100 Teams in 100 Days: John Cooper is Named Ohio State's 21st Head Coach in 1988

By Matt Gutridge on August 6, 2016 at 11:40 am
The 1988 Ohio State University football team.
Ohio State University Archives

After the controversial firing of Earle Bruce, Ohio State put on an exhaustive search for its 21st head football coach.

28 days and counting.

After the search, Ohio State offered John Cooper the position over Jack Bicknell, George Chaump, Willie Jeffries, Glen Mason, Don Nehlen and Sam Rutigliano. Cooper accepted the position and the Buckeyes officially hired him on Dec. 31, 1987.

John Cooper
Born in Powell, Tennessee, Cooper began his head coaching career at Tulsa in 1977. With the Golden Hurricane he amassed a 57–31 record that included five Missouri Valley Conference championships over his final five years.

His then took the head coaching job at Arizona State in 1985. During three years with the Sun Devils, Cooper took the team to three straight bowl games. Cooper received National Coach of the Year honors after he went 10–1–1 and defeated Michigan in the Rose Bowl.

Despite the success, fans in Columbus remained hesitant that Cooper did not have any Ohio State ties. However, they were optimistic he could continue his success with the Buckeyes especially after he beat Michigan in the Rose Bowl with the Sun Devils.  

"We want to win the Big Ten title and the Rose Bowl and we want to win a national championship," Cooper said of his goals. "I am a great believer in aiming high."

The 1988 Buckeyes
Record 4–6–1
B1G Record 2–5–1, 7th
Coach John Cooper (1st year, 4–6–1)
CaptainS Michael McCray, Mike Sullivan,
Jeff Uhlenhake, Vince Workman

Games of Note

September 10th • Syracuse • Ohio Stadium
Ohio State started the season unranked for the first time in nine years. The last time that happened, Earle Bruce's first team ended with the Buckeyes minutes away from a national championship. 

Cooper hoped his first year would be as successful. His first challenge was getting past Dick MacPherson's Syracuse squad. MacPherson was named the national coach of the year in 1987 and Cooper won the award in 1986. The two decorated coaches faced each other on ABC in front of an Ohio Stadium opening day record crowd of 89,768.

The Orangemen came into the game riding a 14-game unbeaten streak and the Buckeyes needed to play soundly to win. At the end of the first half, Ohio State led 17-6. Carlos Snow had a 14-yard touchdown, Jeff Ellis caught a 2-yard touchdown from Greg Frey and Pat O'Morrow kicked a 27-yard field goal.

All points scored in the second half came via field goals off the foot of Syracuse's Kevin J. Greene and O'Morrow. Greene made his two tries and O'Morrow booted three in Ohio State's 26-9 victory.

O'Morrow finished the game with four field goals, one short of an Ohio State record. In his first start, Frey threw for 141 yards, completed 12-of-17 passes and had a touchdown. The Buckeyes did not commit a turnover or penalty in the game, doing so for the first time since 1961 the team.

Cooper became the 19th Ohio State coach to win his debut. Only Jack Ryder and Paul Bixler did not. Ryder lost to Oberlin 40-4 in 1892 and Bixler tied Missouri 13-13 in 1946

1988 Schedule
      4–6–1, 229–283

September 17th • Pittsburgh • Pitt Stadium
Following the 26-9 defeat of Syracuse, Ohio State entered the AP Poll at No. 18. Ohio State had not been ranked since Oct. 31, 1987. Unfortunately, the spot in the Top 25 would not last for long.

Kickoff against Pittsburgh came at 7:16 under cloudy skies with temperatures in the 60s. Panthers quarterback Darnell Dickerson and running back Adam Walker took full advantage of the perfect weather.

The duo proved too much for the Buckeyes' defense. Running the option to perfection, Walker ended the day with 179 yards and three touchdowns on 27 carries. Dickerson added 88 yards and two touchdowns on 11 carries. He also completed 7-of-13 passes for 85 yards.

Pittsburgh held Ohio State to 96 yards rushing as the Panthers raced for 373 yards on the ground. The Panthers finished with 504 total yards in their 42-10 win.

Snow served as the lone bright spot for Ohio State. He returned five kickoffs for a school-record 214 yards. His final return went 100 yards for a touchdown with 9:30 remaining. 

