional appearances on local TV supporting his Buckeyes.