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
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
"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
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