Cooper, who at 51 has yet to be fired from a coaching job, stares at the photo of Bruce, mumbles, "nine wins a season," then moves along to the other photos. All the Ohio State football coaches are enshrined here, with their dates of service beneath their pictures; until Hayes took over in 1951, few of the men lasted very long. Indeed, until Hayes, Ohio State was known as the Graveyard of Coaches. Cooper looks at an empty frame that reads DAVID F. EDWARDS. 1897. NO PHOTO AVAILABLE.
"You can tell he won a lot of games," says the new coach.
As Cooper walks away, he seems seized by a brainstorm. "If I do anything while I'm here," he says, "I'm getting my picture taken."
John Cooper has a sense of humor. And he has a pretty good idea of what he is getting into. He had a great gig at Arizona State—beautiful house, big contract, a reputation as a miracle worker. Cooper arrived in Tempe in 1985, took over a faltering program, and the very next season led the Sun Devils to their first-ever Pac-10 championship and a win over Michigan in the Rose Bowl. He was voted 1986 national Coach of the Year in five different polls.
There was just one problem. In three years Cooper never beat Arizona; he lost twice and tied once, even though he had the better team each year. Last year the Sun Devils almost had to roll over and play dead to let Arizona come back and tie on the game's last play from scrimmage. Such luck against Michigan would spell extreme discomfort in Columbus. But Cooper's three-year record at Arizona State was 25-9-2, and folks there wanted him to stay forever. But for Ohio State, he might have.
"I went after this one," says Cooper in his new, half-decorated office. "I wouldn't have left for any other place. I could have lived in Arizona for the rest of my life. We were very happy there. But this is the Ohio State University. There are no others. This is where you can win a national championship. What a tradition! I mean, Archie Griffin won two Heismans, and he works right down the hall! I came here even though I had a better deal in Arizona."
Not a lot better, mind you—with a base salary of $98,000 and separate contracts for radio, TV and assorted endorsements, Cooper should earn close to $400,000 a year in Columbus (he made $300,000 in Arizona but got a $500,000 house for half price); indeed, if he doesn't make at least $240,000 in his off-field endeavors, Ohio State is obligated to make up the difference. His deal is for five years, which sounds secure. But, of course, a contract didn't do much for poor Earle Bruce. And, anyway, this is not about security. This is about challenges, the spotlight, ego.
In college football, Arizona State is high ground, but Ohio State is the peak itself—four national championships, five Heisman Trophies, 105 All-Americas in 98 years of hallowed history. Why, people are still talking about how after Woody died last year, his widow found old checks made out to him lying in drawers in the house, uncashed. Woody was way beyond money. And so is the program. In Tempe, folks aren't thrilled about Cooper's defection—he announced he was leaving just after his team beat Air Force 33-28 in last year's Freedom Bowl—but they understand. "Ohio State is Ohio State," sighs Arizona State athletic director Charles Harris. "They still dot the i there."
Do they ever. To say pressure comes with this job is like saying heat comes with a blast furnace. Not only is Ohio State the second largest university in America (58,000 students), it may be the most football-mad. Excuse us here, Michigan, Texas, Oklahoma and Nebraska, but this year 7,000 alumni were unable even to enter the lottery for a chance to buy two tickets for Buckeye home games.
Cooper, who grew up in Heiskell, Tenn., is shocked just by the number of people who care about Buckeye football. "What'd we have at the spring game?" he asks associate sports information director Steve Snapp. "Fifty-four thousand?"