This game represents Pittsburgh's final victory over the Buckeyes.

September 24th • #7 LSU • Ohio Stadium
When Mike Archers' seventh-ranked Tigers came to Columbus many expected LSU to leave with the first win of the series. The two heavyweights put on a great show in 1987 that ended in a 13-13 tie. 

The Tigers appeared on their way to the victory with a 33-20 lead and only 4:29 to play. After the blowout loss to Pittsburgh, a lot of the OSU faithful left the stadium and turned off their televisions. Those that gave up on the team soon regretted their decision. 

The Buckeyes used a 10-play, 59-yard drive to cut the deficit to 33-27. Snow scored the touchdown on a 5-yard run in which he barely crossed the goal line.

Ohio State's defense put the clamps on LSU and forced a three-and-out. The Tigers lined up to kick it away on their own 18, but officials whistled them for a delay of game penalty. With the ball on the 13, Archer decided to to have his punter run out of the back of the end zone for a safety. Earlier in the game, Ohio State blocked a punt so the LSU staff felt safer taking the safety.

Bobby Olive received the ensuing free kick on his own 32. He ran up the middle, then broke free to the left before being forced out of bounds following a 30-yard return.

Trailing 33-29 with 1:24 remaining, the Buckeyes had the ball on LSU's 38-yard line. Frey threw two completions to move his team to the 20. On 3rd-and-7, he found Olive a yard-deep in the end zone for the go-ahead touchdown with only 38 seconds left.

Ohio State scored 16 points in the final four minutes of the game to the delight of the second largest crowd in Ohio Stadium history — or at least those fans that stayed until the final whistle.

Ohio State players with solid performances were Snow, Frey and Olive. Snow rushed for 90 yards and two touchdowns, Frey completed 24-of-37 passes for 281 yards and a touchdown and Olive had the key return and game-winning 20-yard touchdown catch.

The win over LSU represented the high-mark of the 1988 season. 

LSU W1 1–0–1
ILLINOIS L1 51–22–4
INDIANA L2 50–12–4
PURDUE L1 25–10–2
WISCONSIN W1 42–12–4
IOWA T1 32–12–3
MICHIGAN L1 33–47–5

October 8th • Indiana • Memorial Stadium 
Following the dramatic come from behind victory over LSU, Ohio State fell flat against Illinois. The Fighting Illini led 10-3 at halftime then scored 21 points in the fourth quarter to defeat the Buckeyes 31-12.

In Bloomington, 52,133 Indiana fans hoped to see their team defeat Ohio State for a second consecutive year. In 1987 the Hoosiers beat the Buckeyes for the first time in 36 years. 

Indiana tried a fake field goal on its first possession and failed. After a Frey interception, the Hoosiers scored the first of five consecutive touchdowns. The issue was never in doubt for Bill Mallory's team, which won 41-7. 

All-American Anthony Thompson rushed for 190 yards and four touchdowns on 32 carries. This marked the first win for Indiana over Ohio State in Bloomington.

For the third consecutive week the Buckeyes lost a player to injury. Linebacker Michael McCray injured his groin and was limited for the rest of the season. Ohio State lost another linebacker for the year in Andy Gurd against LSU and defensive tackle Mike Showalter saw his season come to an end with an injury against Illinois. 

Back home to face Purdue in Week 6, Ohio State (2–3) lost a shootout 31-26. The Buckeyes owned 13-point lead, but freshman Brian Fox led the Boilermakers to a comeback victory. The quarterback completed 19-of-27 passes for 223 yards and three touchdowns. 

Snow recorded his first 100-yard rushing game as a Buckeye. He raced for a 58-yard touchdown and finished with 128 yards in the losing effort. This was Ohio State's worst start since the 1947 team began 1–4–1.

November 12th • Iowa • Kinnick Stadium 
At halftime, Iowa led 21-14 and outgained the Buckeyes in total yards 246-119. In the second half, Ohio State scored 10 straight points with a Scottie Graham touchdown and Pat O'Morrow field goal. 

Leading 24-21 late in the game, Cooper faced a difficult decision. On third down, Frey fell inches short of the first down at his own 39 yard-line. Cooper needed to decide if it was worth the risk to go for it on 4th-and-inches or to punt. He made the conservative call by taking a delay and relying on his defense to win the game.

