Since the end of his first year in Columbus, Cooper's teams have averaged nine wins a season (same as Bruce's) and have appeared in a bowl each year, though winning just two of them. The Buckeyes, in fact, are 3-13-2 in the season's final two games under Cooper. However, unlike the dominant Ohio State teams under Hayes's command, Cooper's squads have usually been exciting and explosive. Last all Ohio State averaged 37.92 joints per game, the most in school history, while allowing 10.92. The offense was a well-oiled machine, despite the loss of Heisman Trophy-winning running back Eddie George and wideout Terry Glenn, who finished one-two in the NFL rookie of the year voting last season. The Buckeyes rushed for more than 2,700 yards, passed for more than 2,500 and turned the ball over just 16 times all year.
Cooper deflects all plaudits for bringing that University of Miami—like firepower to WoodyWorld and insists Hayes would have done the same if the time had been right. "If Woody coached today, he would have changed," says Cooper. "He wouldn't he running off tackle all day. He'd be throwing the ball, just like we do. You've got to be flexible in this business."
Cooper's staff has gradually established itself as one of the premier recruiting units in the country, not only landing blue-chip players who keep Ohio State among the college football elite but also preparing them for NFL careers. Last spring offensive tackle Orlando Pace was the first pick in the draft, by the St. Louis Rams, and the second Buckeye in four years to go No. 1 (defensive tackle Dan Wilkinson was the other). In fact, Pace was the first of seven Ohio State players to be taken in the '97 draft, and another eight were signed as free agents. Ohio State has 36 players on NFL active rosters. "We recruit good players," says Cooper. "But I also think a lot of good things happen to them after they step on our campus."
While some college coaches treat NFL scouts as if they were coming for their children—especially as more and more athletes leave school early for the pro game—Cooper rolls out the red carpet for any NFL personnel who care to stop by. Another athletic-department official recently circulated a memo that suggested a curb on the growing number of pro scouts allowed to watch practice each day, but Cooper vetoed the idea. Instead, he posts the scouts' business cards in the lobby of the Hayes Center, not far from the Heismans and the national-championship plaques. He also provides them with a comfortable room designed solely for watching video of Buckeyes players. The scouts have to bring their own popcorn.
"I think any player who leaves our program early is making a mistake, and I try to talk him out of it," Cooper says. "I don't care who they are, they're better off staying here for four years. In almost every case, they will look back or their college years and say, 'That's the happiest I've ever been.' Even a kid like Terry Glenn, as well as he played in his rookie year [with the New England Patriots], missed a lot by leaving early. He never played in a Rose Bowl."
It was pointed out to Cooper that Glenn did play in a Super Bowl.
"He never played in a Rose Bowl," Cooper said without a trace of a smile.
How does this seemingly unassuming man succeed in his cutthroat profession? Many college football observers still aren't sure, which is perhaps the most telling tribute to Cooper. He has coached at different schools, in different eras, with different styles, and succeeded every step of the way. Still it is impossible to meet Cooper without thinking, This is one of the great coaches in the game? This is the guy who could outrecruit the Marine Corps? He just seems too normal, too unexceptional.
Everyone knows recruiting is a dirty business. You've got to talk fast, sell hard and sling it when necessary. You've got to relate to the cocky kid with the earrings, charm the socks off his mother and back-stab your rival coaches who were sitting at the same kitchen table the night before. It does not seem like an endeavor that would jibe effectively with Cooper's low-key personality. "Oh, don't let him fool you," says Cindy, his daughter. "He is a great salesman when he wants to be."
He also is a plainspoken, plain-looking Southern gentleman who attends church regularly, collects knives, whittles and boasts that his best recruiting job ever was the one he did on Helen, his wife of 40 years. If it sounds a little hokey for these glib times, Cooper doesn't seem to care.