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JOHN COOPER : ‘Whatever It Takes,’ Is Arizona State Coach’s Philosophy, and That Includes Waving a Towel

Times Staff Writer

As the players disembarked from the plane, a Rose Bowl princess, who was there to greet them, sighed and said: “I don’t know who to cheer for, Michigan or Arizona.”

An official in Arizona State’s athletic department overheard the princess but didn’t bother to correct her.

He’s used to it.

While those who follow the Pacific 10 Conference have discovered that the differences between Arizona State and Arizona are no greater than those between the countries in that other desert conflict, Iran and Iraq, almost everyone else in the nation, at least east of the Rockies, seems unaware that there’s any difference at all.

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Everyone associated with Arizona State hopes the Sun Devils’ appearance in Thursday’s Rose Bowl game against Michigan will solve the university’s identity crisis.

And John Cooper’s.

Who?

John Cooper is Arizona State’s head coach, the man who waves the gold towel on the sidelines to arouse the fans when he senses their attention is wandering.

Oh, that’s John Cooper?

Yes.

And no.

If the truth be told, Cooper doesn’t especially like waving the terrible towel. But he figures that if his players are putting their bodies on the line, or even in the backfield, for ASU, the least he can do is lead cheers. It goes along with his philosophy, “Whatever It Takes.”

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But when he throws in the towel, Cooper, 49, is anything but a wild and crazy guy.

Even though he’s been around during the last 24 years as a coach, including a short stay at UCLA, he still considers himself a Tennessee farm boy who loves to hunt, fish and spend time with his family. He has one boy, one girl and, for the past 29 years, one wife.

Conservative is also the way he likes his football, having graduated with honors from the Red Sanders-Tommy Prothro school, which emphasizes defense, kicking and establishing the running game.

“It’s a fallacy when people say you have to throw the ball and play exciting to put people in the stands,” he said last week. “Fans want to see you win.”

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That he’s done.

In eight years at Tulsa University, the only head coaching job Cooper had before going to Arizona State in 1985, his record was 58-31.

His record at Arizona State is 17-5-1.

More significant to Sun Devil fans, it took Cooper only two years to lead Arizona State to its first berth in the Rose Bowl.

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But in the last couple of years, Cooper also has made an impression outside of the won-loss column.

While he’s not considered a Joe Paterno-style activist, Cooper has advanced a couple of causes that have been too long ignored.

Starting with a solution, he believes in a playoff system, not necessarily because he wants to know who is really No. 1 but because so many other people do. That means it would generate hundreds of millions of dollars over the years in television revenue.

According to Cooper’s plan, a small percentage of the money would be divided among the participating teams and the rest placed into a fund.

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“When schools like Wichita State and Long Beach State get into financial trouble with their football programs, maybe we could help them a little bit,” he said.

“There’s 95 players at Wichita State who no longer have a place to play because the school dropped football. It’s going to be the same thing at Long Beach unless they come up with $300,000. What’s wrong with making millions of dollars in a playoff and giving them $300,000?”

With playoff revenues, Cooper also would establish unemployment benefits for assistant coaches.

“The saddest thing in football is what happens to assistant coaches when the head coach resigns, retires or gets fired,” he said.

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“Of the head coaches who got fired this year, I bet most of them have a year or two or maybe even three left on their contracts. They’ll be taken care of until they can find new jobs.

“But what happens to their assistants? They don’t have contracts. If they’re young, they’ve probably got mouths to feed at home. If they’re 50 or older, nobody will hire them. They don’t have any retirement benefits unless they’ve been at a school for a long time. We should take care of them.”

On this issue, Cooper is not all talk. He makes sure his assistants share many of the perks he receives and never fails to credit them when the team plays well.

“The only thing he doesn’t share is the criticism, which he takes all himself,” offensive coordinator Jim Colletto said.

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Cooper also delegates authority, serving as the overseer as Colletto runs the offense and Larry Marmie the defense.

But Cooper isn’t afraid to get his hands dirty, literally, in the day- to-day operations.

One day last week, before a workout at Orange Coast College, Cooper asked the team’s managers to pick up trash around the practice field that had been left the day before by his players.

As the managers dutifully fulfilled his request, Cooper got down on his hands and knees and joined them.

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“I believe in sharing the work,” he said. “If people see the head man doing it, they don’t mind doing it.”

It’s understandable that Cooper would empathize with assistant coaches. He was one himself for 15 years, starting in 1962 at his alma mater, Iowa State.

It was under Prothro during the next four years, two at Oregon State and two at UCLA, that Cooper developed much of his coaching philosophy.

“You win with defense first, keep teams in a hole with a good kicking game and take advantage of your offensive opportunities without taking too many risks,” Cooper said.

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“Do you realize we lost only four fumbles all season? I tell that to people, and they think I’m lying. Four fumbles all season. We had only 11 pass interceptions, which means we turned the ball over 15 times in 11 games. That’s remarkable.

“I’m probably not as conservative as I was at Tulsa. But we were more conservative this year than we were last year, and that’s the only reason we’re in the Rose Bowl this year and we weren’t last year.”

When Cooper was hired, after a number of better known coaches, such as UCLA’s Terry Donahue and Brigham Young’s LaVell Edwards, expressed no interest in the job, critics said Arizona State’s fans, accustomed to wide-open offenses, wouldn’t like the newcomer’s style.