Iowa took the advantage of the opportunity and marched to the Ohio State 23-yard line. With 16 seconds left, Jeff Skillet split the uprights to force a 24-24 tie. The game marked the first time the Buckeyes tied a Big Ten conference game in 15 years. 

An interesting story to this game was twins John and Mike Sullivan were instrumental in an Ohio State score. John forced Iowa quarterback Chuck Hartleib into an errant pass that Mike returned it 13 yards for the team's first touchdown. 

November 19th • Michigan • Ohio Stadium 
On an overcast 44-degree Saturday, Cooper faced Michigan for the first of 13 times. An Ohio native had a major impact on the outcome of this game — unfortunately, he played for the Wolverines and not the Buckeyes.

Michigan led 20-0 at halftime and it appeared Ohio State was headed to the postseason off a blowout loss. Frey and the offense kicked it in gear and scored on its first four possessions of the second half. 

Trailing 27-24 with roughly four minutes to play, Frey guided the Buckeyes 92 yards in six plays. Fullback Bill Matlock gave Ohio State a 31-27 lead when he rumbled 16 yards for a touchdown. 

That's when John Kolesar used a span of 25 seconds to make his mark on The Game. From the 1989 Ohio State Media Guide:

But Michigan still had something left. With 1:37 to play, Demetrius Brown and John Kolesar hooked up on a 41-yard TD that was set up by Kolesar's 59-yard kick return. It was the final score of a wild second half in which the two teams combined for 45 points and Ohio State amassed 353 yards.

Snow finished with a career high 170 yards on 25 carries, 106 of those yards coming in the second half. Pat O'Morrow's 21-yard field goal in the fourth quarter was his 18th of the year, tying the OSU single-season record.

The team put up a valiant effort and almost came away with the victory, but Michigan won 34-31. Many questioned Cooper's decision to kick the 21-yard field goal when Ohio State led 21-20.

Prior to the field goal, the Buckeyes scored a touchdown to take a one-point lead. On the ensuing drive, Michigan fumbled and Mike Sullivan recovered at the Wolverines' 22. Frey took the offense inside the 10 where they faced 4th-and-goal from the 4. 

Cooper had a to choose between going for a touchdown or putting his team up four points. He played conservative by kicking the field goal. The third down play probably influenced his decision because Snow lost a yard on a run.

After the game, reporters asked Cooper about his decision to kick the field goal.

"I never thought at all. At that point, it makes them have to score a touchdown to beat us," Cooper said. "That might have been the turning point in the game, because we recovered a fumble and had to settle for a field goal."

Based on this performance fans were remained for the future. Little did they know it held more pain and heartbreak against the Wolverines.  

1988 Recap

  • John Cooper became Ohio State's 21st head coach on Dec. 31, 1987.
  • The Buckeyes defeated Syracuse 26-9 to give Cooper his first win.
  • The running of Pittsburgh's Adam Walker and Darnell Dickerson helped the Panthers led to Cooper's first loss as Ohio State head coach.
  • The Buckeyes scored 16 points in the final four minutes to defeat LSU 33-29.
  • Ohio State lost to Indiana for the first time in Bloomington. 
  • Minnesota could not end the Buckeyes seven-game winning streak in the series.
  • Jeff Skillet made a 40-yard field goal to earn Iowa a 24-24 tie with Ohio State. 
  • The Buckeyes overcame a 20-0 halftime deficit to take a four-point lead against No. 12 Michigan. The Wolverines won when John Kolesar caught a 41-yard touchdown pass. Ohio State dropped to 33–47–5 in the series.
  • Ohio State started and finished the season unranked. 
  • Jeff Uhlenhake was named an All-American honor. 
  • Jeff Uhlenhake, Vince Workman, Derek MacCready and Everett Ross were selected in the NFL Draft.

For the second consecutive year, Ohio State did not play in a bowl game. The losing record was the first for the program since 1966. Cooper became the first coach since Wes Fesler to have a losing record in his inaugural season.

Heading forward Cooper knew he had to do something about the 283 points the defense allowed. At that point, it was the most points ever surrendered in the program's 99-year history. The defense had to improve.

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