After Time to Grow, It's Time to Go for Coop

Auburn, Ala.--John Cooper says he has a lot to be excited about and thankful for as the new head basketball coach at Tennessee State University in Nashville.

Auburn's associate head coach for Jeff Lebo called together members of the Auburn basketball team to tell them he was leaving and to say thanks.

"I owe this opportunity to this group of young men," Cooper tells Inside the Auburn Tigers.

"I told them if we didn't win we 24 games and have the success we have had this year, and we don't hear about Auburn basketball in the media, then this opportunity isn't there for me," Cooper notes.

"I heard more about Auburn basketball in the media in the last month and half than the whole time we were here. The players certainly played an integral part in that as did all of the guys here on the staff Jeff, Tim (Craft), Bryan (Bartley), Brandon (Johnson), Dave (Lebo), Randall (Malone) and our graduate assistants Garret (Thorington) and Trey (Strickland). Every single person has been a part of my success."

Cooper, who is 40 years old, will be formally introduced as head coach at TSU at a press conference on Monday in Nashville. It will be the first head coaching job for the assistant who was an original member of Lebo's staff after being hired to come to Auburn from the University of Oregon. Cooper and Lebo had previously worked together as assistant coaches on Eddie Fogler's staff at South Carolina. < "Becoming a head coach is something I have looked forward to and hoped would happen someday," Cooper says. "It is not easy. There are only so many jobs out there and there are a lot of well-qualified candidates that would do a good job. Fortunately for me, the man upstairs gave me a true blessing so I am getting my opportunity and look forward to it.

"I hope to put a product, both on and off the court, that Tennessee State's alums, administrations and the Tennessee State family can be proud of. It is going to be done in the right manner. We are going to do things in a classy way. We want to compete and be champions in the Ohio Valley Conference. That is the goal. When you win championships, and do it the right way, it makes it even more fun.

"It is going to take quality young men," Cooper adds. "I am smart enough to know you are only as good as the players you have. We have good players who are there in the program right now. It is my job to put them in the proper areas and let them make me look good. I am smart enough to know that also and let those guys shine, enjoy the process and have a lot of fun doing it."

Lebo calls Cooper a "class act" and says he will be missed. He also predicts that the coach will do a good job at Tennessee State.

Cooper was a standout college player at Wichita State who played professionally in the CBA and Holland before beginning his coaching career that is now leading him to the Ohio Valley Conference as a head coach.

"Basketball is an interesting sport," says the coach who is known to the Auburn players and coaches as "Coop."You look in January and you have people saying, ‘What is wrong?' As a staff we looked at it and we thought we were going to be just fine. We just needed to get Rasheem (Barrett) healthy and get people together.

"At times people were saying they couldn't score, but it was just a matter of guys making adjustments to the things we wanted to do. One of the things we thought would sustain us is that from a defensive perspective we had improved tremendously. Most people were used to us in our previous four years changing defenses a lot, running zones and man, and trying to trick them. This season we felt we had improved to the point where we could defend people.

"I will tell you in the second half of the year you could probably count the number of possessions we played zone defense," Cooper says. "We guarded people man to man and we were able to defend. That is what allowed us to sustain until we got our offense clicking. Then, like anything else, when you get a little confidence like our young men did you start believing in yourselves.

"I think, too, for the longest time Auburn basketball hadn't been talked about and I think our players took that upon themselves as something they wanted to change. They wanted to show people they were a good team, especially after the Mississippi game when they were disappointed in their effort. We had not had that all year where we were really disappointed in our effort and those guys took it personally that it wouldn't happen again, and that any team who played us would know they had played Auburn.

Cooper says that Lebo has been an excellent head coach to work with at Auburn.

"I have been allowed to grow here," he points out. "I have had a large responsibility here that was given to me by Jeff. I certainly feel comfortable moving 12 inches away (to the head coach's spot on the bench). Now I get all of the headaches as Jeff always tells me, but there is nothing like feeling that you have been prepared, you have had responsibilities.

"I know what to do although I am not always going to know what to do," he adds. "The great thing about being a head coach is that you will still be learning and you don't have all the answers. If you admit when you are wrong and be honest with the young men you coach, I think those are the type of coaches that players like to play for. I think that makes it fun."

Cooper says he will miss Auburn, and particularly the 2008-2009 seniors who came with the goal of rebuilding the program, and he says he and they can leave with a good feeling about the progress that has been made. "I know this program is in way, way better shape now than it was when I came here," he says.

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