Coop was better than Earle

Run_Fido_Run's picture
May 6, 2013 at 3:12p

The two worst Ohio State football coaches in the last 60+ years were Earle Bruce and John Cooper. To be fair, Ohio State has only had five head coaches since Woody arrived in 1951 (not including interim coach, Luke Fickell) and the other two on the list are Jim Tressel and Urban Meyer. Earle and Coop were both fine coaches, but on a list as illustrious as HC at Ohio State, a few names inevitably have to occupy the lower spots on the totem pole. IMO, the coach on the bottom rung is Earle, not Coop.

The opposing argument - Earle over Coop - which I'll try to refute, is usually based on comparing raw numbers:

Earle Bruce: 0.755 win percentage; 5-4 v. Michigan; 5-3 in bowl games.

John Cooper: 0.715 win percentage; 2-10-1 [edit: corrected from 1-10-1, which was erroneous] v. Michigan; 3-8 in bowl games.

The above numbers are misleading, though. First, when Bruce arrived at Ohio State in 1979, the talent left behind by Woody was very strong. Earle's best year at Ohio State was his first year, 1979, playing almost exclusively with Woody's players. Earle's second best team might have been the 1980 team, with the key players again mostly having been Woody recruits. In 1980, Ohio State lost to #11 UCLA (Kenny Easley and Freeman McNeil), to #10 Michigan in a tight defensive struggle, and to an underrated #10 PSU (Todd Blackledge, Curt Warner, etc.). Thereafter, Earle struggled to recruit enough of the highest-caliber players that we expect at Ohio State, especially on the defensive side of the ball.

By the time Cooper arrived in 1988, the talent cupboard was pretty bare by Buckeye standards, prompting his infamous "too many slow white guys" quip. It took several years for Coop to rebuild the talent base. If we allow that Coop's first five years at Ohio State involved a heavy rebuilding project, whereas Bruce was set up for success from the get go, we see that Coop's post-1992 winning percentage was 0.773 (or 8th best in the nation during that period). Some fans believe that Coop kind of lost control of the program toward the end of his regime - which is the main reason he was fired - but otherwise the program was mostly on the upswing during Coop's reign.

Second, the Big Ten was probably stronger overall during Cooper's time at Ohio State compared to when Bruce was head coach. In the 1980s, the Big Ten was still kind of the "Big Two and Little Eight." Iowa under Hayden Fry had some big years, Purdue was good at times, etc. After Cooper took over, though, "parity" was in vogue. Programs that historically had been bottom-feeders either had a serious resurgence (e.g. Wisconsin, Illinois) or enjoyed several big years (e.g., Northwestern, Indiana). The overall quality of coaching continued to improve (e.g., Alvarez and, briefly, Saban at MSU). And, obviously, PSU joining the conference in 1993 also elevated the overall level of competition.

Finally, while there is no excusing Coop's 2-10-1 [edit: correction] record against Michigan, it was a relatively tough era in which to play Michigan. Whereas Michigan had the 12th best winning percentage (79-21-1) between 1979 and 1987, they had the 7th best winning percentage (121-33-4) between 1988 and 2000. Granted, Bruce is responsible for some of the losses that lowered Michigan's overall win percentage in the 1980s. But it was also because the Michigan program had several middling seasons (by Michigan standards) toward the latter part of Bo's great run at Michigan, although Bo did go out in style his last two years there.

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Nick's picture

Urban Meyer disagrees 

Earle's picture

Man, I hate the offseason....

Have you tried Not Your Father's Root Beer?  It tastes just like the real thing, but it packs a punch (5.9%ABV).  It's a little sweet for me though.  Two is my limit.

Run_Fido_Run's picture

Earle, if you had recruited better during the offseasons, you wouldn't hate them so much now. 

Run_Fido_Run's picture

Quick follow-up: see how much the 1979 season looks like an anamoly in following table:

Hovenaut's picture

Here's the kicker imho.....Earle Bruce was an Ohio guy who beat Michigan. I was still a kid, and not living in Ohio any longer, but I remember hearing my uncles and cousins telling me the worst knock on Earle's teams were losses he should not have had - think there was a three game losing streak against Wisconsin in there.

Cooper was not a Ohio guy. Had he not upset TTUN with Arizona State in the '87 Rose Bowl I wonder how serious the consideration to hiring him would have been. He was a good coach yes, but he never got it. He did not buy into the depth of the rivalry, the tradition surrounding The Game. That bugged the hell out of me.

