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The Right Stuff, Cooper Brings Right Approach for Penn State Baseball

by and on June 01, 2014 1:45 PM

Suddenly, Rob Cooper’s multi-faceted coaching approach came into focus.

After recording the last of his live, weekly radio shows on Monday of last week, Cooper sat down for one last interview.

The first-year Penn State baseball coach had just spent an hour dissecting and analyzing the past season and looking ahead to next year. Now, Cooper continued talking about recruiting, the senior class and connecting with fans and alumni during the offseason.

Then after all the questions had been asked, Cooper was given the opportunity to share anything he hadn’t already covered, anything noteworthy that influences his coaching style. What he said next was very telling.

Cooper began talking about his family. His father was a college professor before dying of a heart attack while he was jogging. Cooper was young at the time, a freshman in high school.

Cooper also described his mother (librarian) and sister (elementary school teacher) as “educators.” Cooper especially raved about his sister, who grew up dyslexic at a time when people really didn’t understand what that meant. She faced hurdles, as she had one teacher who simply thought she was unwilling to put in the work. Now, she blossoms, earning two master degrees and having been named the California State Teacher of the Year.

“She’s an amazing woman, an unbelievable mom,” Cooper said of his sister. “She does a great job.”

Cooper struggled with the death of his father, having bouts with depression when he was younger. He’s cognizant and sensitive of this with his players. He talks to them about what’s going on in their lives and let’s them know there are options, should they need it.

None of this implies it’s something that consumes the team, but in describing his earlier periods of depression, Cooper wondered aloud what it’d be like to be a player today and have to go through that alone.

“It’s something that I try to educate our kids on and talk about openly with them,” he says. “Because I want them to be able to recognize it so they can get help.”

Cooper speaks with a tone of sincerity not found in normal, everyday conversation. He then mentions his high school coach and two junior college coaches, who he described like this: “They were true educators in the sense of, ‘We want to make you a better player, but we’re also trying to teach you.’”

All three were equally important to Cooper, who talked of the large influence they wielded when he was growing up and searching for answers.

"They were there for me when I was trying to learn how to be a man, and they had a big influence on how you treat people, how you coach people,” he says. “Our players are more than just stats and that's important. I'm never going to forget that."

What does all of this have to do with Cooper’s coaching philosophy? Plenty. It’s why after the team’s regular season finale against Michigan State earlier this month, Cooper assembled the seniors on the first base line and grabbed a microphone. With the players’ parents and family members in the stands, Cooper spoke for a few minutes about what his first senior class meant to him.

Surprisingly, or perhaps not after you get to know him, Cooper talked more about the seniors’ abilities off the field than on. He confidently stated all the seniors will accomplish plenty in their lives and that they’re great people. 

"I have zero interest in just coaching these guys as baseball players,” Cooper says. “They're good people, they're good kids, they care about what we're doing and it's important."

Fifth-year senior Steve Snyder was one of eight seniors who comprised the class, and he says Cooper had established a connection with the team way before the season started. Cooper was hired last fall and had time to acclimate himself to the team, which he did Snyder says, by communicating with the players and asking for suggestions.

The conversation didn’t always stay on baseball, with Snyder saying, “I always felt comfortable and I know that all the other guys felt comfortable and confident in what he was doing."

Cooper is fairly active on Twitter, regularly interacting with fans and students, and he also engaged in plenty of community outreach events, even visiting the Mountain Top Little League in Snow Shoe and speaking with the young ballplayers.

The season-long mantra for the program was “The Process,” with Cooper and his players knowing the work they put in this season — on the field and in the community — might not pay dividends for another season or two.

Cooper and his coaches have ramped up recruiting efforts, and they’re on pace to bring in some of the best classes in the Big Ten for the next few years. That’s one reason for Snyder’s optimism about the program's future.

"I know it's going to be a top-tier program, I'd say within the next couple years, I really think it is,” Snyder says. “I'm confident and I'm excited to be an alum and watch it become that."

Cooper hasn’t just coached across the country, but also across the world. He’s been selected to help coach USA Baseball on four occasions and also led an 18U team in Taiwan last year during World Cup play. The team finished 8-1, winning seven consecutive games to claim the gold medal.

Cooper is particularly proud of this, especially since he grew up with that aspiration. He still has vivid memories of watching the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team win the gold, and he also recalled Topps producing Olympic-themed baseball cards in 1984 that featured Will Clark, Barry Larkin, Mark McGwire and Billy Swift, among others.

"I wanted to be a part of that,” Cooper says. “To win a gold medal representing your country is something I'll take to my grave."

Because of the local cold weather, Penn State didn’t play its first home game until more than a month into the season. It took exactly another month for the Nittany Lions to lose their first game at Medlar Field at Lubrano Park. They won their first eight home games, the program’s best home start in 35 years. This capped a stretch in which Penn State temporarily climbed over .500 after starting the year 5-12.

The early part of May might have been the lowest point of the season for the team, at least from the surface, looking at only the numbers. But in this instance, it’s necessary to dig deeper. 

