2-28-02, 8:25 a.m.
BY GEOFF HOBSON
With a day still left before NFL free agency opens, the Bengals already made a significant off-season move Thursday when former Ohio State head coach John Cooper joined the club as a consultant/special assistant.
Cooper, 64, the fifth winningest coach in Big Ten history, is to aid the Bengals mainly in scouting and drafting after a stretch in which the the Buckeyes produced 16 NFL first-round draft choices and 21 first-team All-Americans.
Cooper, who will continue to live in Columbus, begins work Friday at the league's scouting combine in Indianapolis. In the next few weeks he'll move into a Paul Brown Stadium office, where he plans to spend the week leading up to the April 20-21 draft and the May 3-6 minicamp.
"In no way is this a full-time job, but it's a great opportunity for me to keep my hand in the game and help the Bengals with my knowledge of college football," Cooper said. "I feel like I can help them uncover the kind of information that teams need about players before they draft them. It's not all about running and jumping. A lot of it is intangibles."
Bengals President Mike Brown, who has been a die-hard Buckeye follower since his father coached at Ohio State 60 years ago, has admired Cooper since he arrived in Columbus in 1987 and has high regard for his 111-43-4 run with the Buckeyes that ended with his dismissal after the 2000 season.
"He has been a very accomplished coach. It's hard to do any better than what John did at Ohio State for all those years," Brown said. "He knows good players and coaches and he's wired into the college football world. He's got a good feel for players. He knows what we would
be looking for in players. Year in and year out, he continually identified top talent."
Cooper said he plans to continue broadcasting college games for ESPN, as well as staying near a new grandchild in Columbus, and that he in no way should be considered a potential head coaching candidate in Cincinnati.
Cooper drove to PBS Wednesday for a lunch meeting with Brown, director of player personnel Pete Brown, and head coach Dick LeBeau, a member of OSU's national champions from the late 1950s. Both sides said it was a mutual decision after years of crossing paths in the scouting process. Cooper was looking for a way to stay in the game and the Bengals had always enjoyed working with him while scouting his players.
"We're talking about a top, top football guy," said Jim Lippincott, the Bengals director of pro/college personnel. "Anytime we went to Ohio State, we always found John to be candid, knowledgeable, courteous and very professional. This is something that really helps us with another pair of excellent eyes. He was straight with us and wasn't like a lot of coaches who were just trying to sell his players."
Cooper is to do some scouting, but not nearly the load done by the club's three chief scouts, Lippincott, vice president Paul Brown, and director of pro/college personnel Duke Tobin. He said he has no plans to get involved in any on-field situations.
"Dick LeBeau has been very good to me down through the years as a former (Ohio State) player and we get along well," Cooper said. "He told me if I see anything that would help them be a better football team, to let him know."
Cooper feels he can bring the Bengals another pipeline into the college game that will give them more information in the evaluation process. He saw up close how NFL teams made mistakes in judging some of his players.
"You wouldn't believe how many of them just didn't talk to me before they drafted them or didn't draft them," Cooper said. "They would talk to an assistant coach, or somebody else, but not the head coach and I think that's got to be done if you really want to find out everything you need to know about a player. I know so many of the coaches in the country that I feel like I can get on the phone and in five minutes get in touch with one I need to get in touch with.
"I think as a team you have to realize what a player does in high school and college is pretty much what he's going to do in the NFL," Cooper said. "For instance, if they have a history of getting hurt, they're probably going to have trouble staying healthy. If they only had one good year, then you have to question if they're going to be consistent."
The Bengals never shied away from taking a Cooper player. They took linebacker Steve Tovar in the third round in 1993, defensive lineman Dan Wilkinson with the draft's first pick in 1994, and fullback Jeff Cothran two rounds later. They also took cornerback Ty Howard off waivers before the 1999 season.
Cooper had notorious problems beating arch-rival Michigan with only two wins against the Wolverines while in Columbus. But he still has no answer why the Buckeyes got rid of him after one of the nation's most successful runs.
"That's a good question and only one man knows the answer and that's Andy Geiger," said Cooper of OSU's athletic director. "He had a history of changing coaches before he got there and he's pretty much cleaned house at Ohio State. But this is a perfect situation for me. I can still live in Columbus and be involved in football by being right down (Interstate) 71."