Legendary football coach John Cooper has been inducted into so many hall of fames throughout his incredible coaching career, you can pardon him if he loses track. Cooper, who won 192 games and nine conference titles in 24 years as a head coach, can boast being a member of the College Football Hall of Fame, the Ohio State Athletics Hall of Fame, the Tulsa Athletics Hall of Fame and the Rose Bowl Hall of Fame just to name a few.
Well, you can add another one to his list, and it’s an honor Cooper ranks right at the top.
In February, the ISU Letterwinners Club announced its 2014 inductees to its Athletics Hall of Fame, and the former Cyclone, who lettered three years in football, was a member of the famed 1959 “Dirty Thirty” squad and team captain in 1961, was on the list.
Cooper is excited to return to Ames for the prestigious honor.
“Well, this is quite an honor for me,” Cooper said. “It’s something I look forward to. I’m in the College Football Hall of Fame and the Ohio State Hall of Fame, but the Iowa State Hall of Fame, that’s where it all started.”
A native of Heiskell, Tenn., Cooper spent a brief period in the military before arriving at Iowa State in 1958. In his first season of eligibility in the fall of 1959, he was a part of one of ISU’s most iconic teams in the “Dirty Thirty.”
The team was led by its head coach Clay Stapleton, who took a depleted, rag-tag team and directed them to a win away from an Orange Bowl berth.
Behind All-Americans Dwight Nichols and Tom Watkins, the 1959 Cyclones finished at 7-3 and ranked among the top offensive teams nationally.
Cooper is extremely proud of being a member of one the school’s most famous teams.
“Coach Stapleton ran one of those programs similar to what Bear Bryant did in Junction, Texas, if you are familiar with that,” Cooper said. “We had a lot of players that didn’t make it. That’s how we ended up with only 30 players. Dwight Nichols is probably the toughest player, pound-for-pound, that I have ever been around in my life. Tom Watkins was a great player. I was a proud member of the “Dirty Thirty.” Boy, those were tough times. You had to be dedicated and love the game of football to play it back in those days. After we got rolling and got the name “Dirty Thirty” that got tagged with us we kept getting better and better and better.”
Cooper continued to have a successful career with the Cyclones. In his junior season in 1960, the team again finished 7-3 and defeated Oklahoma (10-6) for the first time since 1931 where he received the game ball. It’s still prominently displayed among his plethora of football artifacts he’s accumulated in his career.
Cooper credits Stapleton, who was inducted into the ISU Athletics Hall of Fame in 2006, for much of his football passion and for giving him his first crack at coaching.
“Everything that I was taught as a coach, I learned from playing under Coach Stapleton and Tommy Prothro (Oregon State, UCLA),” said Cooper. “After my senior season I went to Coach Stapleton to ask if he could help me get into coaching and he told me, ‘John, I think you would make a hell of a coach. I want you to stay here at Iowa State and coach my freshmen team next year.’ He told me he couldn’t pay me, but could stay as the freshman coach. I told him I would take it under one circumstance, and that was that you treat me like a coach and let me sit in on your meetings and learn football. He said that was fine, and after a year he got me on Prothro’s staff at Oregon State.”
Without a doubt, Cooper ranks as one of the most influential football coaches in the last 40 years. He was a winner everywhere he was at, including stops at Tulsa, Arizona State and Ohio State.
He won a Rose Bowl at both Arizona State and Ohio State, and led the Buckeyes to three Big Ten Championships.
Cooper has mentored countless assistants who later became outstanding college coaches. Names like Larry Coker, Lovie Smith and Rob Ryan were all on Cooper’s staff at one time during his career. Another coach familiar to Iowa State fans was a Cooper protégé’: Paul Rhoads.
In 1991, Cooper hired Rhoads as a graduate assistant at Ohio State. When asked if he saw potential in the young coach of being a leader of a college football program, there was no hesitation in his voice.
“I have been blessed with a lot of good assistants and you could tell Paul had it,” Cooper said. “He worked hard and was dedicated. You never know where your assistants eventually end up, but I knew because Paul had the work ethic and the dedication that someday he was going to be successful.”
Despite his enormous success at other schools, Cooper always kept close tabs at his alma mater. He readily admits he pursued the ISU head coaching job on two occasions.
“I was an assistant at Kansas when the job opened in 1967 and I called Coach Stapleton (ISU’s athletics director at the time) to see if I would be considered for the job and he said they had to hire a name coach,” Cooper remembered. “So, Coach Stapleton hired Johnny Majors. I’m very good friends with Johnny Majors, and he made the right hire.”
Another opportunity arose in 1979.
“I thought I had the job there when Earle Bruce left and Lou McCullough, my assistant coach at Iowa State, was the athletic director,” said Cooper. “I went up and talked to him. I just didn’t feel comfortable at that point working for a guy that coached me. He sort of still referred to me as a player. I wasn’t a player. I was a coach. But anyway, I didn’t get the job and they hired Donnie Duncan. A few years later Max Urick (ISU’s athletics director from 1982-93) calls me and tells me he is a one-man committee and he wanted me to become the coach at Iowa State after Duncan left (1982). I was at Arizona State and I wasn’t ready to go. I wasn’t ready to leave where I was to be honest with you. So a couple different times I tried to get the coaching job, but didn’t get it. One time I at least got offered the coaching job, but I didn’t take it.”
Cooper has no regrets in his career, and he shouldn’t. His record and achievements prove that. He now looks forward to coming back to his roots on Hall of Fame Weekend, Sept. 5-6.
What will make the event even more special for Cooper is that he gets the chance to reminisce with his wife of 57 years, Helen, who married her high school sweetheart and moved to Ames with him in 1958.
The couple lived in married student housing (Pammel Court) during their time in Ames. Helen worked in the ISU purchasing department while John was busy with football and his schooling.
“The best thing I ever did in my life was marry Helen,” Cooper said. “It’s going to be a special weekend for us.”
The 2014 Iowa State Hall of Fame Class: http://www.cyclones.com/ViewArticle.dbml?ATCLID=205693957&DB_OEM_ID=10700&DB_OEM_ID=10700
For information on how to attend the 2014 ISU Letterwinners Club Hall of Fame ceremony, go to: http://www.cyclonespecialevents.com/events.aspx?ATCLID=205693957&SPSID=321449&SPID=36520&DB_LANG=C&DB_OEM_ID=10700