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Gerry Callahan
September 08, 1997
In Columbus the Buckeyes football coach is always on the hot seat but John Cooper is very much at home there
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September 08, 1997

Cooper's Town

In Columbus the Buckeyes football coach is always on the hot seat but John Cooper is very much at home there

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Running Out of Gas
John Cooper's Buckeyes usually start with a bang, as running back Michael Wiley (5, above) did in last Thursday's win over Wyoming, and end with a fizzle, as quarterback Joe Germaine (7, right) did last fall against Michigan. During Cooper's nine-year tenure, in fact, no Ohio State team has won its final two games of the season (including bowls). Most painful of all: In regular-season finales, against the archrival Wolverines, Cooper is 1-7-1.


































John Cooper turns and looks out his office window as if he were admiring the view from the train that brought him to the top of the college football world. It has been nine years since he moved into the hallowed head coach's office in the Woody Hayes Athletic Center on the campus of Ohio State, but the passing sights still take the breath away from this 60-year-old son of a Tennessee carpenter. The ride still leaves him shaking his head, uncertain of what he did to deserve all this.

"I've been to the Kentucky Derby, the World Series, the NBA All-Star Game," says Cooper. "I've been fishing in Alaska, played Pebble Beach, been to the Masters, thrown out the first ball at Yankee Stadium. I've done some incredible things, and it's all because of coaching [at Ohio State]. To tell you the truth, there is not much I haven't done that I would like to do."

Well, there is the one obvious thing, and Cooper knows it sits like an ink spot on his otherwise sterling résumé. His teams have appeared in eight consecutive bowl games, including the most recent Rose Bowl, in which the Buckeyes knocked off undefeated Arizona State 20-17. He has finished first or second in the Big Ten for five straight years, and since 1991 a dozen of his players have been chosen in the first round of the NFL draft (chart, page 52), more than any other college program. He has returned the Ohio State football program to prominence and chased the wolves from his door, but one item is still missing from his portfolio: a national championship. Unfortunately, when you wear little adhesive buckeyes on the side of your helmet, that is kind of the point of playing the games.

Although Ohio State has come agonizingly close to finishing No. 1 in Cooper's tenure, the grand prize has eluded the school since Hayes's last national title, in 1970. The Buckeyes were No. 2 in the AP poll at the end of last season and No. 6 the year before, and by now most college football observers assume Cooper will soon be wearing a straitjacket. How many times can the man just miss before he slips over the edge? Last year Ohio State was 10-0 and ranked No. 2 when it welcomed Michigan to Columbus on Nov. 23. The Buckeyes' 13-9 loss derailed their quest for the national title and reminded Cooper that the view from the Ohio State coach's office is never as idyllic as it seems.

"I'd like to win a national championship before I'm through," says Cooper, whose team opened the season with a 24-10 win over Wyoming last Thursday. "But if I don't, I'll still wake up in the morning, look up and say, 'Thank you for another day.' Because a lot of people died in their sleep last night."

In the end Cooper doesn't just want to beat Michigan or beat the Pac-10 champ in Pasadena on New Year's Day. He wants to beat the system in Columbus. He wants to survive life in the crosshairs and walk away with something much more precious than a national title: his dignity. It is a rare feat for an Ohio State coach, but Cooper wants to be an exception to the rule, a coach who pulls into the station with a smile on his lace and a crowd of friends to greet him.

"I want to live in Columbus the rest of my life," he says. "I want to leave this job on my terms. I want to be happy. That sounds simple, but it's not. You can't name me an Ohio State football coach or basketball coach or even athletic director who left here happy. Woody didn't, Earle Bruce didn't, Fred Taylor didn't, Eldon Miller didn't. None of them did. They either were fired or left with a bad taste in their mouths. I don't want that to happen to me."

Cooper takes a breath and ponders the Jaunting challenge ahead of him. Is it possible? Can he become the first Ohio State coach to survive the toughest opponent of all—the demands of the Ohio State faithful? "I'm not sure that can be done," he says.

"Bear Bryant used to tell people, 'Don't go into coaching if you can live without it,' " says Cooper, who never had any doubts. Coaching was an unsettled, insecure life, but it was all Cooper wanted to do. He brings up the names of Dick Vermeil and Mike Ditka and says he knows exactly what they were feeling when they came out of retirement and returned to the NFL this year. That addiction to coaching has never left Cooper's system, either. He lives with the dilemma that faces many coaches in their golden years: He wants to quit happy, but he doesn't really want to quit. "I honestly don't know if I could live without it," he says.

Born and raised in Powell, Tenn., Cooper was a safety and tailback at Iowa State and got his first coaching job in 1962 as an assistant with the Cyclones. He began his head coaching career at Tulsa in 1977 and after five straight Missouri Valley Conference titles jumped to Arizona State in '85. In Cooper's second season in Tempe, the Sun Devils won nine games and then beat Michigan in the Rose Bowl. That triumph over the Big Ten champs did not go unnoticed when Ohio State went in search of a new coach after Bruce was fired following the '87 season. If nothing else, Buckeyes boosters said of Cooper, the guy can beat Michigan. In the nine years since, Cooper has gotten the better of the dread Wolverines just once. It is a cross he lugs around Columbus, despite his otherwise irrefutable success.

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