Frustrated coach Cooper focuses on front office

STILL A DRIVEN SPIRIT

April 17, 1994|By Mike Preston | Mike Preston,Sun Staff Writer

Kenny Cooper sits at his desk, answering phones, booking charity dates and constantly inquiring about available players. He has been reading this book, "The Corporate Coach."

During the past month, Cooper has negotiated a new four-year )) lease with the Baltimore Arena, which he plans to discuss and hopes to have signed by Baltimore Spirit owner Bill Stealey this week.

Kenny Cooper always has run this franchise from top to bottom.

But can he relinquish some of the power now?

"Kenny has always let you know who is in charge and that it's going to be done his way," said Scott Manning, a goalkeeper for the Baltimore Blast under Cooper. "Kenny will probably do well in his new role, but Kenny's biggest challenge will be staying away from the next coach."

Ron Newman, Cooper's longtime indoor coaching rival with the San Diego Sockers, agreed.

"It's going to be very difficult for the guy behind Kenny, especially since Kenny has done so well," Newman said. "I know it's going to be tough for Kenny to have that hands-off policy."

Cooper's colorful 14-year coaching career in Baltimore came to an end last Saturday night at the Baltimore Arena after the Spirit lost to the Harrisburg Heat, 13-7, and was eliminated from the National Professional Soccer League playoffs.

Cooper took the loss hard.

It was the second straight year the Heat had eliminated the Spirit from the playoffs, and Cooper-led teams have had a history of struggling in the playoffs. Cooper has coached in six championship series, winning only the 1983-84 title.

Only seconds after the game ended, Cooper took the public-address microphone and made a startling announcement that he was stepping down as coach, but would remain as general manager and president.

"Kenny is so intense, thinks that he has crossed every T and dotted every I, that he can't lose," said Newman. "He's got to be frustrated."

"It was emotional, but not impulsive," said Cooper, of the timing of his announcement. "I actually planned this two years ago when we started this franchise with Bill Stealey, so I'm on schedule. It's time for me to step away for a number of reasons.

"The owner has made a tremendous investment, and this is a chance to help relieve some of the burden through corporate sponsorships and selling season tickets. This is also an opportunity for me to spend some time with my family, and quite frankly, in that last game, there were some gutless performances and I can't go through another season like that. I was raised differently than some of these younger players."

Cooper came to America from Blackpool, England, when he was 22 with $46 in his pockets. His father once owned a successful fleet of buses, but Cooper said an accountant mismanaged a lot of the funds.

"We went through some tough times," said Cooper. "I know what it's like to live five in a room, not to have any electricity.

"You know there's an old saying that you can come back home, but I remember my brother-in law telling me that I couldn't, that whatever happened, I had to dig down and make it on my own here."

Cooper later became a star goalkeeper for the Dallas Tornadoes of the North American Soccer League in the mid-1970s. He was a place-kicker for the Dallas Cowboys during one week of the 1974 strike season, but Cooper was later cut after a contract dispute.

Cooper stayed in contact with football friends such as Dan Reeves and Mike Ditka, learned about coaching from Tom Landry, and the business end from Cowboys general manager Gil Brandt and Kansas City Chiefs owner Lamar Hunt, the owner of the Tornadoes.

Finally, Cooper and owner Bernie Rodin teammed up to bring indoor soccer to Baltimore in 1980.

And what a show.

Spaceships landing from the ceiling of what was then the Civic Center. Smoke. Loud rock music. More smoke. Wild player introductions. Foreign players with one name. Crazy commercials. Sellout crowds.

Cooper was the ringleader.

He appeared at numerous charity events. Always neat, always on time. He was accessible to the media, flashing that boyish smile and sporting that British charm.

He became Mr. Soccer.

"I have never seen a guy monopolize a sport like him," said Tim Wittman, one of Cooper's former players. "To go through four owners, and still be in the position that he is in says something. You've got to give Kenny credit, he has done a great job of promoting soccer here, taking it from the grass roots. He has become an institution."

Cooper's style became legendary.

He always talked about high work rate, production and having a blue-collar approach. Cooper was feisty, too. Who can forget the brawl in Chicago with Sting owner Kenny Stern, and the glass-pounding and finger-pointing feuds with Cleveland coach Timo Liekoski? Cooper tried to bar certain officials from the Arena.

It was all part of the Cooper psyche. He had discipline, organization and could motivate. Dr Pepper and Americom corporations brought him in as a motivational speaker. So did Loyola lacrosse coach Dave Cottle.

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