John Cooper turns and looks out his office window as if he were
admiring the view from the train that brought him to the top of
the college football world. It has been nine years since he
moved into the hallowed head coach's office in the Woody Hayes
Athletic Center on the campus of Ohio State, but the passing
sights still take the breath away from this 60-year-old son of a
Tennessee carpenter. The ride still leaves him shaking his head,
uncertain of what he did to deserve all this.
"I've been to the Kentucky Derby, the World Series, the NBA
All-Star Game," says Cooper. "I've been fishing in Alaska,
played Pebble Beach, been to the Masters, thrown out the first
ball at Yankee Stadium. I've done some incredible things, and
it's all because of coaching [at Ohio State]. To tell you the
truth, there is not much I haven't done that I would like to do."
Well, there is the one obvious thing, and Cooper knows it sits
like an ink spot on his otherwise sterling resume. His teams
have appeared in eight consecutive bowl games, including the
most recent Rose Bowl, in which the Buckeyes knocked off
undefeated Arizona State 20-17. He has finished first or second
in the Big Ten for five straight years, and since 1991 a dozen
of his players have been chosen in the first round of the NFL
draft (chart, page 52), more than any other college program. He
has returned the Ohio State football program to prominence and
chased the wolves from his door, but one item is still missing
from his portfolio: a national championship. Unfortunately, when
you wear little adhesive buckeyes on the side of your helmet,
that is kind of the point of playing the games.
Although Ohio State has come agonizingly close to finishing No.
1 in Cooper's tenure, the grand prize has eluded the school
since Hayes's last national title, in 1970. The Buckeyes were
No. 2 in the AP poll at the end of last season and No. 6 the
year before, and by now most college football observers assume
Cooper will soon be wearing a straitjacket. How many times can
the man just miss before he slips over the edge? Last year Ohio
State was 10-0 and ranked No. 2 when it welcomed Michigan to
Columbus on Nov. 23. The Buckeyes' 13-9 loss derailed their
quest for the national title and reminded Cooper that the view
from the Ohio State coach's office is never as idyllic as it
September 7, 1997
"I'd like to win a national championship before I'm through,"
says Cooper, whose team opened the season with a 24-10 win over
Wyoming last Thursday. "But if I don't, I'll still wake up in
the morning, look up and say, 'Thank you for another day.'
Because a lot of people died in their sleep last night."
In the end Cooper doesn't just want to beat Michigan or beat the
Pac-10 champ in Pasadena on New Year's Day. He wants to beat the
system in Columbus. He wants to survive life in the crosshairs
and walk away with something much more precious than a national
title: his dignity. It is a rare feat for an Ohio State coach,
but Cooper wants to be an exception to the rule, a coach who
pulls into the station with a smile on his face and a crowd of
friends to greet him.
"I want to live in Columbus the rest of my life," he says. "I
want to leave this job on my terms. I want to be happy. That
sounds simple, but it's not. You can't name me an Ohio State
football coach or basketball coach or even athletic director who
left here happy. Woody didn't, Earle Bruce didn't, Fred Taylor
didn't, Eldon Miller didn't. None of them did. They either were
fired or left with a bad taste in their mouths. I don't want
that to happen to me."
Cooper takes a breath and ponders the daunting challenge ahead
of him. Is it possible? Can he become the first Ohio State coach
to survive the toughest opponent of all--the demands of the Ohio
State faithful? "I'm not sure that can be done," he says.
"Bear Bryant used to tell people, 'Don't go into coaching if you
can live without it,'" says Cooper, who never had any doubts.
Coaching was an unsettled, insecure life, but it was all Cooper
wanted to do. He brings up the names of Dick Vermeil and Mike
Ditka and says he knows exactly what they were feeling when they
came out of retirement and returned to the NFL this year. That
addiction to coaching has never left Cooper's system, either. He
lives with the dilemma that faces many coaches in their golden
years: He wants to quit happy, but he doesn't really want to
quit. "I honestly don't know if I could live without it," he says.
