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The Freedom Bowl : For John Cooper, Freedom’s Just Another Word for Ohio State

Shortly before Wednesday evening’s Freedom Bowl, John Cooper gathered his assistants together and quietly told them that he was changing States--Ohio for Arizona. For less money. For a program that most recently fired Earle Bruce, the same guy who averaged nine victories a season during his stay in callous Columbus.

Why, I’m not sure. Could have been the Arizona State school colors, sort of a Burger King gold and burgundy. Cooper never knew if he should call plays or order fries and a shake.

Might have been the Pacific 10 and its tarnished image. Perhaps Cooper thought it was time to play in a real conference.

Maybe it was this whole bowl thing. Cooper heard Freedom and thought it meant leaving Tempe.

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This must have been some interview process. Cooper, who had yet to complete the first year of a new five-year contract signed last summer, across the table from Ohio State athletic department officials, the same people who now lead the Big Ten in administrative back stabbing.

Just ask Bruce, who is still tugging at stilettos flung during his hasty departure.

Anyway, there they are--Cooper and Ohio State officials--chatting away . . .

OSU official : “John, thanks so much for your interest. I can’t tell you how happy we are to be rid of Mr. 6-4-1-Bruce, that flop.”

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Cooper : “Uh, fellas . . . I was 6-4-1 this season.”

Official : “It says here Arizona State was 10-1-1 and won the Rose Bowl.”

Cooper : “That was last year. This year we went to the Freedom Bowl.”

Official : “That’s OK, we didn’t go anywhere.”

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Soon afterward, Ohio State decides to offer Cooper the job. As if it means anything anymore, Cooper agrees to a five-year deal with the Buckeyes.

Minutes before the Freedom Bowl kickoff, Cooper granted an interview with a Phoenix television crew. He declined to announce his decision, but then spoke about ASU in the past tense. “It’s been a great three years,” he said.

This should be of comfort to all those Arizona State freshmen who counted on Cooper being there when they turned seniors, or even sophomores.

Cooper was gone, all right. He knew it. His assistants knew it. Even his band knew it, which spent the final minutes of the game yelling: “C-O-O-P-E-R . . . COOPER!” Something unintelligible followed, but we got the idea. This was their tribute to a guy who had taken ASU to three consecutive bowls, including its first-ever Rose Bowl.

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Not all Sun Devil fans shared in the sentiment. A collection of boos made its way to the field after each Cooper chorus. Angry? Puzzled, probably.

Here was a team designed for more than 6-4-1 seasons. As quarterback Daniel Ford, the Freedom Bowl MVP said, “I think there’s 25, 30 teams that have a chance at the national championship and ASU is one of them.”

Asked why Cooper would leave such a program, Daniels half shrugged his shoulders. “Money.. . . Ohio State traditionally is a great team. It’s a little more security for his family. There’s no telling what his dreams have been all his life.”

About those dreams. Here was an ASU athletic department willing to pay megabucks for someone to draw two letters--X and O. In return, Cooper would receive $. No one knows for sure, but Cooper reportedly earned between $250,000-$400,000 annually, with the emphasis on more than less.

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At Ohio State, Cooper is expected to take a pay cut.

And you can place those security arguments in a nearby trash compactor. Bruce thought he was safe and sound. A Buckeye company man, Bruce wanted nothing more than to spend the rest of his Saturdays watching the Ohio State band dot the I.

Then he had the same type of season Cooper just completed, full of heartaches and unexpected losses. It got messy. And then Bruce was gone--swinging, fighting the whole way out--but gone, nonetheless.

Maybe Cooper is a better coach. Maybe his personality and style will overcome all. But for those keeping count, Cooper’s 11-season record at Tulsa and Arizona State is 82-40-2. Bruce won one less game and had 14 fewer losses in just nine seasons. And he got fired.

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Cooper received a brief shoulder ride after Arizona State’s victory over Air Force. Someone then tried to dump a bucket of Gatorade on him, but hardly a drop splashed against his yellow windbreaker, the one he got for taking the Sun Devils to the Rose Bowl.

Next came the trophy presentation and testimonials.

“It’s been a great three seasons with him,” said senior defensive end Trace Armstrong.

Sure it’s been, Trace; Then again, you’re leaving.

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Cooper retired to the Sun Devil locker room and then, in an emotional farewell, informed his team that he was history. Now if he could just tell them why.

“I’m not happy tonight,” Cooper said afterward. “These are guys you love. These are guys who meant so much to you for three years. . . . It’s not easy standing there in a locker room telling those people that I’m leaving. It’s not easy saying goodby.”

By late today, Cooper will be formally introduced as the new Ohio State coach. He will tell everyone what an opportunity this is. The sorrow he felt Wednesday night will be conveniently pushed aside.

Meanwhile, among the leading candidates expected to interview for the Arizona State vacancy is a tough, feisty coach who deserves better than unemployment. His name is Earle Bruce.

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