Cooper's best team (95, 96 or 98) would easily have bested Earle's (84 or 86) but Earle Bruce was Ohio through and through.

Earle may have just missed on a NC in '79 with Woody's players......but is that akin to Tress winning in '02 with Cooper's?

AndyVance's picture

I'll agree with what I think is part of the premise of Fido's original point: Cooper was a much better coach than most of us want to give him credit for, because of the abysmal failure known as his record against That Team Up North, and secondly that Earle had a knack for 9-win seasons.
THAT SAID, everything Hovenaut said is correct. Earle's endearing legacy is because of his personality and demeanor, and because he was "one of us" and fully embraced (and succeeded in) the Rivalry.
Most importantly, while I acknowledge that '79 was based on Woody's recruits, I think we can all agree that Tressel won the title in '02, and Cooper probably would not have attained the same level of success with the same recruits.

Poison nuts's picture

Damn straight Andy, particularly on that last point.

"Do not pass me, just slow down - I can move right through you" Superchunk - Precision Auto.

acBuckeye's picture

I think we can all agree that Tressel won the title in '02, and Cooper probably would not have attained the same level of success with the same recruits.

That, and the fact that a Tressel guy (Mo Clarrett, anybody?) carried that team at times offensively.

RBuck's picture

Earle > Cooper. Just for the fedora.

Long live the southend.

cajunbuckeye's picture

I could never get comfortable with Cooper coaching the Buckeyes. I didn't despise the guy; just always thought he wasn't the right choice. The guy sounding like an Oklahoma cotton farmer when he did interviews. He pulled some serious talent into Columbus, but every year I was always disappointed. Was he a better coach than Earle? Maybe, but you'll never get me to admit. In my mind, and it's a scary place sometimes, Earle Bruce was a great coach.

An angry fan...rooting for an angry team...led by angry coaches

NW Buckeye's picture

Meh....   Both men have my respect.  Trying to decide which one was better almost falls into the 'apples vs oranges' debate (even though they both coached here, they had extremely different approaches to the game, and both methods can be successful).  Both had their strengths, both had glaring weaknesses.  Coop was a recruiter extraordinaire - brought in unbelievable talent.   Earle, not so much, but one could argue that he accomplished more with less in that aspect. 
I was never a huge Coop fan, mostly because of his field management issues (I still believe that is why he had limited success vs TTUN and in bowls).  Earle was the consummate field manager, but he had his problems off the field.  His fascination with the ponies drove me nuts! 
In the end, does it really matter to distinguish which one was the 'better' coach?  I am really pleased to have known both of them, and each of them earned my respect, just in different ways. 

Run_Fido_Run's picture

I was just trying to stir up some pointless debate, since  - alas - that's all we have in the offseason. I was never a huge Coop fan, either, but I tended to defend him more than I did Bruce (of course, I was pretty young during the 1980s).
My main expectation is that the program be improving under a coach's watch - a standard better met IMO by Coop than Bruce. Once that standard began to fail, and the off-the-field problems seemed to mount (1999 - 2000), I no longer defended Coop.   

Baroclinicity's picture

Finally, while there is no excusing Coop's 1-1-10 record against Michigan, it was a relatively tough era in which to play Michigan.

Agreed, but it's not like we were overmatched talent-wise.  Maybe we were a little better some years, maybe Michigan was others, but it seems to be pretty even in the end.  All things being equal in a relative sense, Michigan usually won.  That was the problem.

When you're holding a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

Run_Fido_Run's picture

Good point! That Coop was an excellent recruiter only underlines his failures against Michigan in years like 1993, 1995, and 1996.

twalsh's picture

John Cooper's record against ttun was 2-10-1, I don't know how he made through the first 7 years to get our first win over ttun under his coaching. They were the most disappointing years as a buckeye fan.
Go Bucks!! O-H-12-O 

Run_Fido_Run's picture

Good catch! I knew 1 win didn't sound right, but never corrected my bad addition.

jmw's picture

Bruce= Ohio State's version of Frank Solich
Solich = Nebraska's version of Earle Bruce
Both averaged 9 - 3 seasons but followed legends where that record wasn't good enough for the fan base or administrations making the decision to keep them employed.  At least we ended up with Tressel where Nebraska hired Bill Callahan.
I know - the Solich/Bruce comparison is off the subject of the forum but I always found some similarities between the two.  When I started following OSU football, Bruce was the head coach so I always had some good memories there.  Considering the torment that followed with Cooper and Michigan, perhaps my happy memories with Bruce at the helm became magnified. And, I guess I associated Bruce getting unjustly fired, like Solich.  