Born and raised in Powell, Tenn., Cooper was a safety and
tailback at Iowa State and got his first coaching job in 1962 as
an assistant with the Cyclones. He began his head coaching
career at Tulsa in 1977 and after five straight Missouri Valley
Conference titles jumped to Arizona State in '85. In Cooper's
second season in Tempe, the Sun Devils won nine games and then
beat Michigan in the Rose Bowl. That triumph over the Big Ten
champs did not go unnoticed when Ohio State went in search of a
new coach after Bruce was fired following the '87 season. If
nothing else, Buckeyes boosters said of Cooper, the guy can beat
Michigan. In the nine years since, Cooper has gotten the better
of the dread Wolverines just once. It is a cross he lugs around
Columbus, despite his otherwise irrefutable success.
"People come up to me all the time and say, 'So, Coach, are we
going to beat Michigan this year?'" says Cooper. "Now what kind
of a stupid question is that? No one wants to beat Michigan more
than I do. But if you're going to coach football at Ohio State,
it's something you have to accept. Michigan means everything to
people in Columbus. That's the way it's always been."
"It's kind of like the life and death of the season in one
game," says Gary Berry, a sophomore cornerback from Columbus.
After three years at Arizona State, Cooper pounced on the
opportunity to succeed Bruce, knowing full well that Bruce had
won 81 games in nine seasons and had still been run out of town
by the Columbus lynch mob. From Day 1, the deck was stacked
against him: He hadn't been a Hayes assistant; he wasn't an Ohio
State alum; he wasn't even a native of the Buckeye State; and,
damn, he even talked funny. "A lot of people didn't like me
because I had a Southern accent," says Cooper. "I said, Big
deal--I'm not going to please everyone, so I might as well
please the people who matter: the people who sign my check."
At first he didn't even do that. In '88, his inaugural season in
Columbus, the Buckeyes went 4-6-1 and finished seventh in the
Big Ten. For this, the fans wondered, we gave old Earle the
boot? The hate mail poured in, and the boos rained down. "That
year was very tough on him, but even then you could tell he was
a survivor," says Ohio State legend Archie Griffin, the only
two-time winner of the Heisman Trophy and an associate athletic
director at the school.
"The first couple of years were hard on all of us," says Cindy
Cooper, the coach's 28-year-old daughter. "We came from Phoenix,
where college football was just a nice social event, to
Columbus, where the emphasis on football is almost unhealthy."
After going 8-4 and 7-4-1 the next two seasons, the Buckeyes
took an 8-2 record into the Michigan game on the last Saturday
of the '91 regular season. In an extraordinary show of a support
for his football coach, Ohio State president Gordon Gee made a
surprise announcement the day before the game: He was giving
Cooper a three-year extension on his original five-year
contract, which had one year to go, so the critics might as well
just save their breath. "I was hoping it would spur the team on
to victory over Michigan," says Gee. "Unfortunately, it didn't
work out that way."
The Buckeyes got waxed 31-3, and Cooper's hot seat suddenly felt
more like an electric chair. "I tell people that I got about
8,000 letters after [extending Cooper's contract]--two that were
in favor of what I did," says Gee, who will leave Ohio State for
Brown in January. "Sometimes I think we get a little too intense
Buckeyes football isn't a matter of life and death in
Columbus--it's much more important than that. Skip Mosic has
hosted a radio talk show on WBNS in Columbus for 12 years and
was recently broadcasting live from Ohio Stadium at an event
that was obviously made for radio: picture day. Mosic says
Cooper is about as popular as a football coach can get at Ohio
State and offers conclusive evidence: A life-sized butter
sculpture of Cooper was on display at the Ohio State Fair this
summer, an honor reserved for only the most esteemed sports
figures in the state. Still, Mosic admits, the love for Cooper
is not yet unconditional and complete in every corner of
Columbus. "There are some real old-timers, the big-time Woody
backers, who still think you have to beat Michigan to be a
success," says Mosic. "There are people who think 11-1 wasn't a
great year, because of the Michigan game. Some people actually
sold their Rose Bowl packages after last year's loss to Michigan
because they were so upset."
Unlike many of his gruff contemporaries, Cooper prefers to
confine his confrontations to the football field, avoiding
needless battles with the press, fans and alumni. He knew the
demands of the job before he took it; he wasn't about to start
whining once he got to Columbus. "I don't complain about a lot
of things," he says. "I don't look for controversy. I stay away
from negative people whenever I can." Rather than feed the
beast, Cooper chose to tickle its belly, doing his best to
diffuse the tension.
