Woody Hayes looks out at John Cooper, and Woody isn't smiling. But John Cooper is.
This is an article from the Aug. 22, 1988 issue
The new Ohio State football coach is grinning with wonder, staring at a mounted photograph of the god, the Buckeye king, the rip-snorting, player-belting, Socrates-quoting, Michigan-whacking emperor-for-all-time of Ohio State football. Woody.
"You know what the big question is?" says Cooper. "What kind of hat am I going to wear? Woody had that cap with the O on it; Earle [Bruce] had one with OHIO STATE on it, and later he wore a fedora. Everybody wants to know. What kind of hat am I going to wear?"
The new coach stands in the Woody Hayes Athletic Center, not far from Woody Hayes Drive on the Ohio State campus in Columbus, gazing at the portrait of Hayes that hangs prominently near the Wall of Champions, pondering the visage of a man whose spirit permeates this campus like swamp gas. Cooper, lean and likable, with a sturdy jaw, country twang and an 82-40-2 record in 11 years as head coach at Tulsa and Arizona State, is awestruck.
"I never thought about it," he says. "You know what I mean? What kind of hat?"
College football coaches come and go, but they don't come that often to Ohio State. In the previous 36 years, exactly two have passed through Columbus, Hayes and Bruce. Hayes, the gridiron atavist who once said, "That's what I don't like about young coaches—they try to foul you up with new ideas," won 205 games in his 28 years at Ohio State. Hayes could have coached the Buckeyes until he died. But he slugged a Clemson player along the sidelines in the 1978 Gator Bowl, and the school had no choice but to remove him. He was replaced by Bruce, a bland but diligent devotee of Woody's conservative field strategy who had winning programs at Tampa and Iowa State. In his nine years at Ohio State, Bruce won 81 games, the best record in the Big Ten during that time. And then he was fired.
Ohio State is tough, baby. Buckeye fans don't just want to know what kind of hat the coach is going to wear; they want to know what kind of leadership and pizzazz he's going to provide while he piles up the W's. Because the wins are a given. Ask anybody in the state. What the Ohio State football coach must be is a demigod on and off the field, not just a winner but a man of mythic proportions, his shield flashing in the sun, a hero. Like Woody.
"We are looking for dynamic, charismatic leadership," said Howard Gauthier, former chairman of the Ohio State University Athletic Council, shortly after school president Edward H. Jennings axed Bruce last November. "More important than the record on the field is the way the individual represents the university."
Which, of course, is one-half hooey. Robert Redford wouldn't last the season at State if he didn't win big. But, as we know, anybody can win at State. Just bring in the studs from Canton, Lima and Massillon. Nobody ever gave Bruce credit for winning. Even after averaging nine wins per season he was shamelessly whacked by the Ohio State administration with one game to go in the 1987 season and a year left on his contract because, basically, he was dull. It was a tactless move by a school that professes to be searching for class.
"Bruce never understood nor appreciated the changes," harrumphed provost and vice-president for academic affairs Myles Brand after the execution, referring to the academic and image upgrading the school is attempting under president Jennings. But Bruce did understand football, and he won his last game, when he was already a lame duck, upsetting hated Michigan 23-20. The school then gave Bruce $471,000 in cash to shuffle quietly off into the sunset.
Cooper, who at 51 has yet to be fired from a coaching job, stares at the photo of Bruce, mumbles, "nine wins a season," then moves along to the other photos. All the Ohio State football coaches are enshrined here, with their dates of service beneath their pictures; until Hayes took over in 1951, few of the men lasted very long. Indeed, until Hayes, Ohio State was known as the Graveyard of Coaches. Cooper looks at an empty frame that reads DAVID F. EDWARDS. 1897. NO PHOTO AVAILABLE.
"You can tell he won a lot of games," says the new coach.
As Cooper walks away, he seems seized by a brainstorm. "If I do anything while I'm here," he says, "I'm getting my picture taken."
John Cooper has a sense of humor. And he has a pretty good idea of what he is getting into. He had a great gig at Arizona State—beautiful house, big contract, a reputation as a miracle worker. Cooper arrived in Tempe in 1985, took over a faltering program, and the very next season led the Sun Devils to their first-ever Pac-10 championship and a win over Michigan in the Rose Bowl. He was voted 1986 national Coach of the Year in five different polls.
There was just one problem. In three years Cooper never beat Arizona; he lost twice and tied once, even though he had the better team each year. Last year the Sun Devils almost had to roll over and play dead to let Arizona come back and tie on the game's last play from scrimmage. Such luck against Michigan would spell extreme discomfort in Columbus. But Cooper's three-year record at Arizona State was 25-9-2, and folks there wanted him to stay forever. But for Ohio State, he might have.
