"People come up to me all the time and say, 'So, Coach, are we going to beat Michigan this year?' " says Cooper. "Now what kind of a stupid question is that? No one wants to beat Michigan more than I do. But if you're going to coach football at Ohio State, it's something you have to accept. Michigan means everything to people in Columbus. That's the way it's always been."
"It's kind of like the life and death of the season in one game," says Gary Berry, a sophomore cornerback from Columbus.
After three years at Arizona State, Cooper pounced on the opportunity to succeed Bruce, knowing full well that Bruce had won 81 games in nine seasons and had still been run out of town by the Columbus lynch mob. From Day 1, the deck was stacked against him: He hadn't been a Hayes assistant; he wasn't an Ohio State alum; he wasn't even a native of the Buckeye State; and, damn, he even talked funny. "A lot of people didn't like me because I had a Southern accent," says Cooper. "I said, Big deal—I'm not going to please everyone, so I might as well please the people who matter: the people who sign my check."
At first he didn't even do that. In '88, his inaugural season in Columbus, the Buckeyes went 4-6-1 and finished seventh in the Big Ten. For this, the fans wondered, we gave old Earle the boot? The hate mail poured in, and the boos rained down. "That year was very tough on him, but even then you could tell he was a survivor," says Ohio State legend Archie Griffin, the only two-time winner of the Heisman Trophy and an associate athletic director at the school.
"The first couple of years were hard on all of us," says Cindy Cooper, the coach's 28-year-old daughter. "We came from Phoenix, where college football was just a nice social event, to Columbus, where the emphasis on football is almost unhealthy."
After going 8-4 and 7-4-1 the next two seasons, the Buckeyes took an 8-2 record into the Michigan game on the last Saturday of the '91 regular season. In an extraordinary show of a support for his football coach, Ohio State president Gordon Gee made a surprise announcement the day before the game: He was giving Cooper a three-year extension on his original five-year contract, which had one year to go, so the critics might as well just save their breath. "I was hoping it would spur the team on to victory over Michigan," says Gee. "Unfortunately, it didn't work out that way."
The Buckeyes got waxed 31-3, and Cooper's hot seat suddenly felt more like an electric chair. "I tell people that I got about 8,000 letters after [extending Cooper's contract]—two that were in favor of what I did," says Gee, who will leave Ohio State for Brown in January. "Sometimes I think we get a little too intense around here."
Buckeyes football isn't a matter of life and death in Columbus—it's much more important than that. Skip Mosic has hosted a radio talk show on WBNS in Columbus for 12 years and was recently broadcasting live from Ohio Stadium at an event that was obviously made for radio: picture day. Mosic says Cooper is about as popular as a football coach can get at Ohio State and offers conclusive evidence: A life-sized butter sculpture of Cooper was on display at the Ohio State Fair this summer, an honor reserved for only the most esteemed sports figures in the state. Still, Mosic admits, the love for Cooper is not yet unconditional and complete in every corner of Columbus. "There are some real old-timers, the big-time Woody backers, who still think you have to beat Michigan to be a success," says Mosic. "There are people who think 11-1 wasn't a great year, because of the Michigan game. Some people actually sold their Rose Bowl packages after last year's loss to Michigan because they were so upset."
Unlike many of his gruff contemporaries, Cooper prefers to confine his confrontations to the football field, avoiding needless battles with the press, fans and alumni. He knew the demands of the job before he took it; he wasn't about to start whining once he got to Columbus. "I don't complain about a lot of things," he says. "I don't look for controversy. I stay away from negative people whenever I can." Rather than feed the beast, Cooper chose to tickle its belly, doing his best to diffuse the tension.
"Every year the Cleveland-area alumni group has its dinner on the Tuesday after the Michigan game, and Coach Cooper always goes to speak," says Julie Bonfini, Cooper's secretary. "That's a pretty tough crowd, and they're always a little angry if we don't beat Michigan. But Coach doesn't try to take them on and argue with them; he just tells a few jokes and tries to make them laugh."