John Hoover

John E. Hoover: Ex-Tulsa (and Ohio St.) coach John Cooper thinks TU has a shot vs. Buckeyes

John E. Hoover: Ex-Tulsa (and Ohio St.) coach John Cooper thinks TU has a shot vs. Buckeyes

John CooperCOLUMBUS, Ohio — The prevailing sentiment in college football circles is that Tulsa has no chance to beat Ohio State on Saturday.

That may be true.

But don’t expect John Cooper to agree with it.

Cooper began his head coaching career at Tulsa, and he ended it at Ohio State. He knows both ends of this thing.

From Tulsa’s perspective, nobody did it better than John Cooper.

“We had some good teams,” he said.

And good road teams.

In eight seasons under Cooper (1977-84), TU won road games at Virgina Tech (35-33), Cincinnati (27-26), Air Force (24-7), Kansas State (9-6), Florida (20-10), TCU (23-17), Kansas (20-15) and Texas Tech (59-20).

“Those are pretty good victories for a coach at Tulsa,” he said.

Cooper’s record at TU was 57-31. His win total trails only Elmer Henderson (70 from 1925-35), and his .648 winning percentage is sixth in school history among coaches with at least 20 games.

Cooper was also athletic director at Tulsa.

John Cooper at Tulsa, circa 1980.

John Cooper at Tulsa, circa 1980.

“Tulsa gave me a chance to be a head football coach,” he said, “and of all the places I’ve coached, I was as happy there as any of ‘em. Believe it or not.”

Cooper’s first season in Tulsa produced a 3-8 record, but the Golden Hurricane had a winning record every year after that, going 9-2 in 1978 and 10-1 in 1982.

But college football was a different world then: TU never was invited to a bowl game under Cooper.

“That’s the reason I don’t put too much emphasis on how many games coaches win or how many bowl games or consecutive bowl games or all that stuff,” Cooper said. “We stayed home at Tulsa with a 10-1 record and we beat the Air Force Academy and we beat Kansas State and both of those teams went to a bowl game with 7-4 records (K-State was 6-4-1) and we went 10-1 and we stayed home.”

TU also beat Oklahoma State that year, but the closest the Golden Hurricane came to playing in a bowl was a fictional radio account of a game against New Mexico (also 10-1 and shut out of a bowl invitation) called the “Justice Bowl.” On Dec. 19, the radio teams from both schools staged a “game” for their listening audience, with TU winning in Tulsa and the Lobos winning in Albuquerque.

During his tenure, Cooper coached such luminaries as Lovie Smith, Rickey Watts, Eddie Hare, Dave Rader, Bill Blankenship, Don Blackmon, Denver Johnson, Ken Lacy, Sid Abramowitz, Micheal Gunter, Bill Purifoy, David Alexander, Nate Harris, Steve Gage and Kevin Lilly. But no bowl games.

“I feel bad for the players,” Cooper said. “I mean, everything worked out great for me because I’ve been to almost every bowl game you can go to. Worked out great for me. But I feel bad for the players. I feel a little bit empty some of the great players and some of the great teams I coached didn’t have a chance to play in a bowl game.”

That changed in 1985, when Cooper took over at Arizona State. In three seasons under Cooper, the Sun Devils went to three bowl games, including the Rose Bowl in 1986, when ASU finished 10-1-1.

In 1988, Cooper became head coach at Ohio State. His first season, the Buckeyes were just 4-6-1 (the program’s first losing season since 1966), but like he did at TU, he turned things around. In 13 seasons in Columbus, Cooper’s Ohio State teams went 111-43-4.

The Buckeyes reached No. 2 in the polls twice under Cooper and won both the Rose Bowl and the Sugar Bowl, but his 3-8 bowl record and 2-10-1 record against rival Michigan — including losses in 1993, ’95 and ’96, in which Ohio State came in unbeaten and ranked in the Top 5 — diminished his legacy.