"I went after this one," says Cooper in his new, half-decorated office. "I wouldn't have left for any other place. I could have lived in Arizona for the rest of my life. We were very happy there. But this is the Ohio State University. There are no others. This is where you can win a national championship. What a tradition! I mean, Archie Griffin won two Heismans, and he works right down the hall! I came here even though I had a better deal in Arizona."
Not a lot better, mind you—with a base salary of $98,000 and separate contracts for radio, TV and assorted endorsements, Cooper should earn close to $400,000 a year in Columbus (he made $300,000 in Arizona but got a $500,000 house for half price); indeed, if he doesn't make at least $240,000 in his off-field endeavors, Ohio State is obligated to make up the difference. His deal is for five years, which sounds secure. But, of course, a contract didn't do much for poor Earle Bruce. And, anyway, this is not about security. This is about challenges, the spotlight, ego.
In college football, Arizona State is high ground, but Ohio State is the peak itself—four national championships, five Heisman Trophies, 105 All-Americas in 98 years of hallowed history. Why, people are still talking about how after Woody died last year, his widow found old checks made out to him lying in drawers in the house, uncashed. Woody was way beyond money. And so is the program. In Tempe, folks aren't thrilled about Cooper's defection—he announced he was leaving just after his team beat Air Force 33-28 in last year's Freedom Bowl—but they understand. "Ohio State is Ohio State," sighs Arizona State athletic director Charles Harris. "They still dot the i there."
Do they ever. To say pressure comes with this job is like saying heat comes with a blast furnace. Not only is Ohio State the second largest university in America (58,000 students), it may be the most football-mad. Excuse us here, Michigan, Texas, Oklahoma and Nebraska, but this year 7,000 alumni were unable even to enter the lottery for a chance to buy two tickets for Buckeye home games.
Cooper, who grew up in Heiskell, Tenn., is shocked just by the number of people who care about Buckeye football. "What'd we have at the spring game?" he asks associate sports information director Steve Snapp. "Fifty-four thousand?"
"Closer to 60," Snapp says.
"And that spaghetti feed in Toledo?"
"On a hot Friday night without much notice!"
Cooper opens his calendar, turns back to January, when he'd just arrived in Columbus, then flips forward. Almost every hour of every day, clear to the Sept. 10 opener against Syracuse, is filled with appointments: Boy Scouts, booster clubs, the American Lung Association, banquets and barbecues in Cincinnati. Dayton, Akron, Sandusky, every little town from Lake Erie to Kentucky, from Indiana to Pennsylvania, every place that has a schoolboy prospect or an Elks Club that wants to hear the new ruler of Ohio football promise to slice the Wolverines into dog meat.
"I left Anaheim at midnight on December 30 after the Freedom Bowl, flew here, met the board of trustees when I arrived, announced to 500 people at a press conference at noon that I was the new coach and then started calling recruits," says Cooper. Within moments, he had persuaded star quarterback Kirk Herbstreit of Centerville to attend Ohio State, just by calling him on the phone.
"After that it was a hundred miles an hour, 24 hours a day," says the coach. "Didn't get back to Phoenix to pick up my things until January 12. Didn't stop to breathe until National Letter-of-Intent Day, February 10." During the season itself Cooper's days will be so filled with media and booster functions that, he says, on Thursdays he'll try real hard "to do a little coaching."
He looks at the photos on his walls, old ones from other schools. "I've bounced around chasing my dream," he says. "Which is right here. You can't get a better coaching job than this."
Maybe that's true; or maybe it's the worst. Bruce seemed to be in visible pain as he suffered through a 6-4-1 season last year, with people clamoring for his head before, during and after each game. Fans said Bruce was a bad offensive coach. They said he couldn't communicate. They said he was short and fat and looked bad in a suit. The administration, apparently, agreed.
If nothing else, the selection of Cooper as Bruce's successor was a calculated move away from the staid, sourpuss image Bruce projected. Cooper will talk to anybody, anytime, anywhere. "I loved John Cooper," says the Arizona State sports information director, Mark Brand, with genuine affection. "His door was always open. He was great with the media. Just fabulous."
Bruce wasn't, of course. Neither, for that matter, was Hayes, who was often surly and abusive. But Hayes worked mostly in ancient times, before a coach had to care about anything but his team. Plus, he was Woody. Bruce took the fall for all modern coaches who are now judged on a charisma scale, just like corporate executives and game show hosts.
