BOZICH | Bound for WKU Saturday, matured Ron Cooper applauds Tom - WDRB 41 Louisville News

BOZICH | Bound for WKU Saturday, matured Ron Cooper applauds Tom Jurich, Louisville

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Ron Cooper (center) posed with Lou Holtz and his son, Deuce, after an FIU game. (Ron Cooper photo). Ron Cooper (center) posed with Lou Holtz and his son, Deuce, after an FIU game. (Ron Cooper photo).

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) — Before the University of Louisville could have a Heisman Trophy candidate, an invitation to join the Atlantic Coast Conference, two stadium expansions and the other goodies the program has celebrated in Tom Jurich’s 19 years as the athletic director, the Cardinal football program needed this:

A new direction. A new voice.

A new coach.

“I still remember the day that Tom and I met,” Ron Cooper said. “The vision that he really had back then was real. He knew what (Louisville) was going to become.

“What they have done with the overall athletic program, it’s truly a national program. For them to beat Florida State like they did, it’s truly turned into a true, true Top 20 on a consistent basis program.”

Cooper, in case you have forgotten, is the first coach Jurich fired at Louisville.

He removed him as the Cardinals’ football coach less than two months after Jurich arrived from Colorado State in 1997, making Cooper’s third season his final season after Louisville won one of 11 games.

Jurich hired John L. Smith, which created the Bobby Petrino connection, which has led to Louisville becoming a program that has won Orange and Sugar Bowls and aspires to surge from No. 7 into the four-team national playoff this season.

What happened to Cooper, now 54?

Look for him at Western Kentucky Saturday. Cooper will direct Florida International. It will be his first game as a head coach in this state since he was terminated at U of L.

Officially, Cooper is the Panthers’ interim head coach, promoted to replace Ron Turner, who started 0-4.

Cooper led FIU to three consecutive wins before the Panthers were beaten by Louisiana Tech and Middle Tennessee. They’re 30 1/2-point underdogs against WKU, but Cooper has done solid work.

Under Cooper, FIU’s scoring has improved by 17 points per game while the defense is limiting teams to nearly seven less points per game. The Panthers are averaging nearly 140 more yards on offense, while giving up nearly 80 yards less per game on defense.

Penalties are down. They rallied to overcome second-half deficits to win against Florida Atlantic and Charlotte. The Panthers (3-6) are playing like a team that will make Cooper a serious candidate to become the program’s full-time coach. 

Is that what Cooper wants?

“I think so,” Cooper said. “We’ll see. Everybody around here has been real positive. I haven’t talked much about it.”

This time, if the offer comes, Cooper will be prepared to check every box. In 1995, when he replaced Howard Schnellenberger, Cooper could handle recruiting, interviews and selling his vision, while struggling at other parts of the job.

Even Cooper knows and admits that today. He was 32 when former U of L athletic director Bill Olsen hired him. His assistant coaching staff lacked experience. He needed to improve on dealing with his support staff, disciplining players and handling the nuances of the job.

“I realize right now just how young and sort of immature I was,” Cooper said. “I thought if (the opportunity) came back around one day, I’d be a little more ready or a lot more ready.

“I understand a little bit more now about when the guys need more nurturing.”

Cooper had only been the head coach at Eastern Michigan for two seasons, both with losing records. He earned the job on the strength of a dynamic interview after two other top candidates hurt themselves with vague and misleading answers.

Maybe it all would have turned out differently if Cooper had stayed at Eastern Michigan, where he had recruited Charlie Batch to play quarterback. But he could not decline the opportunity to replace Schnellenberger — or the jumbo salary increase, which resulted in Cooper departing with a $1 million buyout.

“Looking at it right now, you can say if I maybe would have stayed in the Mid-American Conference a little longer and enjoyed Charlie Batch and learned a little more with not so much spotlight or fan support (he would have benefited),” Cooper said.

“But as far as some of the decisions that I made and some of the other things, I think if I was a little older and a little more mature, I would have made some better decisions.”

Cooper has done that. Since leaving Louisville, Cooper has made eight coaching stops, bouncing from Alabama A&M to Wisconsin to Mississippi State to South Carolina to Louisiana State to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to South Florida to FIU.

His full-career resume now features 17 football programs and teams while working for head coaches like Lou Holtz, Steve Spurrier, Barry Alvarez, Jackie Sherrill, Les Miles and Greg Schiano.

“I’ve seen a lot,” Cooper said.

And done a lot, working in the NFL as well as the SEC, Big Ten and at the FCS level. He’s coached both sides of the ball and always been a solid recruiter. 

Now Ron Cooper is seeing even more — as an interim leader trying to secure a head coaching opportunity some thought would always elude him.

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