Wednesday, January 03, 2001

Cooper couldn't beat Michigan or Woody

        At the end, John Cooper had lost his team. He couldn't prevent its petty bickering from going public. He couldn't persuade his players to keep their poise. He couldn't persuade enough of them to go to class.

        Ohio State's outgoing football coach came off this season like a substitute scoutmaster with a troop full of troublemakers — overmatched by his own players, to say nothing of Michigan's.

        Thus the Buckeyes' miserable showing in Monday's Outback Bowl was probably more dramatic than it was decisive. Cooper was fired not so much for any single specific failure as for general negligence.

        “It did not hinge on winning or losing the Outback Bowl,” Ohio State athletics director Andy Geiger said Tuesday, “although I would say that (Monday) was sort of a capstone on what we have seen as a deteriorating climate within the football program. (There was) concern about discipline, competitiveness, academic pursuits — a whole series of things.”

        Not so long ago, the fate of an Ohio State football coach hinged almost entirely on how he fared against That School Up North. The litmus test is longer now — if only because winning at all costs has come to be considered unseemly on a college campus — but Cooper couldn't beat Michigan often enough to survive a second front. His reservoir of goodwill was hardly big enough for a decent-sized drainage ditch.

Cooper never really fit
        Even in the good years, Columbus never really embraced Cooper. His twang betrayed his southern roots and reminded finicky fans that their coach was not a native-born Buckeye. His singular recruiting success had a boomerang effect — convincing spectators that Cooper was more of a salesman than a strategist. When Geiger decided to make a change, he did not need much political cover.

        It didn't help Cooper that a recent survey showed the Buckeyes at the bottom of Big Ten football graduation rates (28%). It didn't help that offensive tackle Tyson Walter is suing center LaCharles Bentley for injuries suffered from a preseason punch or that linebacker Matt Wilhelm questioned the leadership of captain Ken-Yon Rambo last week.

        Yet none of this might have mattered were Cooper 10-2-1 against Michigan instead of 2-10-1. College administrators have a curious ability to overlook scandal when a coach is in favor.

        By providing improper handouts to his players, Woody Hayes put the Buckeyes on probation in 1956. Yet because he already had won a national championship and two Big Ten titles, his job was never in jeopardy. Hayes remained bulletproof until he assaulted Clemson's Charlie Bauman in the 1978 Gator Bowl.

Is Mason next?
        Contrary and charismatic, temperamental yet premeditated, Hayes set an impossible standard for both performance and personality. Woody has been dead nearly 14 years, but a lot of Buckeye fans believe he's still the best man for the job.

        To compete with that legend, the new guy will have to win soon and win big. Minnesota's Glen Mason, a 1970 OSU letterman, figures to be the leading candidate. That is, of course, unless Youngstown native Bob Stoops can be lured from Oklahoma.

        Generally speaking, it's a great job. No college coach has better resources or a stronger recruiting base. No coach has less cause to lose to Michigan.


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INFOGRAPHIC: Cooper's career at Ohio State
Tristate alumni approve firing
Cooper defends program, fights his emotions
'Deteriorating climate' prompted Cooper's firing
New coach? Mason, Harris lead speculation
Minter: Cooper did a great job
Ex-players, assistants defend Cooper
Key points in Cooper's contract
Recruiting to continue despite Cooper firing

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