In Toughest of Jobs, Cooper Finds Ways to Keep His Edge

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Ohio State Coach John Cooper has an unusual hobby, collecting pocket knives, some of them not wanted, some of them donated in the general direction of his back.

He gained some new ones, wanted ones, at Christmas, giving him a few more than two dozen. Cooper was smiling broadly the other day as he talked about his new presents.

"I got a bunch of them," Cooper said. "Hen & Rooster."

What?

"You know, Hen & Rooster," he said.

Ah, the internationally famous pocket knives from Solingen, Germany. It actually sounded like some sort of draw play the coaching staff had designed for the Rose Bowl. Or a special scheme to stymie Arizona State quarterback Jake "the Snake" Plummer.

Funny, but isn't that the way you take care of a snake in the desert? Use the knife to cut off the head of the snake before it gets you.

The legendary Woody Hayes had his love of military lore. Now, Cooper has the knives out--literally and figuratively--in Columbus, Ohio.

Certainly, almost anyone from Southern California can understand--sort of--how hard it is to coach the Buckeyes.

Just think UCLA, post-John Wooden era. It's among the toughest jobs in sports, ranking among, not in any particular order: Notre Dame football, Kentucky basketball, the Boston Celtics, the Dallas Cowboys, New York Yankees and the Montreal Canadiens.

You have to go to a bowl game every year. Losing three games in a season makes the natives slightly uncomfortable. A four-loss season? Unacceptable.

You have to be accessible to the media but still retain a larger-than-life aura. Smooth but not slick.

And lest we forget, above all, you have to beat Michigan.

So far, that has happened only once in the Cooper era, a 22-6 victory in 1994.

That particular win, in part, solidified Cooper's job, helping earn him a five-year contract. All too often, however, the local and national focus have locked upon particular numbers--1-6 in bowl games and 1-7-1 against the Wolverines.

Would Buckeye fans make this kind of trade: Lose the first couple games of the season but beat Michigan?

"Probably, no question," said senior linebacker Greg Bellisari. "That's just insane."

Never mind an Ohio State victory on Wednesday would mean that Cooper could be the first coach to win a Rose Bowl with a Pacific 10 team (Arizona State, 1987) and a Big Ten team. And 40 wins in the last four years and a career record of 157-69-6 are greeted by a shrug of the shoulders in Columbus.

"Bruce Snyder, for example, at Arizona State, this is the only good year they've had," Cooper said. "He'll parlay that into a lifetime contract. Barry Alvarez at Wisconsin had one good year and got a 15-year contract. Gary Barnett had a good year--Boom!

"We win 10 games, at Ohio State. . . . 'Ho-hum. How come you didn't win 11?' "

Cooper was saying this without a shred of malice, merely stating the facts. He wasn't so sanguine the previous day when someone asked about the record against Michigan.

"Do I like it? And am I happy with it?" he said, surrounded by a group of reporters. "No, I really don't like it. Is it fair? Sure, it's fair because it's the truth. I wish there was something we could do about it. That's what we're here for."

Cooper's daughter, Cindy, was a lawyer in the state's attorney general's office in Ohio before joining the local ABC affiliate in Columbus in the sales department. Another part of her duties is working Buckeye game-day telecasts, and, interviewing dad after the game.

"It's been great, she's been very supportive," Cooper said of his daughter.

Said Cindy Cooper: "I'm not objective. It's hard [after losses]. When you love someone so much, it doesn't hurt for me, I hurt for him. I know how much it means for him. No one hurts more than him. But if the ball doesn't bounce your way, you move on. A lot of people look back at the past.

"Hey, we're in the Rose Bowl. Every team in the Big Ten would want to be in the Rose Bowl."

It will be his second trip to the Rose Bowl as a head coach. Pete Elliott was the first coach to take a Pac-10 team (California in 1959) and a Big Ten team (Illinois, 1964) to the Rose Bowl.

Cooper's star quarterback at Arizona State was Jeff Van Raaphorst, who was the most valuable player in the 1987 Rose Bowl. Van Raaphorst analyzed his former coach's philosophy.

"Cooper is fairly conservative," Van Raaphorst said. "He'll be happy if he can come out and run the ball 40 times and only have to throw it 15. . . . He likes balance. I think he prefers smash-mouth football.

"He's had such good talent, he can afford to keep it close and just beat people up. I think that will play into it. If ASU gets ahead, I think that's Coach Cooper's nightmare. Because now he's got to open up his game. He wants to get up on ASU, establish the running game, chew time off the clock. He wants to play NFC East football."

Cooper's contract at Ohio State runs through the 2001 season. He spent eight years at Tulsa (son John Jr. played for him there), and three more at Arizona State before leaving for Columbus. At Arizona State, he guided the Sun Devils to three consecutive bowl games, winning the Rose Bowl and Freedom Bowl.

His only serious thought of leaving Ohio State came in 1994 when he interviewed for the coaching vacancy at Louisiana State.

"The only thing I wanted was, 'Hey, let me know if you want me to be the coach,' " Cooper said. "If I want to be your coach, then I expect you to support me. Give me the commitment. I was sick and tired of [hearing] every year, 'Cooper has to win.' We were winning nine games, and 10 games.

"We had won 10 games the year before. There are so many positives that far outweigh those few negatives."

Does it help that he has become a familiar face in Columbus after nine years?

"That helps, but winning helps more than anything else," Cooper said.

Not everyone understands the complete reason behind Cooper's decision to leave Arizona State. One factor was that his mother-in-law was suffering from Alzheimer's and Cooper wanted his wife, Helen, to be closer to her mother, who lived in Knoxville, Tenn. "My mother treasured the time she had with her mother," Cindy Cooper said.

Now, all four members of the immediate Cooper family live in Columbus, and the 59-year-old coach doesn't see himself leaving the profession any time soon, knives or no knives.

"I'd have to get a job," Cooper said. "I love what I do. I love working with players, young people. I've been in it for 35 years, a head coach for 20. It's the only thing I've ever wanted to do. The only thing I've ever done in my life. I won't ever do anything else."

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