Columbus Not Cooper's Town but Critics Don't Worry Ohio St. Football Coach

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John Cooper, the farm-raised son of a carpenter and a school-cafeteria worker, turns his Cadillac left into the Woody Hayes Athletic Center parking lot. "I wasn't born on third base, you know; I came up the hard way," he says. "But things happen for the best. They really do. They have a way of working out. Life's what you make of it."

It's early afternoon Tuesday, and Cooper, in his 10th season coaching Ohio State, continues talking as he searches for a parking space and decides he'll have to park in back of the building. "And coaching's been very good to John Cooper. How many coaches around the country would love to trade places with me?"

He recites his previous coaching stops as he backs away from what turns out to be an inappropriate parking space. There was Oregon State, then UCLA. On to Kansas, then Kentucky, to be closer to Mom after Dad died. Then to Tulsa, his first head-coaching job, and out to Arizona State. "I have people who come up to me and say, `Coach, I'd like to coach football, but I want to live in Columbus, Ohio, the rest of my life.' Well, yeah. That would be great. Get me one of those jobs, know what I mean? They don't realize what-all it takes to get where you are." Turning the last corner of the building, he laughs. "I'm having a hell of a time trying to find a parking space," he says, without a hint of annoyance. When he finds one, he laughs again at the thought there might have been one reserved for him. "I don't have one," he says. "I can't get any respect around here. You kidding me?" Hangin' With Mr. Cooper Without a doubt, Cooper, 60, was joking. Just as doubtless, though, there was an element of truth to his observation - an element he tries to blow off rather than inhale. "One thing you've got to know about Columbus, Ohio: If you're the head football coach, you're probably no good," Earle Bruce, Cooper's deposed predecessor, said Tuesday. "If you're dead or fired or anything else, they love you." Cooper, by all reasonable measures, not only is surviving but thriving - and thus, by Earle's tested formula, a target. "Ninety-five percent of the people here are just fantastic," Cooper said. "But whoever takes my job, if they ask me, `Coach, what advice would you give me?' the No. 1 thing I'd say is, `Hey, coach football, do it your way - and don't worry about trying to please everybody.' " In many ways, it's startling that the folksy, quick-witted Cooper hasn't done just that. His tenure has restored Ohio State, ranked seventh in the nation as it plays at Missouri on Saturday, to its place among the marquee programs after it briefly faltered in the mid-1980s. Since his arrival in 1988, Cooper has gone 79-29-4 to make his overall record 161-69-6. His teams have produced 12 first-round National Football League draft picks. Last season, Ohio State went 11-1 and won the Rose Bowl to finish second in the nation in both major polls. But instead of hangin' with Mr. Cooper, there remain those who want to just hang Mr. Cooper. "The man could win the national championship, and I'd still like to see him replaced," season-ticket holder Chuck Stein, a 1968 Ohio State graduate, told The Cincinnati Enquirer. "I felt fantastic after the Rose Bowl, but if I had the power I would've canned him that day." The Cooper Highway But . . . why? For starters, Cooper isn't Woody Hayes, who took the Buckeyes to five national titles in 28 seasons. Then again, maybe even Hayes wasn't Hayes. "I saw how they treated Woody Hayes when he lost," said Bruce, a one-time assistant to Hayes who now works in radio in Columbus. "People think they treated Woody Hayes good all the time. That's baloney." Then there's that 1-7-1 record against Michigan, a record that has prompted a joke in Columbus about renaming its stretch of Interstate 71 the "Cooper Highway: I-71." This is a galling thing to Buckeyes fans, who notice this more than Cooper's 2-6 bowl record. …