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Sun Devils Win a Game, Lose a Coach : Cooper Takes Ohio State Job After 33-28 Freedom Victory

December 31, 1987|MIKE PENNER | Times Staff Writer

That wasn't just the Freedom Bowl that flashed across television screens in and around Columbus, Ohio, Wednesday night. Coming attractions were more like it.

Ohio State is getting a new football coach, name of John Cooper, and his last piece of work for his former employer, Arizona State University, was a 33-28 victory over Air Force in the Freedom Bowl at Anaheim Stadium.

Immediately following the game, Cooper announced his resignation as the Sun Devils' head coach and although he skirted the topic of his next destination--he didn't want to upstage today's news conference at Ohio State--Cooper did admit to reporters, "It's pretty obvious that most of you know what I'm gonna do."

Cooper is Buckeye-bound, reportedly set to sign a five-year contract as Earle Bruce's replacement. And what exactly is Ohio State getting?

Well, a return to the days of three yards and dust clouds is not expected.

For the sixth time this season, Cooper's Arizona State squad scored at least 30 points. And for the seventh time this season, the Sun Devils surrendered at least 20 points.

An announced crowd of 33,261 watched Arizona State score 24 points in the second quarter, build as great as a 33-14 advantage . . . then give up two-fourth-quarter touchdown passes by Air Force's third-string quarterback.

Together, the offenses combined for 985 net yards, with the Sun Devils' oft-maligned junior quarterback, Daniel Ford, completing 16 of 30 passes for 272 yards. He shared game most valuable player honors with Air Force defensive tackle Chad Hennings, who made 12 unassisted tackles.

When the offensive orgy was over--even Air Force was able to wrench 117 passing yards out of its conservative wishbone attack--Cooper was carried off the field on Sun Devil shoulders for one final time.

Then, he gathered his players in the locker room to tell them what they had suspected for days--that they were losing their head coach.

"I was trying to keep it a secret, but I think those guys knew," Cooper said. "I didn't want to be a distraction. That's why I'm so glad we won. I didn't want people saying, 'Well, we lost our last game because of my situation.' "

Cooper made his departure, which had been rumored all week, official in a postgame press conference, announcing that, "This was my final game at ASU . . . I have resigned my position here and will accept another soon."

Where that would be, Cooper wasn't saying.

"I'm leaving because, for me, it's a better environment professionally," he said. "There wasn't any one thing. Ohio State is obviously a great school . . . if that's where I go."

Cooper was asked what kind of coach Ohio State--er, his new school , could expect in the seasons ahead.

"I don't know how to answer that," he said with a smile and a shake of his head. "What kind of coach am I? I'm a fundamental football coach. I think the formula for success is hard work. I'm going to give them my best shot and hope that's good enough."

As Bruce can attest, sometimes that is not enough in Columbus. Interestingly, Bruce's career coaching record (81-26-1) is superior to Cooper's (82-40-2) and during the 1987 regular seasons, their teams finished with identical 6-4-1 records. But for one, that mark earned him a ticket out of town while for the other, it meant a welcoming party at Ohio State.

Cooper is headed there, he says, with mixed emotions.

"I'm not happy tonight," he said. "When you have to tell guys you love that you're leaving them, it's not easy. I guess I'm just an emotional guy.

"These have been three great years for me and my family. I leave ASU with many memories, good ones, about us playing in three bowl games."

Cooper went 2-1 in bowls at Arizona State, including a victory in the big one, the 1987 Rose Bowl. The Sun Devils beat Michigan, 22-15, in that one after losing the 1985 Holiday Bowl, 18-17, to Arkansas.

Victory over the Air Force (9-4) was established in the second quarter Wednesday when Arizona State erased a 7-0 deficit with 17 unanswered points and then a unique answer to the Falcons' second touchdown of the night.

Air Force running back Albert Booker had just scored from three yards out to cut the Sun Devils' lead to 17-14 with 30 seconds left in the first half. Not expecting much more to happen before the intermission, Falcon Coach Fisher DeBerry gambled and called for an onside kick. Arizona State, however, was expecting it and the Sun Devils' Eric Allen fell on the ball.

Arizona State took possession at its own 39-yard line with 29 seconds remaining and Ford let loose his longest pass of the game. Split end Aaron Cox ran under it--and more importantly, ran by Falcon cornerback Gary Kilmer--for a stunning 61-yard touchdown play.

"The turning point of the game," Cooper said.

"That play at the end of the first half did it," DeBerry agreed. "I guarantee you, Cox did a great job of outrunning us on that play. Certainly, we told our guys about it. We weren't in the wrong coverage; we just had a young man break down back there."

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