Weary Cooper at square one Like old times: Kenny Cooper, working overtime to get the Tampa Bay Terror off the ground, returns to his old stomping grounds here on Saturday.

November 02, 1995|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN STAFF

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- The Bayfront Center sits white and glistening in the Florida sun, across Bayfront Drive from the Gulf of Mexico. Inside the building is a familiar, harried man.

Kenny Cooper, the man who brought professional indoor soccer to Baltimore 15 years ago, is in the midst of doing it all over again in this quiet, slow-paced city that, with its sister city, Tampa, is being shaken awake by a sports revolution.

Since the Tampa Bay Terror of the National Professional Soccer League announced its arrival, Major League Baseball has announced it will expand here; Major League Soccer, the new professional outdoor league, announced it will come here, and campaigns have begun to sell sky boxes for the NHL, NFL and baseball teams.

"The first five months here have been the toughest since I left England with a suitcase and a few pounds in my pocket. This is not too far from that," said Cooper, who will return to the Baltimore Arena on Saturday to coach for the first time in two years.

It has meant starting from scratch. It has meant an office the size of a small locker room, with assistant general manager Rui Farias and executive administrator Norma Costaliano working just a few feet from Cooper's desk.

"It's exactly the same as a political campaign," said Cooper, who also is president of the Terror. "It's getting up at 5:45 a.m., leaving home while it's still dark, working 14-, 16-, 18-hour days and getting back home after dark.

"We're crawling so that one day we can walk and run. What we have is an opportunity. What we can be is a breath of fresh air."

When he came to Baltimore and introduced the city to the indoor game and the now-defunct Blast, he was selling something new. The timing, he says, was perfect.

"It was the disco era, and it was just waiting to happen," Cooper said. "Here, it's more laid-back, and people are on their own agenda. It's going to take some time to make an impact."

Russ Sloan, president of the St. Petersburg Chamber of Commerce, said that, with time, the Terror will make it.

"I've always felt indoor soccer suited to the American liking for scoring," he said. "The game is eminently entertaining.

"But this is probably the most difficult time for them to come to this city. With three major stadiums all selling sky boxes, it's a heavy-duty thing for any community to buy into. But they're trying to create their niche, and I noticed at their first home game that, as I talked to the people there, everyone was entertained."

Baltimore attorney Tony Agnone, who, with businessmen Bill Collins of Virginia and Mike Gill of Baltimore, is a partner with Cooper in the venture, describes the situation in St. Petersburg as a "work under construction." And if Cooper's hair is now entirely gray and he looks tired, well, said Agnone, there is a reason for that.

"He looks tired because he is tired," said Agnone. "We've worked him hard. It's a new venture. He's not done this in 15 years and it's tougher to do today than before.

"He has to worry about the players, the arena, the sponsors. He's out at night making appearances and, on top of that, he's coaching -- which wasn't his decision, but Bill's and mine and Mike Gill's."

The team drew 3,000 for its season opener last week. It will play its second game tomorrow night against the Cleveland Crunch at the 6,000-seat Bayfront Center and then fly to Baltimore for Saturday's game against the Spirit.

"I think coming back here will be tough on him," said Agnone. "Baltimore is his home, no matter what his current address. I think going to that visiting locker room will be an experience for him."

When Cooper has returned here on business, he said, people still stop him and ask how he's doing and how the Spirit is doing. Many in Baltimore evidently don't realize Cooper resigned as president of the Spirit two years ago and, after being unable to purchase the team, decided to start the Tampa Bay franchise.

"I really haven't had time to think about what it will be like going back in that building," Cooper said. "But I think I'll have to be very careful about not going to the wrong bench."

Spirit vice president Drew Forrester said he wanted to make Cooper's return to Baltimore something special, but Cooper asked him to wait a while.

"I think there are a lot of people who have had a strong influence on indoor soccer, outside of the ownership standpoint, and Kenny is in that group," said Forrester. "From the NPSL standpoint, he is relatively new, but I think it's great he's in the league. He does a lot for the city he's in, and he's an ambassador for the sport on the road."

When Forrester was asked whether he thought Cooper would be booed when introduced Saturday, he pointed out the Spirit is in Baltimore today because of what Cooper did.

"I'd be very surprised if there was anything other than a warm reception for him," Forrester said. "I can't imagine, after what he's done over 14 years here, that anyone would come to boo or demean him. If you can't come out one night and thank him for that, you're not an avid supporter of soccer."

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