COSTA MESA, Calif. -- Football tradition runs deep in Ohio, which is a mixed blessing if you happen to be Ohio State coach John Cooper.
The Buckeyes have won 40 games the past four seasons -- and could make it a record 41 in tomorrow's Rose Bowl -- and still there are those who will call for the coach's firing if his team does not hand No. 2-ranked Arizona State its first loss of the season.
Tough crowd, but that's Ohio State football. Cooper is putting up numbers to rival controversial OSU coaching legend Woody Hayes, but he has come under fire in the wake of a series of big bowl defeats and a couple of late-season losses to Big Ten rival Michigan.
Tough job, but Cooper knew what he was getting into when he left Arizona State to take over the Buckeyes' program in 1989.
"It's the most intense place I've coached," said Cooper, who started his head-coaching career with eight seasons at the University of Tulsa and spent three successful years at Arizona State. "That's what interested me about the job. If there is pressure, there must be an opportunity there to win."
There have been plenty of opportunities to win, especially the past two seasons, but there also have been a number of major disappointments -- the kind that can give a good coach a bad big-game reputation.
Last year, the Buckeyes were undefeated and in line for a shot at the national championship when they were knocked off by Michigan. Four weeks later, they were upset by Tennessee in the Florida Citrus Bowl to bring a disappointing end to a promising season.
Fast forward to 1996 and another team with national-championship aspirations. The Buckeyes carried a 10-0 record into the Michigan game and suffered another big upset, all but ending their hopes for a national title. Cooper's 40-8-1 record over the past four seasons is impressive, but he is 1-6 in bowl competition since he began coaching Ohio State in 1989.
Cooper has no quarrel with the basis of their criticism.
"I don't like it," Cooper said. "Is it fair? Sure, it's fair. It's the truth. It's frustrating, and I wish there was something I could do about it. That's what we're here for."
His record in the Rose Bowl is a little better. He went to two Rose Bowls as an assistant to Tommy Prothro in 1964 with Oregon State and 1965 with UCLA, and he won in his only appearance as a head coach, leading Arizona State over Michigan in 1987.
The move to Ohio State was made in part because of family considerations. Cooper's mother-in-law was seriously ill with Alzheimer's disease and lived in Iowa, so the opportunity to coach the Buckeyes was an opportunity for his wife to be closer to home. It was not a difficult decision, and Cooper says he has never regretted it.
He didn't get instant results at OSU. The Buckeyes suffered through a 4-6-1 record in Cooper's first season as coach, the school's first losing record in 22 years. Ohio State improved to 8-4 the next year and hasn't missed a bowl game since.
"I think you can look at the positive side," Cooper said. "You have to do pretty good to go to eight straight bowl games, and you could focus on the fact that our senior class has a chance to win more games than any senior class in Ohio State history."
Still, it will be a far more pleasant winter if his team can go home with a Rose Bowl victory over one of only two undefeated teams left in college football. It probably won't be enough to bring the Buckeyes a national title, but if they win convincingly and Florida State loses in the Sugar Bowl, they at least will be able to make a case for themselves.
That would take Cooper off the hook for another year, or at least until the Buckeyes face Michigan next November.
No. 2 Ariz. State (11-0) vs.
No. 4 Ohio State (10-1)
Site: Pasadena, Calif.
Time: 4: 30 p.m. tomorrow
TV/Radio: Chs. 2, 7/WJFK (1300 AM)
Line: Ohio State by 2
Pub Date: 12/31/96