Penn State, which finished the year 18-32 (5-18 Big Ten), had just been swept at home by Indiana, part of a streak in which the Nittany Lions lost 15 straight games toward the end of the year.

In that moment, about 50 yards were all that separated Cooper and the type of program he’s envisioning for Penn State. Down the hallway, occupying the visitors’ locker room, were the Indiana Hoosiers, who clinched a share of their second straight Big Ten title that weekend before claiming the outright title a few days later.

Indiana recently moved into a new field and had its locker room built in part from a large donation from major league player Scott Rolen. The Indiana native didn’t attend IU but grew up about 70 miles southwest of Bloomington and comes from a family of Hoosier fans. Indiana coach Tracy Smith makes sure to point out this connection to recruits, and the message makes an impact.

Not every school has this luxurious connection, so what Smith also says about building a program is especially important: A coach needs to come in with a plan and not waver, especially if a losing streak creeps in during the season. Cooper doesn’t strike Smith as a guy who will switch things up just because things don’t go his way, and as much as anything else, Smith hints, that’s what counts.

“You've got to have a plan and stick with your plan; he's the right guy, no doubt in my mind,” Smith says of Cooper. “We were talking even during the series: You've got to have a mindset that it's not going to be a quick fix. You're coming in to build a program and he's exactly the right guy to do that. And with his attitude and his expertise, he's going to get it done.”

This isn’t an example of a coach saying something nice just to be diplomatic. Smith and Cooper have coached against one another for years, going back to when Smith was at Miami (Ohio) and Cooper at Wright State, where he spent the previous nine seasons before coming to Penn State. And both have built and turned around programs.

At Indiana, Smith suffered through losing seasons his first two years. Then last season, he led Indiana to the College World Series, the first time in nearly three decades a team from the Big Ten had advanced that far.

Just as important, Cooper has been through this before, and he’s been around winning programs. He helped lead his alma mater, Miami (Fla.), a college baseball powerhouse, to a pair of College World Series berths as a graduate assistant. Then at Wright State, he built a robust program, producing 30-plus wins in seven seasons.

Cooper did this over time. In his first year, one of only two losing seasons in his nine years with the Raiders, the team lost 10 straight games at one point. So that’s why after the series with Indiana, Cooper didn’t panic.

"I know having had that experience, it's a little more reassuring to me to just stay with it, keep your head down, stay with it,” says Cooper, who also earned an M.A. at Miami and was an associate scout for the Los Angeles Dodgers in the early 1990s. “So I can't say I would have said that 10 years ago; I know I wouldn't have said it, because I was probably a lunatic at the time."

Cooper made this last part of the comment in jest, laughing a bit, but the point he made was clear: He isn’t a first-time coach unsure of himself or a newcomer unaccustomed to challenges.

Cooper’s perspective is realistic, but also optimistic. He acknowledges baseball isn’t going to become the most popular sport at Penn State, but it doesn’t have to be to reach its full potential.

The team poster this year declared Penn State as Pennsylvania’s team in an effort to recruit the best players in the state, and Cooper thinks there’s even more potential, saying the Nittany Lions can become a regional team with home games becoming a must-see event.

"It's a great baseball community,” Cooper says. “I'm not naïve, I know what the No. 1 sport here is. I'm as big a football fan as anyone, but this is a place that does care about baseball and that was very important to me during this decision.

“I feel like we can be a regional team, we can be a place that draws 4,000 fans a game. But you have to have that base there, and I believe we do."

In the meantime, Cooper plans to continue reaching out to alumni and fans in the offseason. Last week, he participated in Penn State’s Coaches Caravan, visiting a handful of locations across the commonwealth. And he’s optimistic about the future growth of Cooper’s Town, the aptly named student section. Athletics sold 466 student season tickets, a 29 percent increase from last year, causing Cooper to say, "It actually took off more than I thought. You want it to be something the students buy into. … It doesn't matter if the students don't take ownership of it, but they did."

His wife and two sons are still living in Dayton, Ohio, but Cooper hopes they’ll be joining him in State College shortly. They’ve visited a few times, with Cooper joking his two sons, Jake and Tyson, think a booth at The Waffle Shop should be named after them since they visit the downtown location so often.

During his radio show, I asked Cooper if he and his family have had an opportunity to get a sense of what State College and Penn State are like outside of athletics. He said not yet, partly because they’re still living in Dayton, but he sounded upbeat when talking about the community activities that are available.

Part of the reason for the confidence is that Cooper has a purpose, and he knows it. That’s why the initial losing record isn’t causing him to waver. The same can be said about the temporary separation from his family. At some point, perhaps sooner rather than later, Cooper gives the impression everything is going to come together for the program, and for his wife and two sons.

It should make for an exciting time, on and off the field.

"It's the only part of this whole thing that's been bad,” Cooper said. “I miss my family like crazy, but there's a reason why we're doing it. We'll all be together again soon and it will be worth it.

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This story was produced by the staff at the Centre County Gazette. It was re-published with permission. The Centre County Gazette is a weekly publication, available at many locations around Centre County every Thursday morning.

John covers sports for the Gazette.
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