Run_Fido_Run's picture

Good analogy between Solich and Bruce.
If we seriously reflect on the state of the Buckeye football program in 1987 - 1989, I'm not sure that Bruce was unfairly fired, though. The talent base was seriously depleted. I once chatted with Greg Frey, who told me that they ended up having several Gerry Faust-like personnel problems toward the end of Bruce's regime (i.e., too many of certain positional players, not enough of others; Faust was notorious for having 8 or 9 QBs, but not enough serviceable linemen, etc.). 

jmw's picture

thank you for replying to my post.  RE: "unfairly".  You did way more analysis than me and my use of the word was just based off of emotion.  I should have said 'in my opinion as an eight year old child.'


Idaho Helga's picture

Cooper was clearly a better recruiter than Earle, but a worse game day coach.  I didn't look it up, but I seem to recall Cooper excelled in sending guys to the NFL.
But he lost the big game (bowl, M#chigan) far too often.  
It doesn't matter on the field, but I can recall seeing his family in Kroger and car ads constantly and that seemed tacky to me (not that I ever turn down making a buck...). 
I agree with the comment that I just don't think he "got it" about the Big Game.  Maybe he did later, but certainly not the early years.   You'd think he has to believe he was fired for the 2-1-10 record so I'm sure he "gets it" now. 

lamplighter's picture

I don't think that you can really say that Earle inherited a great deal of talent from Woody.  There was Art, but from what I can recall (and it was along time ago), no one expected them to do that well. Remember, they had lost to Clemson in the prior bowl game  Not all that dissimilar to this last year.
I prefer Earle to Coop, if nothing else because if the record against ttun.  But by God Coop could recruit.  If only he had coached in November

buckeyedude's picture

I've always had a soft spot in my heart for Earle. So much a Buckeye, through and through. And he looks a lot like my deceased father. And he has a winning record vs. TTUN. But I am glad that people have seemed to have forgiven John Cooper for his record vs. TTUN. The man clearly didn't intentionally lose to them, but just couldn't figure it out. A friend of mine ran into Cooper on the street and he said he was very gracious and took time out of his day to talk to a complete stranger and sign an autograph. Coop is a good man, IMHO.



BrewstersMillions's picture

I only went to one basketball game in my four years at OSU and it was the Illinois\OSU tilt when OSU prevented Illinois from finishing the year undefeated. My dad sprung for some choice seats-Cooper sat directly behind me. I introduced myself and we talked back and forth about this and that from one break to the next, he was a really cool dude. Congratulated me on my coming graduation, took a picture with  my dad and I, even ended with a Go Bucks. I have nothing bad to say about the dude.

Dr. House's picture

so Earle Bruce: 0.755  and John Cooper: 0.715 are the worst coaches in ohio state history? i know a ton of teams that would be creaming their pants for that kind of production. i understand the disappointment in the two but far from the worst. Ohio State could have rattled off a plethora of terrible coaches the way Notre dame has.

Run_Fido_Run's picture

Definitely not worst in history. They just have the bad fortune of having been sandwiched between Woody and JT/Urbz.

Dr. House's picture

that is incredibly true  they are the 5 dollar steak surrounded by the 75 dollar steaks that are urb/jt and woody
im hungry

SPreston2001's picture

The one thing Cooper was EXCELLENT at was recruiting. Cooper put together some of the best teams in OSU history but they always seemed to struggle against scUM. That stat alone puts him below Earle in my book. If you cant beat scUM, you cant coach at tOSU....

Seabass1974's picture

I would go with Earle over Cooper just based on the fact that one wore a fedora and the other chewed on his nails.

The harder you work, the harder it is to surrender. - Woody Hayes

gobucks96's picture

How did you want your season?  
Did you want your hopes built up as you watched a highly talented team excel through the year, only to fall short on the final (most important) game thru a mix bag of almost comical errors (sorry this just brings up the Stanley Jackson\Bellisari days too much) where you were watching and almost waiting for the other shoe to drop.
Or! Did you want to see a very inconsistent team play inspired ball one week, followed by a week or two in a row where you just scratched your head and wondered if the same players were playing?
Love both coaches, but that's what you got with each one...
My $.02.

