For the first time in oh so long, a season is beginning at Ohio State without the usual speculation that this year will be coach John Cooper's last. For the first time in who knows when, Cooper can peruse the sports section without reading that he is "on the hot seat" or that he has "one foot in the unemployment line" or that bounty-hunting boosters are "clamoring for his head." Why the out-of-the-ordinary peace and quiet for Cooper?
Only 13 days after the Buckeyes beat archrival Michigan 22-6 in last year's regular-season finale—Cooper's first victory over the Wolverines in his seven years in Columbus—he agreed to a new five-year contract. If he stays for its duration, he will have coached Ohio State longer than all but two of the 20 men who preceded him. "Stability is important to a program," says Cooper. "The instability issue hung over us the last few years. Opponents can't say to recruits any longer, 'Why go to OSU? Cooper won't be there.' "
Buckeye fans began booing Cooper early in his first season, 1988, and last October the catcalls reached a peak following a 63-14 loss at Penn State. However, Ohio State went on to win its last three regular-season games before falling 24-17 to Alabama in the Citrus Bowl. The Buckeyes finished 9—4 and second in the Big Ten.
This fall Cooper will be without several top players from a year ago. Offensive tackle Korey Stringer, receiver Joey Galloway and outside linebacker Craig Powell were all picked in the first round of the NFL draft, and middle linebacker Lorenzo Styles went in the third round (page 104). Quarterback Bobby Hoying and tailback Eddie George, two players who stuck around for their senior year, will once again lead the offense. Last season Hoying threw for 2,335 yards, the second-highest total in Ohio State history, and tied the school record with 19 touchdown passes. But Hoying's performance received scant notice because of the prowess of another Big Ten signal-caller, Penn State's Kerry Collins.
Similarly, few outside Columbus know that George gained 1.442 yards in '94, the best single-season rushing effort by a Buckeye since Keith Byars's 1,764 in 1984. No doubt these two underappreciated players can relate to their underappreciated coach, whose team has put together the best overall record in the Big Ten over the past three years. The Buckeyes have a tough nonconference schedule—Boston College in the Kickoff Classic followed by Notre Dame and Washington—and for Cooper the honeymoon will soon be over. "Once we lose a game," he says, "I'll start to hear it."
Then it will seem just like old times.