Now Cooper is 79, still living in Columbus, Coach Emeritus for Urban Meyer, a talent scout for the Cincinnati Bengals, a husband of nearly 60 years to high school sweetheart Helen (their anniversary is Dec. 24) and a doting grandfather to two teenage girls. His daughter Cindy still lives next door, and his son Johnny, who played for him at TU, also lives nearby.

Cooper hails from Powell, Tennessee, near Knoxville, and wanted to play at UT. But he never got the scholarship offer, so he spent two years in the Army (he left basic training in Fort Chaffee, Arkansas, to propose to his girlfriend, then spent the next 15 months in Germany) before returning to play at Iowa State, where he became captain and team MVP.

He coached the Cyclone freshman team in 1962, then joined Tommy Prothro’s staff at Oregon State, where they won two Rose Bowls (later, as president of the American Football Coaches Association, Cooper nominated Prothro for the AFCA Hall of Fame).

Cooper then followed Prothro to UCLA for two years (the Bruins were Top 5 twice and won the Rose Bowl), spent five seasons as defensive coordinator at Kansas (KU won the Big 12 in 1968) and five seasons at Kentucky (UK ranked No. 18 and won the Peach Bowl.)

“Everything I learned,” Cooper said, “came from Tommy Prothro.”

John Cooper at a recent Ohio State game.

John Cooper at a recent Ohio State game.

Cooper himself is a now hall of fame denizen — eight, to be exact, come October, when Arizona State inducts him and honors the 30th anniversary of his Rose Bowl champs. He’s also in the Powell High School Hall of Fame, the Greater Knoxville Hall of Fame, the Iowa State Hall of Fame, the TU Hall of Fame, the Ohio State Hall of Fame, the Rose Bowl Hall of Fame and the College Football Hall of Fame.

“I’m blessed,” Cooper said.

He’ll be there again on Saturday when Tulsa meets Ohio State for the first time ever. Cooper knows there won’t be many TU fans there, but he also knows the ones that do come are in for an unforgettable experience.

“I have taken a team, in my opinion — some people might challenge me on this — but I’m almost positive I’ve taken a team into more stadiums than anybody that’s ever coached,” Cooper said. “And it doesn’t get any better than playing right here in Columbus, Ohio. The Horseshoe. It’s a great place. Great venue for a college football game. There will be over 100,000 people, and of course, 99 and a half thousand of ‘em might be rooting for the Buckeyes.”

Certainly, that increases the odds against his former school. TU is a 29-point underdog. But it’s not impossible. Cooper fondly points to the Golden Hurricane’s 28-27 victory at Notre Dame in 2010 as evidence.

“It’s gonna take a great, great game to beat Ohio State. I’ll tell you that right now,” Cooper said. “They are really good. They’ve got 44 players who never played in a game (prior to last week’s 77-10 victory over Bowling Green). But they recruited really well, they’ve got size, they’ve got speed, they look like a really, really good football team.

“It’s gonna take — I don’t know what it’s gonna take for Tulsa to come in here and beat Ohio State. But, you know, anything’s possible. … They don’t get any bigger than going to South Bend and beating Notre Dame up there. I’ve had that pleasure, too. But that is a great, great, great win when you go on the road and beat a team like that.

“But, it can be done.”

John Hoover

Hoover wrote for the Tulsa World for 24 years before joining The Franchise, where he's now co-host of "Further Review" on The Franchise Tulsa (weekdays 12-3, fm107.9/am1270) . In his time at the World, Hoover won numerous writing and reporting awards, including in 2011 National Beat Writer of the Year from the Associated Press Sports Editors for his work covering the Oklahoma Sooners. Hoover also covered Oklahoma State, Arkansas, Oral Roberts and the NFL as a beat writer. From 2012 to 2016, Hoover was the World's lead sports columnist. As a columnist, Hoover won national awards in 2012 and 2014 from the National Athletic Trainers Association for reporting on sports medicine and in 2015 won first place in sports columns from the Oklahoma Society of Professional Journalists. After receiving a journalism degree from East Central University, Hoover worked at newspapers in Ada, Okmulgee, Tahlequah and Waynesville, Mo. He played football at Ada High School and grew up in North Pole, Alaska. Hoover and his family live in Broken Arrow.

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