MOUNT GILEAD – Tom Cooper became the longest-tenured and winningest coach in Mount Gilead boys basketball history this season — even though it meant taking a weird and circuitous route to get there.
He spent eight years in Columbus with the package delivery company, finding addresses and apparently himself.
Self-discovery led Cooper into teaching and coaching and to the strangest — and, yet, most familiar — of places. His alma mater.
He owes it all to a chance meeting in 2002 with then-new Mount Gilead basketball coach Sean Luzader, a former classmate.
“The first night I went to class to get my teaching certificate, I ran into Sean at the Ashland University branch in Columbus,” Cooper said. “We hadn’t seen each other since high school. I told him I was interested in teaching and coaching. He said, ‘You know what? I just got hired at Mount Gilead. You should come teach and coach there.'”
As it turned out Mount Gilead had an opening for a history teacher. Cooper was a history major at Ohio University. Karma.
“It’s like it was meant to be,” said Cooper, whose wife Lee Ann is a former Mount Gilead cheerleader and homecoming queen. “I never dreamed it would happen at my alma mater. It’s like it was destiny. My start in coaching was pretty non-traditional, that’s for sure.”
Luzader is now the head coach at Thomas Worthington. Cooper, who got his start under Luzader as freshman coach, just completed his ninth season as varsity head coach of the Indians.
Actually, it will be complete after Thursday night when he coaches the South — and two Mount Gilead All-Ohioans in Xavier Harris and Chris Godfrey — in the 37th News Journal All-Star Classic.
Cooper has won a school-record 98 games with the Indians, 75 in the last five years along with Mid-Ohio Athletic Conference titles in 2012 and this season.
In three of the last four seasons, the Indians have boasted records of 18-3, 16-7 and, this season, 21-4 — breaking the previous single-season victory mark of 20 set in 1954.
Before Cooper led the Indians to an MOAC title in 2012, the school had won only two league championships in the previous 47 years — 1965 and 1983. Now they’ve turned that feat twice in the last four.
Ironically, Cooper took over the helm one year after assisting Luzader in the 2006 Classic, which their South team won 111-107.
Cooper doesn’t see this Classic being his swan song at Mount Gilead.
“They never really had a winning tradition and it’s mainly because we’ve never kept a coach,” Cooper said. “Jerry White had a successful run in the 1960s, but since then I’m the only one who’s stuck around. I’m fortunate that over the last five years I’ve had the same staff (Dan Strasser and Gary Pomeroy).”
Cooper and his family live in the Highland school district so Lee Ann can be closer to her job as a nurse in Columbus. Their daughters, 10th-grader Mallory and sixth-grader Sarah, are into singing and dancing and open-enrolled at Mount Gilead.
“I’ve always loved Mount Gilead, and have deep roots in the community, but it’s so competitive getting a teaching job that I never thought it would be Mount Gilead,” Cooper said. “Now that I’m there, they might have a hard time getting rid of me.”
In a sense, Cooper is an offshoot of the Paul “Bear” Bremigan coaching tree. Bremigan was an iconic football coach at Mount Gilead and two of his athletes were Cooper mentors — uncle Jerry Cooper and Chris Kubbs, first cousin of Tom’s wife.
Jerry Cooper, who has amassed nearly 250 wins as a football coach (eight of them in his one year at Lucas), won state championships in football and track at Columbus Grove and had a huge run of success at Lima Central Catholic.
Kubbs, who was Tom Cooper’s baseball coach at Mount Gilead, had over 200 wins in football and is closing in on 500 in baseball at Marion Pleasant. He’s won state titles in both.
Can’t go wrong with them as role models. And there was also Tom’s late father, Bob, a successful Little League coach for years. He worked nights at PPG in Crestline so he could attend his son’s baseball games.
“Tom was a very good athlete,” Kubbs said. “We were in the district finals down in Clipper Stadium (in Columbus). He slipped and fell on wet turf going for a fly ball. He caught it flat on his back. It was amazing. Most kids would have been worried about hurting themselves, but he still had the focus and concentration to catch the ball.”
Kubbs has noticed that same focus and concentration watching Cooper work the sidelines.
“He reminds me of that guy at Michigan State,” Kubbs said, referring to Tom Izzo. “His mannerisms … just everything. I like watching Michigan State basketball because of Izzo and Tom’s got that same type of demeanor. He keeps it under control, but he’s got that energy. It’s critical in coaching. If you’re going to spend that kind of time at it, you better show that endurance.”
Kubbs said he and both Tom and Jerry Cooper are by-products of the winning mentality instilled in Mount Gilead’s “Cradle of Coaches” by papa “Bear” Bremigan, so named because he wore a houndstooth hat just like legendary college coach Paul “Bear” Bryant.
“(Bremigan) was an intense competitor,” Kubbs said. “That’s what Tom is; that’s what we all are. We can accept losing, but we don’t take it lightly.”
Jerry Cooper lived next door to his brother, Bob, and his family, and because he was much younger was more like a big brother to his nephew Tom.
“The thing I got more than anything else from my uncle is that you need to have passion in what you do,” Cooper said. “He’s a very energetic and passionate coach. I took from him that you have to love your players and make sure they know you do. He’s a player’s coach.”
Jerry Cooper, who now coaches in a small Tennessee town at the base of the Smokey Mountains, keeps close tabs on his nephew, conferring by phone and watching Mount Gilead games on the Internet.
“When I was in Lima, I’d show up for as many of his games as I could,” Jerry Cooper said. “Now he’s gotten in the habit of calling me after games and we’ll rehash what happened.
“Tom’s very different than me. I’m an old school, in-your-face, get-after-you guy who charges around, demanding players do exactly what I want. Tom’s a much better teacher and articulate in the way he talks to his players. He’s compassionate. I tell him he’s a way better coach than I could ever dream to be.”
Remember, that’s nearly 250 wins talking. High praise indeed.