That's when coach John Cooper made a smart move: He came out in the papers as Van Raaphorst's biggest fan, appointed him team captain for the next game and left two-thirds of the playbook in the circular file. Arizona State now has seven basic running plays and throws the ball only 20 times a game, tops. As a result, Van Raaphorst has become the Sun Belt's answer to Michigan's Jim Harbaugh: cool and controlled, with only one interception in the last six games and a completion percentage of .68.6. Against UCLA he converted 16 of 19 throws. "Sure, I would like to throw more," says Van Raaphorst. "But I like winning better."
Van Raaphorst's transformation is just another reason that Cooper makes athletic directors around the country drool. He's more down-to-earth than a pair of Weejuns, keeps a great staff by letting them do the coaching, props up his players when they need it and looks good doing it. A Cooper family photo looks like the ones that come with eight-by 10-inch frames. It's a pretty package: a knockout wife and daughter, a clean-cut son, a Rose Bowl bid in his second season, a $220,000 salary and a rumor in the wind that, should Texas need a coach, Coop might get a phone call. Says Cooper, "If they called, I'd listen. Texas has got to be one of the three best jobs in the country."
Cooper's life hasn't always been so handsome. "I wasn't born on third base," he says. "I had to bunt, and steal second and third." He spent 14 years as an assistant at five schools before putting in eight years as the head coach at Tulsa, where the only way to get on TV was to be saved by Oral Roberts. When he went 10-1 in 1982 and didn't get a bowl trip, Cooper realized what he was up against at Tulsa. When Sun Devil coach Darryl Rogers announced he was leaving for the Detroit Lions, Cooper was, of course, the last person Arizona State was going to call. So Cooper called Arizona State.
"I said, 'Look, my name is John Cooper. I coach at the University of Tulsa. And I'd very much be interested in coaching there,' " he recalls.
Sure, sure. But don't call us.... Arizona State did eventually call, but not before trying everybody but Larry (Bud) Melman. They went through Terry Donahue, LaVell Edwards, George Welsh and Joe Morrison before picking Cooper. Says former Sun Devil coach Dan Devine, who now is director of the Sun Angels, the wealthiest Arizona State booster group, "We didn't know how lucky we'd just gotten."
They had gotten a lot. Cooper is a rouser. During games he'll occasionally stand on the bench and madly wave a gold towel to get the crowd boiling. "I've got too much at stake to let people sit on their fannies," he says. Cooper is a charmer. Says Devine, "He's got us eating out of his hand."
Mostly, though, Cooper is a sentimentalist. Rogers got the job after Frank Kush, currently the coach-in-waiting for the USFL Arizona Outlaws, allegedly punched a player and was heaved out on a slippery banana peel of lawsuits and politics after 21� years as coach. In the Rogers years, Kush was an untouchable and, in fact, Rogers rarely mentioned him, much less invited him to a practice. And Kush stayed away. When he would attend a game, he would sit in the upper deck, three rows from the top.
"One of the saddest things I've ever witnessed was how Frank Kush was being treated here," says Cooper. " Frank Kush built this place."
Cooper asked Kush to address the team at practice last August. "It was a staggering moment," says Phoenix attorney Clair Lane. "I walked to the field with Frank, and he must have turned back three times. When he finally decided to do it, he was choked up. He cried."
Says Kush, "What I saw as I was talking to those kids was me 30 years ago. I played here. I coached here. I was thinking that those kids had no idea what it took to get this program to this point."