Cooper gets Neyland award

John Cooper remembers the times he would slip into Shields Watkins Field and watch the Tennessee Vols play in the 1950s. He remembers the great teams, the All-Americans, the brilliance of Gen. Robert R. Neyland.

That's why being presented the Neyland Award at this Saturday's East Tennessee Chapter of the National Football Foundation and Hall of Fame banquet will be so meaningful to the native of Heiskell, Tenn.

``I'm on Cloud Nine,'' said Cooper, the former head coach at Tulsa, Arizona State and Ohio State. ``I've gotten a lot of awards in my life, but I can tell you right now, no award will mean more to me than getting the Gen. Neyland Award.

``I don't know of a football coach who influenced my thinking more than Gen. Neyland. I grew up watching his teams play. And just about everything I learned in college football and taught in 24 years as a college head coach was directly or indirectly related to Gen. Neyland. So this is a great honor for me.''

It's also been a great year. Cooper's 1997 Rose Bowl team at Ohio State was honored recently for having upset undefeated and top-ranked Arizona State and Jake Plummer. Cooper was nominated for College Football Hall of Fame. And he and his wife, Helen, his high school sweetheart, will observe their 50th wedding anniversary.

Cooper regrets never having met Neyland.

He won't say he regrets leaving Arizona State for Ohio State in the late 1980s, but he comes close.

``I left a great situation,'' Cooper said of Arizona State, which he led to a 1987 Rose Bowl victory over Michigan, the Sun Devils first-ever win in Pasadena. ``There were times I wonder why I did leave. I was very successful at Arizona State.''

He left because of the allure of coaching at an elite program like Ohio State and to get back closer to his Tennessee roots. He hoped to win a national championship at Ohio State. He came close, finishing second two times (1996 to Florida, 1998 to Tennessee).

He knew he had the resources to finish No. 1.

``You've got to have great high school football to win as many games as we won at Ohio State and there is great high school football in Ohio,'' said Cooper, who won more games at Ohio State than any coach except Woody Hayes. ``And Ohio State is the only major school in the state, so if you do a good job recruiting, you're going to have good players.''

Cooper had good players. He had great players. He said his 1996 team was as good as any in the country. It finished No. 2. His 1995 team, with Heisman Trophy winner Eddie Georgia and No. 1 overall NFL draft pick Orlando Pace and Terry Glenn and Ricky Dudley, lost to Tennessee in the Citrus Bowl when Cooper claimed several Vols used illegal cleats to gain traction on a wet field.

``I probably screwed that one up,'' Cooper said. ``We had enough talent to win the national championship.''

He didn't win a national championship, and he didn't beat Michigan enough. Despite his success – he won more games in the 1990s than any other Big Ten school - he was not beloved by Ohio State fans. When the Buckeyes lost to South Carolina in the Outback Bowl, Ohio State fired Cooper despite a sparkling 111-43-4 record in 13 years.

Asked if Ohio State fans are impatient like Tennessee fans, Cooper said: ``Are you kidding me? They're that way all over.''

Cooper recalls the first time he interviewed for a job, his former boss, Tommy Prothro, told him: ``John, in the coaching profession, there are a lot of peaks and valleys. The older you get, those peaks don't get any higher, but those valleys get deeper and deeper.''

Said Cooper: ``I know exactly what he's talking about. If you stay it in long enough, it will catch up with you.''

Cooper stayed in it long enough to win nine conference titles at three different schools. But he was never able to claim the No. 1 ranking at the end of a season.

If he had, he would have joined the select company of some outstanding East Tennessee coaches. Phillip Fulmer, Steve Spurrier, Johnny Majors, Lloyd Carr and Mack Brown each have won a national title.

``I'm proud of that,'' Cooper said of the great college coaches who hail from East Tennessee. ``The ole country boys did pretty good, you know. I think every one of us will end up someday in the Hall of Fame. I'm glad to be included in that group.''

Cooper is a self-proclaimed Big Ten guy, but he said his his roots are still in Tennessee and he probably would move from Columbus to Knoxville if all his children didn't live in Ohio.

Cooper said the coaching profession was great to him, but coaching at Oregon State and UCLA and Kansas and Tulsa took its toll.

``One thing I regret is I did have to bounce around the country a lot,'' Cooper said. ``Quite honestly, I'd rather have coached in the SEC or the Big Ten all my life. I spent a lot of time away from my loved ones in East Tennessee.

``But over the long run, I guess it worked out OK for me.''

Inside Tennessee Top Stories