"Every year the Cleveland-area alumni group has its dinner on
the Tuesday after the Michigan game, and Coach Cooper always
goes to speak," says Julie Bonfini, Cooper's secretary. "That's
a pretty tough crowd, and they're always a little angry if we
don't beat Michigan. But Coach doesn't try to take them on and
argue with them; he just tells a few jokes and tries to make
Since the end of his first year in Columbus, Cooper's teams have
averaged nine wins a season (same as Bruce's) and have appeared
in a bowl each year, though winning just two of them. The
Buckeyes, in fact, are 3-13-2 in the season's final two games
under Cooper. However, unlike the dominant Ohio State teams
under Hayes's command, Cooper's squads have usually been
exciting and explosive. Last fall Ohio State averaged 37.92
points per game, the most in school history, while allowing
10.92. The offense was a well-oiled machine, despite the loss of
Heisman Trophy-winning running back Eddie George and wideout
Terry Glenn, who finished one-two in the NFL rookie of the year
voting last season. The Buckeyes rushed for more than 2,700
yards, passed for more than 2,500 and turned the ball over just
16 times all year.
Cooper deflects all plaudits for bringing that University of
Miami-like firepower to WoodyWorld and insists Hayes would have
done the same if the time had been right. "If Woody coached
today, he would have changed," says Cooper. "He wouldn't he
running off tackle all day. He'd be throwing the ball, just like
we do. You've got to be flexible in this business."
Cooper's staff has gradually established itself as one of the
premier recruiting units in the country, not only landing
blue-chip players who keep Ohio State among the college football
elite but also preparing them for NFL careers. Last spring
offensive tackle Orlando Pace was the first pick in the draft,
by the St. Louis Rams, and the second Buckeye in four years to
go No. 1 (defensive tackle Dan Wilkinson was the other). In
fact, Pace was the first of seven Ohio State players to be taken
in the '97 draft, and another eight were signed as free agents.
Ohio State has 36 players on NFL active rosters. "We recruit
good players," says Cooper. "But I also think a lot of good
things happen to them after they step on our campus."
While some college coaches treat NFL scouts as if they were
coming for their children--especially as more and more athletes
leave school early for the pro game--Cooper rolls out the red
carpet for any NFL personnel who care to stop by. Another
athletic-department official recently circulated a memo that
suggested a curb on the growing number of pro scouts allowed to
watch practice each day, but Cooper vetoed the idea. Instead, he
posts the scouts' business cards in the lobby of the Hayes
Center, not far from the Heismans and the national-championship
plaques. He also provides them with a comfortable room designed
solely for watching video of Buckeyes players. The scouts have
to bring their own popcorn.
"I think any player who leaves our program early is making a
mistake, and I try to talk him out of it," Cooper says. "I don't
care who they are, they're better off staying here for four
years. In almost every case, they will look back on their
college years and say, 'That's the happiest I've ever been.'
Even a kid like Terry Glenn, as well as he played in his rookie
year [with the New England Patriots], missed a lot by leaving
early. He never played in a Rose Bowl."
It was pointed out to Cooper that Glenn did play in a Super Bowl.
"He never played in a Rose Bowl," Cooper said without a trace of
How does this seemingly unassuming man succeed in his cutthroat
profession? Many college football observers still aren't sure,
which is perhaps the most telling tribute to Cooper. He has
coached at different schools, in different eras, with different
styles, and succeeded every step of the way. Still it is
impossible to meet Cooper without thinking, This is one of the
great coaches in the game? This is the guy who could outrecruit
the Marine Corps? He just seems too normal, too unexceptional.
Everyone knows recruiting is a dirty business. You've got to
talk fast, sell hard and sling it when necessary. You've got to
relate to the cocky kid with the earrings, charm the socks off
his mother and backstab your rival coaches who were sitting at
the same kitchen table the night before. It does not seem like
an endeavor that would jibe effectively with Cooper's low-key
personality. "Oh, don't let him fool you," says Cindy, his
daughter. "He is a great salesman when he wants to be."
He also is a plainspoken, plain-looking Southern gentleman who
attends church regularly, collects knives, whittles and boasts
that his best recruiting job ever was the one he did on Helen,
his wife of 40 years. If it sounds a little hokey for these glib
times, Cooper doesn't seem to care.
