LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- When the University of Louisville hired Ron Cooper as its football coach last December, it took on the antithesis of predecessor Howard Schnellenberger.
Schnellenberger left Louisville at the age of 60. Cooper is 34. Schnellenberger ranted and raved. Cooper teaches. Schnellenberger was gruff, speaking with a Southern drawl so long and deep that sometimes his words were unintelligible. Cooper is articulate.
Schnellenberger let his assistant coaches coach. Cooper is hands-on, showing more vigor than the Energizer Bunny. Schnellenberger once failed to recognize Mick Jagger after a five-minute conversation with the Rolling Stones singer. Cooper knows all about Snoop Doggy Dogg.
"Coach Howard and Coach Ron both had their rules," said Louisville running back Calvin Arrington, a senior from Landover, Md. "But Coach Cooper is more of a motivator, more of a players' coach. He makes you want to do better. He is more involved in the educational process. I think he has everyone around here buzzing about the future of this program."
Now, if he just can win some more games . . .
After starting the season 2-0 against Kentucky and Northern Illinois, the Cardinals have fallen to 3-4 after a 27-20 loss at Wyoming on Oct. 14.
Despite a two-game losing streak, the Cardinals believe they can make strides because their last four games are at Cardinal Stadium, beginning with Maryland (5-2) today. Three of the Cardinals' losses have been by a touchdown or less.
"Is this [3-4] where we planned on being? Not at all," said Cooper, the youngest coach in Division I-A. "We shouldn't be in this situation. We've missed some opportunities, but we're glad to be coming home."
Folks around here have become accustomed to winning. Schnellenberger arrived in 1985, and after an 8-24-1 start, the Cardinals were 8-3 in 1988 and have finished better than .500 in five of the past seven seasons. He went 54-56-2 in 10 seasons, with appearances in the 1990 Fiesta Bowl and the 1993 Liberty Bowl, before leaving to coach Oklahoma this season.
Cooper's job is to make Louisville a consistent Top 25 team.
But he has the additional pressure of being the first African-American to take over an established, major-college program.
"African-American coaches have been put in positions where it's nearly impossible to build programs," said Cooper, referring to Jim Caldwell at Wake Forest and Ron Dickerson at Temple. "I've been in that situation before, too.
"No doubt, the entire nation is going to be looking at everything we do," said Cooper, who was coach at Eastern Michigan for two seasons before coming to Louisville. "Some may say they're not, but they are. Despite some obvious disadvantages of being in the first year, I think we're on schedule in our approach."
Cooper always has been straightforward and, in some ways, old-fashioned. Players aren't allowed to wear caps, sweats or earrings to class. Hair has to be trimmed. Players must sit in the first four rows of class and talk to the professor once a week.
They must register for 15 hours of class a semester, and if their grade-point averages drop below 2.5, it's mandatory study hall. They have to wear ties and sport coats for road games.
"I have nothing against long hair or earrings," Cooper said. "I just believe that you choose the proper time to wear them. There's a certain image across the country a student-athlete needs to uphold. We not only want to talk about the image, but implement certain policies, as well."
A number of players challenged Cooper's rules at Eastern Michigan during his first year in 1993, and 29 of them quit or were sent home. Cooper once was called at midnight about a player drinking in his room. An hour later, the player's suitcase was packed. Cooper once benched his starting free safety for trying to board the team bus in a turtleneck and sweater.
"I told him to pack his bags and go back home to the state of Colorado," Cooper said. "Then, out of nowhere, he found a shirt ** and tie."
But players also notice another side of Cooper. He sometimes lets seniors leave early for class, allowing them a ride from practice on his personal golf cart. Doughnuts were served before Saturday scrimmages during preseason practices. Cooper eats meals with the players. He even attends study hall.
"My first impression was that he was really strict, too strict," said Louisville quarterback Marty Lowe. "But it's just a good way of doing things. If you stink on the field, then he's in your face telling you that you stink. Then, the next minute, he is at dinner cracking jokes, just like one of the boys. But you also know he is the man."
Discipline starts early
Cooper developed the discipline while growing up in Huntsville, Ala. He was one of three sons who lived in a house across the street from Alabama A&M;, where Cooper's father taught accounting and statistics and his mother was an instructor in the business school.
"At a young age, we were taught to do something special with our lives," Cooper said. "There was an emphasis on scholarship, and that meant discipline. It also meant determination and self-control."
Cooper used those attributes to turn himself into a two-way football player in high school. He could have gone to historically
black colleges, such as Tuskegee, Grambling or Alabama A&M;, on scholarship, but Cooper chose to walk on at Jacksonville State.
He earned a scholarship in his sophomore year as a 5-foot-8, 200-pound nose guard/linebacker.
"Walk-ons live a tough enough life as it is," Jim Fuller, the former coach at Jacksonville State and currently an assistant at Alabama, told the Louisville Courier Journal. "Size is always a problem. But that's why this game is so beautiful.
"Ron was a good student. He was always on time. He was always willing to do what he had to do."
The coaching ranks
Cooper eventually worked his way into coaching, first as a graduate assistant at Appalachian State in 1983 and later as assistant head coach at Notre Dame under Lou Holtz in 1992. Eastern Michigan was 1-10 the year before Cooper arrived, but 4-7 in 1993 and 5-6 in 1994, his two years as head coach.
Cooper won five of his last six games before leaving for Louisville.
"We had a list that contained dozens and dozens of coaches," said Bill Olsen, Louisville's athletic director. "But none could answer all the questions as smoothly as Ron. He was totally organized. He sketched out all his goals, knew who he wanted to bring in, even had a little easel. I was amazed. He had the energy, enthusiasm, yet the calmness of a veteran coach."
The patience will come in handy.
The Cardinals had eight starters back on defense but only five on offense. Louisville starting linebackers Alan Campos, Tyrus McCloud and Johnny Frost -- nicknamed the "Bermuda Triangle" -- are as good as any in college football, but Louisville has dominated few teams, and its lack of a pass rush could hurt the Cardinals against Maryland's run-and-shoot offense.
Offensively, the Cardinals are averaging 301.1 yards, and the passing game has yet to click with Lowe having completed only 125 of 288 passes for 1,405 yards.
"It's a transitional year, but I think we're very, very close to being a Top 25 team," Cooper said. "We're a young football team with only eight seniors, and we have a schedule that will help us in recruiting. We're just a few steps aways from elevating this program to the next level."
Olsen said: "It's impossible in some ways to replace Howard, especially in the marketing area. He could bring light and focus immediately on your program. But Ron has stayed with his plan, and not deviated from it one bit. We have very strong feelings about what he is doing."