STILL A DRIVEN SPIRIT Frustrated coach Cooper focuses on front office

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Kenny Cooper sits at his desk, answering phones, booking charity dates and constantly inquiring about available players. He has been reading this book, "The Corporate Coach."

During the past month, Cooper has negotiated a new four-year )) lease with the Baltimore Arena, which he plans to discuss and hopes to have signed by Baltimore Spirit owner Bill Stealey this week.

Kenny Cooper always has run this franchise from top to bottom.

But can he relinquish some of the power now?

"Kenny has always let you know who is in charge and that it's going to be done his way," said Scott Manning, a goalkeeper for the Baltimore Blast under Cooper. "Kenny will probably do well in his new role, but Kenny's biggest challenge will be staying away from the next coach."

Ron Newman, Cooper's longtime indoor coaching rival with the San Diego Sockers, agreed.

"It's going to be very difficult for the guy behind Kenny, especially since Kenny has done so well," Newman said. "I know it's going to be tough for Kenny to have that hands-off policy."

Cooper's colorful 14-year coaching career in Baltimore came to an end last Saturday night at the Baltimore Arena after the Spirit lost to the Harrisburg Heat, 13-7, and was eliminated from the National Professional Soccer League playoffs.

Cooper took the loss hard.

It was the second straight year the Heat had eliminated the Spirit from the playoffs, and Cooper-led teams have had a history of struggling in the playoffs. Cooper has coached in six championship series, winning only the 1983-84 title.

Only seconds after the game ended, Cooper took the public-address microphone and made a startling announcement that he was stepping down as coach, but would remain as general manager and president.

"Kenny is so intense, thinks that he has crossed every T and dotted every I, that he can't lose," said Newman. "He's got to be frustrated."

"It was emotional, but not impulsive," said Cooper, of the timing of his announcement. "I actually planned this two years ago when we started this franchise with Bill Stealey, so I'm on schedule. It's time for me to step away for a number of reasons.

"The owner has made a tremendous investment, and this is a chance to help relieve some of the burden through corporate sponsorships and selling season tickets. This is also an opportunity for me to spend some time with my family, and quite frankly, in that last game, there were some gutless performances and I can't go through another season like that. I was raised differently than some of these younger players."

Cooper came to America from Blackpool, England, when he was 22 with $46 in his pockets. His father once owned a successful fleet of buses, but Cooper said an accountant mismanaged a lot of the funds.

"We went through some tough times," said Cooper. "I know what it's like to live five in a room, not to have any electricity.

"You know there's an old saying that you can come back home, but I remember my brother-in law telling me that I couldn't, that whatever happened, I had to dig down and make it on my own here."

Cooper later became a star goalkeeper for the Dallas Tornadoes of the North American Soccer League in the mid-1970s. He was a place-kicker for the Dallas Cowboys during one week of the 1974 strike season, but Cooper was later cut after a contract dispute.

Cooper stayed in contact with football friends such as Dan Reeves and Mike Ditka, learned about coaching from Tom Landry, and the business end from Cowboys general manager Gil Brandt and Kansas City Chiefs owner Lamar Hunt, the owner of the Tornadoes.

Finally, Cooper and owner Bernie Rodin teammed up to bring indoor soccer to Baltimore in 1980.

And what a show.

Spaceships landing from the ceiling of what was then the Civic Center. Smoke. Loud rock music. More smoke. Wild player introductions. Foreign players with one name. Crazy commercials. Sellout crowds.

Cooper was the ringleader.

He appeared at numerous charity events. Always neat, always on time. He was accessible to the media, flashing that boyish smile and sporting that British charm.

He became Mr. Soccer.

"I have never seen a guy monopolize a sport like him," said Tim Wittman, one of Cooper's former players. "To go through four owners, and still be in the position that he is in says something. You've got to give Kenny credit, he has done a great job of promoting soccer here, taking it from the grass roots. He has become an institution."

Cooper's style became legendary.

He always talked about high work rate, production and having a blue-collar approach. Cooper was feisty, too. Who can forget the brawl in Chicago with Sting owner Kenny Stern, and the glass-pounding and finger-pointing feuds with Cleveland coach Timo Liekoski? Cooper tried to bar certain officials from the Arena.

It was all part of the Cooper psyche. He had discipline, organization and could motivate. Dr Pepper and Americom corporations brought him in as a motivational speaker. So did Loyola lacrosse coach Dave Cottle.

"I remember the 1988-89 playoffs against San Diego," said Drew Forrester, the Spirit's vice president, who has been with Cooper since the 1981-82 season. "We had just been demoralized by San Diego, and were down 3-1 in the series in San Diego. The vets like Kai Haaskivi were flabbergasted, but several hours before the next game, Coop sends me out for four bottles of champagne.

"I bring them to our locker room on ice, and he tells the guys he has never been so sure in his life that we're going to win this game. We win, 6-3, before 12,000 people, the first time San Diego has lost a game at home where they had the opportunity to clinch a championship. Kenny could always get the best out of a player."