When Arizona State beat Cal, 49-0, in the ninth game this season, clinching the Rose Bowl bid, a sign went up in the stands at Sun Devil Stadium that read, “John Cooper Is God.”

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But Cooper has been in the business long enough to know that the same people who were calling him the deity probably were calling for his head two weeks later when the Sun Devils lost to Arizona. The only thing he had in common that week with any of the Bible’s leading characters is that he’s the son of a carpenter.

Cooper was raised in Heiskell, Tenn., a spot in the road, but not on the map, between Knoxville and Oak Ridge, where the first atomic bomb was built.

“All Heiskell has is a general store with a gas pump out front,” Cooper said. “It’s so small I knew everybody’s name and their dogs names, too.”

Because Heiskell didn’t have a high school, Cooper had to hitchhike six miles to school in Powell, Tenn., where he was a three-sport star in football, basketball and baseball.

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After afternoon practices, Cooper would hitchhike back home and help on the family’s 65-acre farm, planting corn, baling hay, slopping the hogs. Whatever it took.

On Saturdays during the fall, Cooper would go to Knoxville and sell soft drinks in the stands during University of Tennessee games.

“I’d sell half the game and watch the other half,” he said. “Some of my fondest memories are of sitting around the radio in the living room and listening to Lindsey Nelson announce the Tennessee games.”

With three other boys and two girls to raise, Cooper’s parents didn’t have the money to send him to college. He wrote letters to several schools, asking for a scholarship, but no one was interested in a 165-pound quarterback, even though he was the most valuable player in the Tennessee high school all-star game.

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Two years of military service and 20 pounds later, he updated the letters and sent them again.

The only major college to offer him a scholarship was Iowa State, whose coach was Clay Stapleton. He ran his practices like a boot camp, inviting 60 players to join the team each year and then chasing off half of them. Those who stayed were known as the Dirty 30.

Cooper stayed for four years as a player and re-upped for one year as an assistant coach, but, even though he has great respect for Stapleton, he learned a lesson in how not to coach.

“There never was a player as dedicated as I was,” Cooper said. “They weren’t going to run me off. I’m proud I was one of the 30.

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“But I always wondered what happened to the guys who didn’t stay. The reason I went into coaching is to try to have a positive influence on young people. If I’m running off half my players each year, what am I teaching them?

“I want my players to be physically and mentally tough, but I’m not going to have the hamburger drills and other drills that run off people.

“I coach young people like I would my own son. In fact, I coached my son at Tulsa. I wouldn’t want somebody to do those things to my son. So I’m not going to do it to the sons of other mamas and daddies.”

But that doesn’t mean he’s an easy touch.

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In 1977, during his first week as a head coach at Tulsa, 25 black players walked off the team.

Publicly, they said they objected to Cooper’s three-a-day workouts during summer practices.

Cooper said last week the real reason the players revolted was because he cut off their cash flow.

“Many of them had been illegally recruited,” he said.

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Still, he accepts partial blame for the incident.

“I made my share of mistakes as a young head coach,” he said. “The first thing was that the players didn’t know me. I tried to install my system before I sold John Cooper to them. Why should they have listened to me. They didn’t trust me.”

After Cooper made his pitch, all 25 players returned. Three later played in the National Football League. Tulsa was 3-8 in 1977, but didn’t have another losing season under Cooper, finishing 10-1 in 1982.

“I did a major job of selling myself to the players at Arizona State before I did anything else,” he said.

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Cooper didn’t really have to sell himself to Arizona State fans, so turned off were they by his predecessor, Darryl Rogers.

Having replaced the popular, though controversial, Frank Kush, Rogers never had a chance in Tempe.

“The fans weren’t going to like whoever replaced Kush,” said Joe Gilmartin, sports editor and columnist for the Phoenix Gazette. “And they weren’t going to dislike whoever replaced Rogers.”

Gary Rausch, Arizona State’s sports information director, said Cooper is a cross between Kush and Rogers.

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“He has the charisma of Kush without the controversy,” he said. “He has the fun of Rogers without the country club atmosphere.”

Cooper stunned many people in Tempe when he invited Kush last August to speak to his team. Kush, who coached at Arizona State for 21 1/2 years before he was forced out amid charges of improprieties within the program, was not particularly welcome during Rogers’ five years as head coach.

“How can you ignore The Man?” Cooper said. “Frank Kush built Arizona State.” Cooper also has kind words for Rogers.

“A lot of people don’t like him, but he recruited the players we’re winning with,” Cooper said.

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Cooper has won so much at Arizona State that fans are concerned about losing him. Texas Athletic Director DeLoss Dodds flew to Tempe to meet with him when that job was open, but Cooper said he wasn’t a serious candidate.

Since Arizona has changed the law that restricts state employes to one-year contracts, Cooper is expected to negotiate a long-term deal soon with the university.

His job will be secure as long as he continues to take his teams to the Rose Bowl.

And, for a change, beats Arizona.

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The Sun Devils have lost four straight games to their rivals. The loss in 1985 prevented them from coming to the Rose Bowl last Jan. 1.

They’re here this year despite a 34-17 loss to Arizona in the final regular-season game, which means it’s already been a successful season for the Sun Devils.

Or has it?

“The Rose Bowl is supposed to be a reward, but people aren’t telling me to come here and have a good time,” Cooper said. “They’re saying, ‘Go win.’ ”

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