Just over two months ago, John Cooper made a visit to Millett Hall as the head basketball coach of Tennessee State University (TSU), where his Tigers defeated the RedHawks 68-61. At the time, he did not know he would be back in Oxford soon, not for another game, but as the new men’s basketball coach for Miami University.
After spending three seasons at Tennessee State, where he amassed a 43-51 record, this will be Cooper’s second head coaching position. After graduating from Wichita State University in 1991, he spent 16 seasons as an assistant in some of the major conferences in Division I college basketball, such as the Pacific 12 Conference (PAC 12) and the Southeastern Conference (SEC). While some might question Cooper’s experience as a head coach or the fact that he does not have a connection to Miami, he is up to the challenge.
“I’m not a graduate of Miami, but it means a lot to me that I’m the caretaker of this program and that I do things right,” Cooper said. “I want the guy at my alma mater to take care of the program as if he was a graduate, so I’m going to do the same thing here. For so long Coach [Charlie] Coles was here and did things the right way. He set that example and that’s what we plan on doing.”
Cooper inherits a team that went 9-21 last year, the second-worst season in Miami history (the ‘Hawks went 5-23 in the 1988-1989 season but that included eight forfeits).
However, while “Coach Coop” was at the helm, Tennessee State underwent an incredible turnaround, going from 9-23 in his first season to a 20-13 record this past year. That was the team’s first winning season since 1995-1996 and marked the first 20-win season in 32 years, so if there is anyone who is capable to helping the RedHawks return to their former success, it is Cooper.
“You look at my overall record and it does not stand out, but part of what I’m hoping to do goes back to when I took over at Tennessee State,” Cooper said. “[The program] was down and it had not won in a while, but I saw some things there that you could do and believed that we could win there. I see those same things here that you could get better and win.”
The ‘Hawks return a number of key players from last season, such as sophomore forward Jon Harris and sophomore guard Quinten Rollins, both of whom played in all 30 games for Miami. However, Miami is losing senior forward Julian Mavunga, who led the ‘Hawks in scoring and rebounding with 16.4 points per game and 9.0 rebounds per game.
The RedHawks will also be without freshman standout guard Brian Sullivan who is transferring following a fantastic freshman campaign. Sullivan averaged 10.3 points per game and shot 49.9 percent from three-point territory, which was the highest three-point percentage in the Mid-American Conference (MAC) this past season.
In addition to the core players returning, Cooper will look to add to the team with the team’s three available scholarships. He will expect the abilities of the incoming players, as well as of the current players, to expand beyond the confines of the court.
“We won 20 games [at Tennessee State] but it wasn’t because of me: we had good players and a great staff, and in order to be successful in this business you have to have good players,” Cooper said. “First off, they need to be good people, and have character and integrity. But we also want guys who are athletic, who have a good skill set and a good motor.”
Regardless of who he brings in for next year, all the players will have to be in shape, as Cooper brings an up-tempo style to the ‘Hawks.
“It’s going a different style of play, and we’re going to play with more tempo,” Cooper said. “We want teams to know that when you come to Millett, you better have your running shoes and you better be ready to play because it’s going to be a fast-paced game and we’re going to be getting up and down the court.”
In taking over a program that has won 21 MAC Championships, Cooper said he sees the students and fans as an integral part of the process of getting Miami back to that level.
The RedHawks averaged 1,689 fans for each home game last season, and Cooper acknowledged the success of the program depends on more than just the players.
“What I learned at TSU is that the success doesn’t make any difference if you can’t engage the students, so we need you [the fans],” Cooper said. “We have to get to the point where people want to come out and support the team. There’s a lot of times during the season when your energy isn’t where it needs to be and the fans can carry you through those games … We have a long way to go, but that’s where we want to be.”
A new chapter is starting for Miami basketball, but with Cooper at the helm the RedHawks will look to continue the success they have had in the past as they move towards the future.