Oakland Buckeye's picture

One more reason Coop was better than Earle, following the logic that Earles' best years were with Woody's guys, Tress won it all in 2002 - in his 2nd year with largely Coops guys.

OSUs12-OH's picture

Agree 100% too.  However, who won the NC with Coops kids? Tress did of course.  Who would have possibly won a NC with Tress's guys last year if no bowl ban was bestowed upon them?  Too bad we'll never know the answer to that ?  Coop couldn't win a NC or ever multiple games vs TTUN (or even multiple bowl games vs a quality opponent).  Tress did (except vs Urban and Les Miles)...and I have a feeling Urban will win one or two NCs too with some of Tress's and his own players (that's what a real coach win with who they have).  Bottom line, did OSU's coach beat TTUN more than lose?  Did said OSU coach win their bowl games?  That is personally what's important to me.  

"I want a hungry team. I want a team that can't wait to get out there. I want an angry team! You're the Ohio State Buckeyes. You're an angry football team. You're a hungry football team and I'm proud to be your coach." UFM

D. Anthony's picture

Earle was the better game day/ x's and o's coach, no doubt in my mind. Coop was the better recruiter.

D. Anthony

redfox's picture

True. Woody/Urban/Cooper are my three favorite coaches in that order.

D. Anthony's picture

Cooper was my least favorite Buckeye coach because I was a student at OSU for 6 years and we lost to mich so many years while having the better team... completely unacceptable. He really didn't get "The Game" and unlike Tressel who was simply an all around conservative coach, Coop would become conservative at the wrong times and gamble at the wrong times...I felt like he never really pushed the right buttons with all the talent he was able to bring in... We had the talent to smoke a lot of those mich teams , who many of those seasons weren't close to our level... those years still hurt, but I like Coop more now for sticking around and trying to continue to help the program. 
I liked Coop at times and like Tressel a lot, at times, but wasn't a fan of either's personality or coaching style. Urban is the complete package... love his telling it like it is and his coaching style. Ohio State football is like a great race car and for the first time in a while we have one of the true elite drivers behind the wheel. 

D. Anthony

740's picture

cooper was arguably the best recruiter we ever had. just not great with the x's and o's. bruce was before my time, but how the hell could he have followed woody? no matter what he did, he was going to be short-lived.

OSUs12-OH's picture

Like and appreciate your blog Fido...but I grew up during Earle's and Coop's time at OSU (as am assuming you did as well).  It's very difficult for me to agree that Earle Bruce wasn't as good all around as Coop.  It would have been WAY better for Bruce if his career at OSU wasn't cut short by the Wolfe Brothers.  I, personally, hated Coop.  He was a great recruiter...but a horrible tactician and especially when it came to TTUN (not to mention bowl games).  2-10-1 really isn't anywhere near as good as 5-4.  I'm glad you pointed out that record of Coop's VS TTUN at the end of your comparisons.  It's why TTUN fans have a reason to say they have a better head to head record.  If those 10 loses don't transpire...hard to say the argument is that valid.  Now they have a larger lead and let's not even mention 1897-1928.    
You can read the rest of Earle's situations and troubles after leaving OSU here.  They're all's a shame Earle didn't comply with The Wolfe Brothers.  He may have been at OSU just as long as Coop...if not longer.  Just imagine what 5-4 could have been if he was there 5 more years.
As far as's obvious who's better.  But where did the prodigal son who's presently coaching at OSU learn how to coach...???  It sure wasn't Coop...Meyer just uses him now to help with recruiting.  Which I would too.  

"I want a hungry team. I want a team that can't wait to get out there. I want an angry team! You're the Ohio State Buckeyes. You're an angry football team. You're a hungry football team and I'm proud to be your coach." UFM

Idaho Helga's picture

Hey I don't get around much but to me, you are talking to the choir.  Good post!  My future hubby of the time (20+ yrs ago) who was an IT employee of the Dispatch told me of the Wolfs at the door and he was right.   Mr. Jennings was in their pocket as was his mistress so this was a disaster in the making.   Worst part is, if you're going to  replace a guy, you don't do it during playing TTUN week.   A National embarrassing moment for tOSU.    grrr

steensn's picture

I'll his record over UM over Coops anyday..