One name that is some Gamecocks' fans lips as an attractive candidate for our basketball opening is Tennessee St.'s John Cooper. Cooper has strong ties to the South Carolina program. He played under Eddie Fogler at Wichita St., and he later coached under Fogler at Carolina during the heady years of the late 1990s. Since then, Cooper has had fairly successful stints as an assistant coach at Oregon and Auburn.
Now, three years into his stint as head man at Tennessee St., Cooper has the look of an up-and-coming coach. This season was a very successful one at TSU, with the Tigers winning 20 games, including nine in a row at one point during the conference slate. That streak included Murray St.'s, then seventh-ranked, only loss of the regular season. Cooper ended up leading his team to within two points of an NCAA Tournament berth; TSU lost by two to Murray St. in the OVC Championship. The Tigers would then lose to Mercer in the CIT. If you feel like you remember Tennessee St. from somewhere but can't quite remember why, it's worth recalling that this team upset Darrin Horn's Gamecocks in the Colonial Life Arena early in the season. This was TSU's first win over an SEC school in 24 tries. Not bad for such an unheralded program.
Cooper would bring a number of positives to Columbia. He's a young, energetic coach who the fans may feel some connection to due to Cooper's SC roots. He has good recruiting ties to the area, having coached in Tennessee, Alabama, and South Carolina. He's African-American; many believe hiring a minority coach would be a positive step for the university, and that Eric Hyman may want to do so. Lastly, he can probably be had at a reasonable price.
That said, I only like exploring Cooper if we can't get one of the higher-profile options. Cooper has done well in his first head coaching gig, but it's his first gig, he's only been there three years, and he's yet to take his team to the NCAA Tournament. Darrin Horn came with a bigger resume than that. Granted, Horn inherited a perennial mid-major power at Western Kentucky, whereas Cooper is working with a team with no long-term record of major success. That speaks in Cooper's favor. Still, with guys like Frank Martin and John Groce still possibilities, I can't approve of Hyman going after Cooper at this point. This hire is too important for us to go with anything other than the best available coach we can afford. If we can't get someone in that category, then I'm all for seeing Hyman take a look at Cooper.