"He just tells you how it is, straight out and honest," says
junior quarterback Joe Germaine. "He lets his assistant coaches
coach and lets his players play. I think he trusts people to do
their job. When he's recruiting, he just lets the university
speak for itself. I remember what he said to me. He just said,
'We'd like you to be a Buckeye.'"
Cooper works hard at staying in touch with the younger
generation, tolerating earrings and loud music except on the
field and in the weight room. Last summer he went so far as to
attend a Hootie and the Blowfish concert with Cindy. After the
show he went backstage and met lead singer Darius Rucker. Cooper
told Rucker how much he had enjoyed the music. Rucker, according
to Cindy, had no idea who the lean, gray-haired guy was, but
that didn't bother Cooper at all.
"I don't think anybody's ever met coach Cooper and thought, I
don't like this guy," says former Buckeyes running back Robert
Smith, now with the Minnesota Vikings. "Anybody who talks to him
finds him to be entertaining and genuine. That's part of the
problem he had at Ohio State when he first got there. They were
so into the Woody Hayes mentality--just don't talk to the press,
and all that. He didn't fit into that."
In nearly a decade at Ohio State, Cooper has been touched by
scandal only once, and it involved Smith. A star running back
who had hoped to attend medical school, Smith draped the entire
football program in suspicion five years ago when he publicly
accused an assistant coach of scolding him for taking his
studies too seriously. Smith insisted that the coach, former
offensive coordinator Elliott Uzelac (who now holds the same job
at Minnesota), wanted him to spend more time at practice and
less in the library. Smith wound up leaving Ohio State after two
seasons and getting picked by the Vikings in the first round of
the '93 draft. Many Ohio State fans are surprised when they see
Smith back in Columbus in the off-season, working out with past
and present Buckeyes and spending time with Cooper. "My
relationship with [Cooper] has always been great," says Smith.
"My problem was with Uzelac. It was never with Cooper."
Says Cooper, "All Robert had to do was walk into my office, and
that whole thing never would have happened. I want the same
thing as Robert. I want kids to go to class, to go to study
hall, to graduate. There has never been a problem between Robert
The bitterness and anxiety that are so prevalent in others in
his profession apparently haven't infected Cooper. He no longer
worries about losing his job. He's got a new five-year contract.
He's got a couple of Rose Bowl rings. He's got another Buckeyes
squad that, despite heavy losses to the NFL, is loaded and could
challenge Penn State for the Big Ten title. The only question
now is, Will he get out on his terms? "I hope he doesn't coach
much longer, because those people will turn on him in a second
in Ohio," says Smith. "If he loses to Michigan again this year,
they'll be calling for his job."
So, Coach, are we going to beat Michigan this year?
RUNNING OUT OF GAS
John Cooper's Buckeyes usually start with a bang, as running
back Michael Wiley (5, above) did in last Thursday's win over
Wyoming, and end with a fizzle, as quarterback Joe Germaine (7,
right) did last fall against Michigan. During Cooper's nine-year
tenure, in fact, no Ohio State team has won its final two games
of the season (including bowls). Most painful of all: In
regular-season finales, against the archrival Wolverines, Cooper
YEAR START FINISH
1988 4-5 0-1-1
1989 8-2 0-2
1990 7-2-1 0-2
1991 8-2 0-2
1992 8-2 0-1-1
1993 9-0-1 1-1
1994 8-3 1-1
1995 11-0 0-2
1996 10-0 1-1
TOTALS: 73-16-2 3-13-2
No coach has turned out as many first-round NFL draft picks in
the '90s as John Cooper, who saw Orlando Pace (left) go No. 1 in
PLAYER YEAR POS. PICK TEAM
ORLANDO PACE 1997 T 1 St. Louis
SHAWN SPRINGS 1997 DB 3 Seattle
TERRY GLENN 1996 WR 7 New England
RICKEY DUDLEY 1996 TE 9 Oakland
EDDIE GEORGE 1996 RB 14 Houston
JOEY GALLOWAY 1995 WR 8 Seattle
KOREY STRINGER 1995 T 24 Minnesota
CRAIG POWELL 1995 LB 30 Cleveland
DAN WILKINSON 1994 T 1 Cincinnati
ROBERT SMITH 1993 RB 21 Minnesota
ALONZO SPELLMAN 1992 DE 22 Chicago
VINNIE CLARK 1991 DB 19 Green Bay