Cooper is learning victories not always enough at Ohio State

September 08, 1991|By Ed Sherman | Ed Sherman,Chicago Tribune

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- In a new book, "Woody Hayes, A Reflection," there's a passage that is especially relevant to what's currently taking place at Ohio State.

It seems that in 1954, Hayes was hardly a popular man in town. After three so-so seasons at Ohio State, Buckeyes fans wanted the head of the coach they later came to revere.

Hayes recalled hearing a lady say, "This is the year we get rid of old Woody."

Now, 37 years later, the parallels are striking. After three extremely so-so years at Ohio State, coach John Cooper's popularity has sunk so low, a Michigan fan probably would get more cheers. After last season, the Columbus Dispatch printed a full page of letters from outraged fans calling for more than Cooper's head.

However, the parallels most likely will end there. In 1954, Ohio State went 10-0 and won the national championship, and the Hayes legend was born.

Cooper is no Woody Hayes and doesn't profess to be.

"It's not fair comparing John to Woody," said former Ohio State great Archie Griffin, the two-time Heisman Trophy winner who now serves as an assistant athletic director. "They are two different types of coaches. But both styles still can win."

That remains to be seen at Ohio State. Cooper entered the season opener against Arizona ranked No. 1 in only one category: coach most likely to be fired.

Fueling the speculation has been Ohio State president Gordon Gee. He minces no words that this is a critical season for Cooper, even though his contract runs through 1992.

"I think John feels that, I think [athletic director] Jim Jones feels that and 11 million Ohioans feel that, and I include myself among them," Gee said this spring. "You don't need to be able to read tea leaves in that regard."

Hayes' proficiency raised the expectations so high at Ohio State it seems it will forever doom his successors. Earle Bruce replaced Hayes, averaged nine victories per season for nine years and was fired in 1987 with a year remaining on his contract. Bruce's apparent crime was that Ohio State hadn't won a Big Ten title since 1984.

Cooper came in from Arizona State in 1988 and has succeeded only in making Bruce look good again in Columbus. He went 4-6-1 in 1988, a full-blown catastrophe, and even subsequent records of 8-4 in 1989 and 7-4-1 in 1990 were deceiving. Cooper's teams have lost two straight bowl games, and last year's was an unforgivable debacle against a supposed outmanned Air Force team in the Liberty Bowl.

Even worse, Cooper has yet to beat Michigan in three tries. The Wolverine game is so important to Buckeye fans that even if Cooper goes 9-2 this year but loses to Michigan, there's speculation he still might get fired.

"We've got to beat Michigan," Cooper said.

Should one game be so important? "Whether it should or shouldn't, it is," Cooper said.

Such is the pressure facing Cooper, and it only intensified during fall drills. Last year's top freshman in the Big Ten, tailback Robert Smith, quit the team, alleging Cooper and new offensive coordinator Elliot Uzelac wanted him to place football ahead of his studies. Smith wants to be a surgeon.

Cooper denied the claims but hasn't been able to reconcile his differences with Smith. Interestingly, there's been some talk that if Smith stayed, he wouldn't have started. The Buckeyes are loaded at running back, with Carlos Snow and Butler By'Not'e vying for the No. 1 spot.

"We'd like to have Robert back, but, hey, life goes on," said Cooper, who won't discuss the subject.

Cooper has other worries, specifically keeping his job. At most schools, winning seven or eight games a season guarantees job security. But at Ohio State, it merely creates insecurity.

"Ohio State fans expect a winner every year," Griffin said.

Is it out of proportion? "Probably," Griffin said.

If they don't get a big winner, the coach feels the heat. Purdue coach Jim Colletto, formerly Cooper's offensive coordinator, recalls that it got to Cooper at times last year.

"You could sense he was getting uptight," Colletto said. "That's out of his character, but you couldn't help it with the barrages he'd had to face. Some of it was downright brutal."

Cooper tries to play cool, using pat lines that nobody wants to win more than he does. But he also wishes Buckeye fans would wake up to reality.

He claims the program he inherited was "in worse condition than I thought it would be." Indeed, the Buckeyes only have 81 players on scholarship; the maximum is 95.

While the Buckeyes have fallen short, Cooper is quick to point out that they have gone into the final game playing for the Big Ten championship the last two years.

"That wasn't Michigan playing for the title [when it played Ohio State], it was us," Cooper said. "They were out of it."

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