He used almost any method. He'd challenge rookies Mike Reynolds and Freddie Thompson, and he made them solid players. He'd cut players who didn't make public appearances on the spot. He'd use the media. He would criticize a player to other players, hoping they'd talk, and it would inspire the struggling player.

BTC "Kenny had this saying that when the aggravation outweighed the production, you were history," said former Blast goalkeeper Keith Van Eron. "If there was one area I think he needed to improve, it was meeting with a player face to face."

And that's part of the reason Cooper has resigned. This team was predicted by some to win it all, but it didn't meet Cooper's standards.

"People say I burned out teams over the years," he said. "How can a team not get motivated for the playoffs? When I can't make winners out of them, it's time to take a step back and take a look at the big picture."

Family considerations also governed Cooper's decision. He had been through four owners in Baltimore, but he had to start over again with the Spirit when the Major Soccer League folded two years ago. One day after the termination of the Blast, Cooper vowed to keep indoor soccer in Baltimore. Six days later, he was moving office furniture and painting the new team offices at the Arena.

"I don't know why my wife has stayed with me through all of this," said Cooper. "Our oldest child [Amanda] is 14, and I just would like to spend some time with her and the rest of my three children. Hey, it's been a great 14 years."

Seven division titles. One regular- season championship. One MISL championship. Two-time MISL Coach of the Year. There have been special relationships with Wittman, Van Eron, Rusty Troy, Mike Stankovic, Scott Manning and Billy Ronson.

But there always will be something that will nag at Cooper: Only one title and four losses to the San Diego Sockers in the championship round.

It's a frustration that could bring Cooper back to coaching, or keep him looking too closely over his successor's shoulder next season.

"I look on Kenny as a father figure, but he is very paranoid about power. That can be a negative or a positive," said Van Eron. "He'll listento you, but once he disagrees with you, he won't come back for your opinion again. I think in some ways it has kept the organization from growing."

Cooper doesn't rule out a return to Baltimore, but it won't come next season. Cooper has nominated Stankovic to replace him, a decision that is drawing some criticism. Stankovic, a former player and second-year assistant under Cooper, has no head coaching experience.

Heat coach Jim Pollihan, a former Blast assistant, had been mentioned, but Cooper says Pollihan is still under contract with the Heat. A long shot candidate is Wittman, a Baltimore native.

The decision, though, may be made already since Cooper said Thursday night that goalie Cris Vaccaro had been offered Stankovic's former position of player/coach.

"I know there are people who are going to say he's [Stankovic] is my puppet or a yes-man. But if Mike is the coach, he will run the show," Cooper said. "If Bill decides to go another way, then that coach will run the show on the field.

"This is a chance for me to step back, drink a few beers with the fans, and talk about their likes and dislikes. We're in business after 14 years because we're survivors. There is always a chance that I'll return to coaching someday, but you think I'm going to change? Nope. I've put a lot into soccer in Baltimore. I will always have those standards."

THE COOPER FILE

1979-80

* Cooper named coach of Houston Summit.

* Team won Central Division.

* Team lost to New York Arrows in MISL final.

1980-81 * Summit relocated to Baltimore.

* Blast finished second in Atlantic Division.

* Blast lost to New York Arrows in MISL semifinals.

1981-82 * Blast finished third in Eastern Division.

* Team lost in Eastern final.

1982-83 * Blast won Eastern Division.

* Blast lost to San Diego in MISL final.

* Cooper coached Eastern Division All-Star team.

1983-84 * Blast won second Eastern Division title.

* Blast defeated St. Louis, 4-1, to win MISL championship.

* Cooper named MISL Coach of the Year.

Cooper coached Eastern Division All-Star team.

1984-85 * Blast won third consecutive Eastern Division title.

Blast made MSL final for third season in row, lost to San Diego.

* Cooper coached Eastern Division All-Star team.

1985-86 * Blast finished fourth in Eastern Division.

* Blast lost in division semifinals.

* Cooper coached Eastern Division All-Star team.

1986-87 * Blast finished second in Eastern Division.

* Blast lost in division semifinals.

1987-88 * Blast finished fourth in Eastern Division.

* Blast ousted in division semifinals.

1988-89 * Blast finished regular season first in MISL (one division).

* Blast made fourth appearance in MISL final, lost in seven games to San Diego.

* Cooper named Coach of the Year.

1989-90

* Blast won Eastern Division title.

* Blast advanced to its fifth MISL final, lost to San Diego in six games.* Cooper coached Eastern Division All-Star team.

1990-91 * Blast finished tied for third in Eastern Division.

* Blast failed to make playoffs for the first time.

1991-92 * Blast qualified for MSL playoffs by finishing fourth.

* Blast lost in MSL semifinals.

1992-93 * Cooper named coach, GM and president of NPSL Baltimore Spirit.

* Spirit won American Division.

* Cooper coached American Division All-Star team.

* Spirit ousted in NPSL American Division final.

1993-94 * Spirit won second consecutive American Division title.

Spirit eliminated in NPSL American Division semifinals.

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