NCAA BK

Coaching couple calls it quits together

The Daily Dan Wolken
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Dan Wolken

   
 

The job offer came on Oct. 7, 1991, and Marty Cooper knew he had to take it. It wasn’t big-time basketball, just a junior college in Mississippi, but it was a head-coaching gig. No more graduate assistant work, no more sitting in the third assistant’s seat for the women’s team at Miami of Ohio. This was his opportunity, his own program. Finally, his own program.

It was all happening so quickly. Practice would start the following week, his first game less than a month away. And then there was his fiancee Jennifer, a former women’s basketball player at Miami whom he first met as her coach and fell in love with after her senior year. They had been engaged a few months, but the plan was to wait a while for marriage. The phone call from East Central Community College had suddenly changed that timetable.

“Mississippi is the Bible Belt,” Cooper said. “I wasn’t going to be able to bring someone I was engaged to. I had to be married. So I got the job on Oct. 7. On Oct. 9, we got married in her mom’s living room. On Oct. 11, we started practice.”

Marty and Jennifer Cooper are retiring as coaches of a junior-college basketball team but remaining as teachers.

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Few professions are harder on marriages than coaching. Whether you’re at Duke or a junior college in Decatur, Miss., it’s an all-consuming, relentless lifestyle. The long office hours, the recruiting trips, the pressure of winning and losing; so many families break under the stress of it all. Even at the highest levels, where the inconveniences come with million-dollar rewards, so many look back with regret on the home life they missed.

Cooper announced this week he’s ready to retire from coaching, 21 seasons after that first crazy practice. He never got to the big stage. After seven seasons as the men’s basketball coach at East Central, he spent the last 14 at Itawamba Community College in Tupelo, Miss. He’s won more than 350 games, coached in the national junior-college tournament three times. It’s been a nice run, but he’s ready to do something else.

“I just want to have a normal life,” he said. “I’ve missed out on a lot.”

Cooper, however, has missed out on far less than most. Coaches often say they spend more time with their assistants than their wives, which certainly is not true in this case. Cooper couldn’t have spent more time with his assistants than his wife, because his assistant is his wife.

For all of Cooper’s 21 seasons as a head coach, the lead chair on his bench has been occupied by Jennifer Cooper, forming the most unique partnership in college basketball. The video study, the game plans, the recruiting visits — they did all of it together. Marty Cooper never had to choose between his basketball dreams and his marriage, because in their relationship, they were one and the same.

“Most men and women who are married don’t want to work together,” he said. “It’s a rare thing.”

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And yet, for more than two decades, it worked, shattering all kinds of stereotypes about what a basketball coach’s life is supposed to be.

“We realize we have something special,” Jennifer Cooper said.

It basically happened by accident. When Marty Cooper took the job at East Central, he wasn’t given a budget to hire an assistant coach. He was overwhelmed at first; didn’t even know his players’ names and only had a couple weeks to get them ready for a game. Jennifer had been a good player at Miami and knew the game but had never really thought about coaching. Marty asked her to come watch practice, give him feedback and keep stats during games.

“Before you know it, we’re 28-5 ranked sixth and it just evolved from there,” he said. “She knows what’s in my brain and what I want, but she explains it better to the players. I’m the person that gets on their ass and yells at them, and Mrs. Coach can explain what coach wants when he’s upset.”

Soon, she had the title and everything. He called the timeouts, chewed the officials. She was the star at practice, demanding perfection, unintimidated by coaching young men, many of whom came from rough backgrounds. Part maternal figure to her players, part competitor who could scrap with them in drills, having a woman on the bench always was a curiosity to outsiders but very normal in the program they built.

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“She’s not some little prissy woman,” he said. “She was a very good player and really a competitive person. She could still get out there and not embarrass herself. At first, she had to really earn the guys’ respect, and then after you have a couple good teams and win some championships and you bring a recruit in, it’s kind of like it’s not even noticeable anymore. It’s just, this is the assistant coach and she does a great job. It doesn’t take very long to realize you better give this lady some respect.”

Over the years, Jennifer Cooper had chances to branch out on her own, coaching junior-college women and even some men’s high-school programs. But the rhythm of their life — recruiting together, going to coaching clinics together, spending literally every day together — was too good to give up. The losses hurt, and they had to take that home together, too. But more often than not, there was balance to make it worthwhile.

“Even we might go at it during a timeout, and you can tell on the bench we’ve had words [but] it doesn’t go home,” she said.

Now, it’s all coming to an end. Marty’s ready to retire, to spend more time with their 11-year old daughter McKenzie and make sure he doesn’t miss anything. Jennifer’s actually having a tougher time giving it up. They’re both going to stay at Itawamba in teaching capacities. She may think about coaching again one day. Either way, they’ll miss coaching together.

“That’s what we laugh about, are we going to have a life now? What are we going to talk about?” she said. “I think we’re going to have an adjustment period to where we can sit here and enjoy our coffee and read the paper and not have to watch film, not have to be worried about somebody passing their history class.”

But the Coopers are more fortunate than most. Too many coaches let the profession eat them up. Not only is Marty not letting that happen, but he was able to bring his best friend along for the entire ride.

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