New Cardinal virtues Ron Cooper: Louisville hopes Division I-A's youngest football coach can turn vitality and vigor into victories.

October 28, 1995|By Mike Preston | Mike Preston,SUN STAFF

LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- When the University of Louisville hired Ron Cooper as its football coach last December, it took on the antithesis of predecessor Howard Schnellenberger.

Schnellenberger left Louisville at the age of 60. Cooper is 34. Schnellenberger ranted and raved. Cooper teaches. Schnellenberger was gruff, speaking with a Southern drawl so long and deep that sometimes his words were unintelligible. Cooper is articulate.

Schnellenberger let his assistant coaches coach. Cooper is hands-on, showing more vigor than the Energizer Bunny. Schnellenberger once failed to recognize Mick Jagger after a five-minute conversation with the Rolling Stones singer. Cooper knows all about Snoop Doggy Dogg.

"Coach Howard and Coach Ron both had their rules," said Louisville running back Calvin Arrington, a senior from Landover, Md. "But Coach Cooper is more of a motivator, more of a players' coach. He makes you want to do better. He is more involved in the educational process. I think he has everyone around here buzzing about the future of this program."

Now, if he just can win some more games . . .

After starting the season 2-0 against Kentucky and Northern Illinois, the Cardinals have fallen to 3-4 after a 27-20 loss at Wyoming on Oct. 14.

Despite a two-game losing streak, the Cardinals believe they can make strides because their last four games are at Cardinal Stadium, beginning with Maryland (5-2) today. Three of the Cardinals' losses have been by a touchdown or less.

"Is this [3-4] where we planned on being? Not at all," said Cooper, the youngest coach in Division I-A. "We shouldn't be in this situation. We've missed some opportunities, but we're glad to be coming home."

Folks around here have become accustomed to winning. Schnellenberger arrived in 1985, and after an 8-24-1 start, the Cardinals were 8-3 in 1988 and have finished better than .500 in five of the past seven seasons. He went 54-56-2 in 10 seasons, with appearances in the 1990 Fiesta Bowl and the 1993 Liberty Bowl, before leaving to coach Oklahoma this season.

Cooper's job is to make Louisville a consistent Top 25 team.

But he has the additional pressure of being the first African-American to take over an established, major-college program.

"African-American coaches have been put in positions where it's nearly impossible to build programs," said Cooper, referring to Jim Caldwell at Wake Forest and Ron Dickerson at Temple. "I've been in that situation before, too.

"No doubt, the entire nation is going to be looking at everything we do," said Cooper, who was coach at Eastern Michigan for two seasons before coming to Louisville. "Some may say they're not, but they are. Despite some obvious disadvantages of being in the first year, I think we're on schedule in our approach."

Cardinal rules

Cooper always has been straightforward and, in some ways, old-fashioned. Players aren't allowed to wear caps, sweats or earrings to class. Hair has to be trimmed. Players must sit in the first four rows of class and talk to the professor once a week.

They must register for 15 hours of class a semester, and if their grade-point averages drop below 2.5, it's mandatory study hall. They have to wear ties and sport coats for road games.

"I have nothing against long hair or earrings," Cooper said. "I just believe that you choose the proper time to wear them. There's a certain image across the country a student-athlete needs to uphold. We not only want to talk about the image, but implement certain policies, as well."

A number of players challenged Cooper's rules at Eastern Michigan during his first year in 1993, and 29 of them quit or were sent home. Cooper once was called at midnight about a player drinking in his room. An hour later, the player's suitcase was packed. Cooper once benched his starting free safety for trying to board the team bus in a turtleneck and sweater.

"I told him to pack his bags and go back home to the state of Colorado," Cooper said. "Then, out of nowhere, he found a shirt ** and tie."

But players also notice another side of Cooper. He sometimes lets seniors leave early for class, allowing them a ride from practice on his personal golf cart. Doughnuts were served before Saturday scrimmages during preseason practices. Cooper eats meals with the players. He even attends study hall.

"My first impression was that he was really strict, too strict," said Louisville quarterback Marty Lowe. "But it's just a good way of doing things. If you stink on the field, then he's in your face telling you that you stink. Then, the next minute, he is at dinner cracking jokes, just like one of the boys. But you also know he is the man."

Discipline starts early

Cooper developed the discipline while growing up in Huntsville, Ala. He was one of three sons who lived in a house across the street from Alabama A&M, where Cooper's father taught accounting and statistics and his mother was an instructor in the business school.

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