Coach Cooper is no dummy. He knew he had gone about as far as he could at Arizona State. He wasn't thrilled about the St. Louis Cardinals moving to Phoenix to play in Sun Devil Stadium. "Any city that has an NFL team and a college team, the college team suffers," he says. And he wasn't nuts about Arizona's small population, which forced him to recruit on the West Coast. "I didn't know what to tell a kid in L.A.: 'Come for the weather'?"
But at Ohio State, as he says again and again, there is no competition. This is the only big-time state school in a football-crazy state. "We're not going to win because I'm a better coach than Earle Bruce; we'll win because of the program," he says. "Why should a kid ever leave this state?"
Cooper drives now to a 1½-acre, $150,000 wooded lot in Columbus where he will have his house built. This is his commitment to the program. It would be easier to buy an existing house, but he wants this one to be right because he plans on being around for a while. Helen, his wife of 31 years, will design the house, and his 20-year-old daughter, Cindy, who will be a sophomore at Ohio State, will live there, too. Cooper's son, John Jr., who works in real estate in Columbus, will stop by often. The whole family uprooted and came to Ohio to be with Dad. "You hire me, you hire my family," says Cooper proudly.
Cooper steps onto his property and looks around. A rabbit scurries away. A dove flies from a tree. Cooper says firmly, "Wherever you are, the bottom line is the same. Win. The pressure is the same, at Vanderbilt, at Northwestern, anywhere. Everybody has the same problems. But I don't dwell on it. You know what I always say? Better to aim at the sky and hit an eagle than to aim at an eagle and hit the ground." He does say that constantly; it's in almost every interview he's done. Like all coaches, he's got the clichès down pat. Another one slips out. "I wasn't born on third base," he says. "I bunted my way on, took second on a passed...."
A fat, furry animal trots across the meadow.
"What was that?" asks Cooper. "A wolverine?"
It was a groundhog, but there's no reason to tell him that. A symbol's a symbol, wherever you find it.
At dinner with his wife and Snapp at a local restaurant, Cooper thinks about an item of great importance to Buckeye fans—his '86 Rose Bowl win over Michigan. Michigan went ahead of Arizona State early, 15-3, but in the second half the Sun Devils dominated the game and won 22-15. "I didn't outcoach Bo," says Cooper. "I had a better team. I think the whole Pac-10 has more speed and better athletes than the Big Ten."
Cooper has a three-part plan to get the Buckeyes back on top: 1) recruit better players, particularly in-state; 2) red-shirt more freshmen, so more will play a fifth year ("Tom Tupa, Chris Spielman and Greg Rogan would all be back this year if they hadn't played as freshmen"); and 3) emphasize weight training. "Last year, only three players on the team could bench 400 pounds," he says. "At Arizona State we had at least a dozen."
It should be quite simple, really. A few minor details. Anybody can win at State. Everybody knows that.
Bob Palcic, who coaches guards and centers, came to Ohio State in June '86 and is one of three coaches Cooper has kept from Bruce's staff. Palcic remembers his first night in Columbus vividly: "I turned on the radio, and in five minutes people were calling up and screaming, 'Why can't Nine-and-Three Earle win!' This was in June. I'd just come from Arizona, where we went 8-3-1 and were heroes, and here they want to get rid of a 9-3 coach? Unbelievable."
Cooper played safety and tailback at Iowa State in the late '50s, on a team known as the Dirty Thirty because all but 30 players had been run off due to the harshness of coach Clay Stapleton's regime. Cooper is proud of the fact that he gutted it out, but he wonders what it all proved. "That doesn't seem like the way to do it," he says softly. "The easiest thing to do is run a kid off. We would have had a hundred players on that team. The point to me is to help. I am demanding, but why not help people?"
Cooper is lunching with Bobby Joseph, Bob Carlen and James Leahy, three prominent Columbus businessmen, and Ohio State's 1950 Heisman Trophy winner, Vic Janowicz. The lunch is a get-acquainted, fun kind of thing, but there is pressure, too. As always.
"So what's this crap I hear?" says Joseph with a smile. "The cupboard's bare? The team's no good?"
"I didn't say that," replies Cooper. "As Joe Paterno says, don't bad-mouth your kids. They're all you got. You can't draft 'em. Can't trade 'em."
The men chuckle. Bruce wasn't good at this kind of stuff. They ask how many games Cooper will win this year.
"The way I figure it," he answers, "the coaches can win two or three games, the players are good for three or four, and you fans can win two. From you I want LSU and Michigan."
"You're the greatest coach in the world," says Janowicz with a thin, meaningful grin. "Until November 19."
That would be Michigan. And Cooper would like to be there.