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Tuesday, April 27, 2004
Updated: April 28, 3:16 PM ET
OSU's big draft day started with Cooper

By Ivan Maisel
ESPN.com

Nearly 16 months after their epic Fiesta Bowl battle for the national championship, Miami and Ohio State dominated again last weekend. Without players from those two schools, the NFL draft would have been nearly one round shorter. Six Hurricanes went in the first round, and nine overall. Three Buckeyes were selected in the first round, and 14 overall.

The 'Canes and Bucks who moved on to the NFL share more than the common experience of being a permanent fixture in the ESPN Classic playbook. In both locker rooms, the coaches who lured them to their respective campuses disappeared shortly afterward.

Butch Davis left Miami after the 2000 season to coach the Cleveland Browns. He left Miami to continue the upward arc of his career. Davis, in fact, selected one of his former 'Canes, tight end Kellen Winslow, with the sixth pick of the draft.

I am really proud of those guys. I take a lot of pride in that we brought them in and left the program in good shape.
Former Buckeye coach John Cooper

John Cooper left Ohio State after the 2000 season, and not of his own accord. He was fired after 13 seasons in which he went 109-33-3 (.762) for 364 days a year and 2-10-1 (.192) on the only day that anyone in Ohio cared about, the day that Ohio State played Michigan.

Thirteen of the 14 Buckeyes drafted last weekend signed at Ohio State to play for Cooper. Six of them signed in February 1999, after the Buckeyes went 11-1 and finished second in the nation. But seven of them signed in February 2000, after the Buckeyes went 6-6 and the grumbling about Cooper stretched from Cleveland in the northern part of the state to Cincinnati in the south.

They always said that John Cooper could recruit.

"I am really proud of those guys," Cooper said Monday. "I take a lot of pride in that we brought them in and left the program in good shape."

Cooper spent last weekend with the Cincinnati Bengals front office, advising them as they drafted players. He returned a call from his home in Columbus, where he was busy dishing out ice cream to his granddaughters Olivia, 4, and Olexa, 18 months.

Coaches in general are not given much to introspection, and Cooper in particular never seemed suited for it. Like 99 percent of his colleagues, he didn't leave the game. The game left him. Football left him seven victories short of the 200 that he wanted, left him with a million stories to tell and a lot fewer people there to hear them.

"Will Smith," Cooper began, recalling his recruiting trip four years ago to lure the defensive end out of Utica, N.Y. "Gosh Almighty, Syracuse wanted him. Florida State wanted him. [Former defensive coordinator] Fred Pagac and I flew to Syracuse and drove up to Utica. There must have been two feet of snow, and we had to drive up to his school and find him.

"I don't miss that. Signing those guys was a lot tougher than finding the players you want to play for you in the NFL. There, when it comes your turn, you look and see who is still on the board and make your choice."

In another era, the NFL chased down players and tried to sign them before the AFL got them. The NFL draft is much more sophisticated, and only once every few seasons does an Eli Manning have the marketplace presence to dictate where he will -- or, actually, where he won't -- play.

The procurement of players in college football remains based on personality.

Players want to get to the NFL, and they sign with the coach whom they trust to get them there. Cooper connected with the players. The relationships that the good coaches create with their players remain connected long after football ends. Cooper didn't have that with the players drafted last weekend.

He brought them to Columbus, redshirted some and played others. But at most, they played only one season for him. And then he was gone. Cooper remains in Columbus, as do his children, but his relationship with those players was flash frozen on the day he was fired.

"Strange as it may seem," Cooper says, "I have not been back over there. I have not watched a practice since they let me go. I've seen these guys play. I've been doing games for ESPN and I've seen their games on TV. I haven't been over there."

It irked him that he didn't get to 200 victories, and for the first year after the firing, 200 drove Cooper to consider himself a candidate to return to coaching. Those fires have banked. The recruiter is done recruiting.

"The thing I miss the most about college coaching are the relationships, the competition and the game-day camaraderie with the players," Cooper says. "I don't miss academics. I don't miss summer jobs. I don't miss recruiting. At my age, I don't like jumping in an airplane and chasing those guys down and all of that. Anybody who tells you they like that is lying to you. The longer I'm out of it, the less I miss it."

He has become a civilian. Football no longer drives Cooper the way that his health, his family and his faith do. He loved the idea that he was remembered as the coach who brought those players to Ohio State. It is a reminder of glory after his inglorious departure.

Never mind that Jim Tressel and his staff are the ones who turned those players into national champions and broke by two the record for the largest class of Buckeyes ever drafted. They wouldn't have been in Columbus without John Cooper. That feeling is nearly as good as dishing out ice cream to your granddaughters.

Ivan Maisel is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Send your question/comments to Ivan at ivan.maisel@espn3.com. Your e-mail could be answered in a future Maisel's Mailbag.