Cooper undergoing recruiting process with UA again 25 years laterby Javier Morales on Jul. 27, 2010, under Sports
LAS VEGAS — Eric Cooper is familiar with the stage of Sean Miller‘s program at Arizona because he experienced a similar phase in Lute Olson’s timeline with the Wildcats.
Cooper was part of Olson’s famed Class of 1985, arguably the best Olson amassed, that included Sean Elliott, Anthony Cook, Kenny Lofton and Bruce Wheatley.
That was Olson’s third class at Arizona. Olson’s first class included emergency plug-ins, such as Steve Kerr, Pete Williams and Eddie Smith following Ben Lindsey‘s 4-24 debacle in 1982-83. Olson’s recruiting scope broadened with his second class, in which he signed his first McDonald’s All-American Craig McMillan.
Olson’s third recruiting class with Cooper, Elliott and Co., hit the mother lode, a result of the former coach’s ability to take the UA to the NCAA tournament in only his second season. Olson’s full potential was not realized at the time of their signing, however.
Olson had no Pac-10 titles and no Final Fours with the Wildcats at that point. Sellouts at McKale Center were not yet the norm. McKale Center, which had a capacity of 13,658 at the time, averaged 7,297 fans in Olson’s first year and 10,932 in his second.
“The team has a little bit to prove,” Cooper said Saturday when asked of his thoughts about Arizona’s program under Miller. “The coaching staff has a little bit to prove. The fan support is there on another level.”
The average attendance during Miller’s first season was 13,815, slightly less than the current McKale Center capacity of 14,545.
“I went down there in February and watched them play USC,” Cooper added. “The crowd was good, the best in the West, as far as I can see. UNLV has a good fan base, but I was really impressed to see the Arizona crowd.
“And they are intelligent fans. They do all the little things to do keep (the atmosphere) high level.”
Cooper was in Tucson that day with his son Eric Cooper Jr., a Class of 2013 guard prospect who is a recruiting target of Miller and his staff. He coaches Cooper Jr. at La Verne (Calif.) Lutheran High School and with the Belmont Shore AAU program. Cooper Sr. was in Las Vegas last weekend at the Fab 48 tournament at Bishop Gorman High School.
His son remained home in California nursing a stress fracture in his right leg. He can not return to the court until at least September, maybe longer.
“He got caught up in a situation where his bones are growing at the same time he had the stress fracture,” Cooper Sr. said. “He’s growing and trying to play at the same time. The doctors feel it’s best that he take some time off to let it heal.”
Cooper Jr., only 15 years old, is taking the time off from basketball in stride. His father said he is not showing frustration.
“He’s the type of kid that he is like, ‘Ok, what do I do next?’ It’s not a sad thing or happy thing. It’s just normal.”
Cooper Sr. knows all about overcoming obstacles in basketball. He and Wheatley transferred from Arizona after their freshman season. They followed former UA assistant coach Ken Burmeister in 1986 to Texas-San Antonio, where Burmeister became head coach, because of the promise of much more playing time.
Cooper Sr. faced the likelihood of sharing minutes or playing behind Steve Kerr, Craig McMillan and Kenny Lofton. Wheatley figured to never play much behind Cook and Tom Tolbert.
Burmeister admitted to reporters in 1988, when UTSA was in the NCAA tournament, that Cooper Sr. and Wheatley were not inclined to leave Arizona at first.
“They just wanted to play,” Burmeister said. “We had to recruit them hard to get here (to UTSA), to be honest.”
Cooper Sr. said he remains in contact with some of his former Arizona teammates. He communicates often with McMillan, the head coach of Santa Rosa (Calif.) College. McMillan picks his brain and inquires about some of Cooper Sr.’s AAU players.
After an extended playing career, which included a few years in Europe, Cooper Sr. has dedicated himself to coaching and training young talent. He coaches at the high school and AAU levels and serves as the director of Quick Shot Hoops , a training program in its 14th year of existence that assists players of all ages to prepare for the next level of competition.
Cooper Sr. and his staff work with players in elementary school, middle school, high school, college and the pros.
“Everything is fine with me at this point,” Cooper Sr. said. “I played pro ball in Europe, coached in the WNBA and other leagues. I had a kid so I had to decide if I should continue to be a pro coach and have my son see me on TV every night or bring him up and give him the same opportunity that I did.
“Once he gets out of here (graduates from high school) who knows? I’m also involved with Dream Builders Integrate, a non-profit organization that helps youth reach their potential in whatever they do. We take tours overseas. We hold award banquets and reward kids who do good things in the community.”
Cooper Jr. is appreciative of his father’s lessons on and off the court. His father’s experience playing the game, and now coaching it, is invaluable for the recruiting process. The elder Cooper has been involved with recruiting in different angles — from being recruited as a player, to dealing with colleges as a high school coach, and to now being the AAU contact for these coaches.
“I deal with the whole spectrum of communicating with Roy Williams all the way down to the lowest college,” Cooper Sr. said. “I deal with them on a daily basis. I get the kids to understand what they have to do.”
Cooper’s assistance goes beyond helping his prospects formulate a list of where they might attend college.
“I try to hear what the college coaches have to say and I write the coach’s name down,” Cooper Sr. said. “I make sure our guys learn how to communicate with 40-year-old men. It’s like learning all you need to learn to communicate with your future boss.
“It’s not about what school you want to go to. It’s about knowing how to deal with people. If you do that, you will form the best possible decision. Everything will work its way out.”