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The 2017 baseball season will be Rob Cooper’s fourth as head coach of the Nittany Lion baseball program. Not shy about stating his ultimate goal of returning Penn State to Omaha in June, the Lions have made significant strides under his leadership.
Penn State is not only coming off its best season with Cooper at the helm, but perhaps its most unique in program history, as Cooper, no stranger to international baseball, led the Nittany Lions on a historic trip to Cuba in November 2015.
The rare, once-in-a-lifetime experience helped bring a young Penn State team together, and the Lions went on to earn their first winning record (overall and in conference) since 2012. The starting lineup included at least three freshmen in all but six games and five to six freshmen in 19 games, and took on nine eventual NCAA tournament teams, including a three-game series at home against College World Series participant TCU. The Lions’ 28 wins were a 10-win improvement over the previous season, and its 12 Big Ten wins doubled the 2015 total and was one more than the previous two seasons combined.
The season ended with a 12-inning, walk-off victory, giving Cooper 350 wins for his head coaching career thus far.
Returning players continued to improve under Cooper’s guidance throughout the year to lead the youthful squad, and junior third baseman Jim Haley and senior closer Jack Anderson earned the ultimate honor of being drafted by Major League teams. Haley played all three seasons at Penn State under Cooper, while Anderson dramatically improved over his final three seasons to become Penn State’s all-time leader in appearances and saves. Haley and Anderson became the eighth and ninth players, respectively, of Cooper’s 12-year head coaching career to be drafted to play at the next level. During a successful nine-year stint as the head coach at Wright State, seven of the players he coached were drafted, including eventual Major Leaguer Joe Smith, and 12 more signed professional free agent contracts.
Haley and Anderson were the first drafted out of Penn State since 2012, and Anderson and senior outfielder Greg Guers became the program’s first All-Big Ten picks also since 2012. Infielder Willie Burger and pitcher Justin Hagenman drew All-Big Ten Freshman recognition, while Hagenman also became Penn State’s first Louisville Slugger All-American since 1997.
Although Cooper has proven himself to be a great head coach on the field, his strong belief in the first part of the term “student-athlete” is perhaps the top reason he has proven to be an excellent fit at Penn State. Even with state-of-the-art facilities, the chance to take on elite competition and a program history that includes five trips to the College World Series, Cooper cites the value of a Penn State degree as one of the top reasons to join his program. The last message to the team before departing the bus upon return from a road trip – no matter the hour – is often a stern reminder to be in class on time and take care of school work.
The trip to Cuba prior to the 2016 season is perhaps the best example of his commitment to developing truly educated men. The extensive planning for the trip began well before U.S. policy regarding travel to Cuba loosened, and playing baseball was a secondary aspect. Nonetheless, Penn State became the first NCAA Division I team to compete against a Cuban National Series team, the first U.S. team at any level to defeat a Cuban National Series team, the first U.S. baseball team to play in Cuba since restoration of diplomatic ties with Cuba, the second NCAA team to play in Cuba since restoration of diplomatic ties (Coastal Carolina men's basketball, August 2015) and the fifth NCAA Division I baseball team to compete in post-revolutionary Cuba. The harmony between academics and athletics was on full display, as multiple professors and a group of journalism students also joined the travel party.
In three years at Penn State, 30 of Cooper's student-athletes have earned Academic All-Big Ten honors, including Jack Anderson, who this past season became the first Nittany Lion in six years to be named to the CoSIDA Academic All-District team. As a military history buff, Cooper’s speeches to the team often include historical references. He even arranged to have the team visit the headquarters of the Navy SEAL Team VI headquarters and speak with a pair of Navy SEALs – one a Penn State alum – during a travel day on the team’s 2015 spring break trip.
Cooper was selected as the 14th head baseball coach in Penn State history on August 9, 2013. He brought an accomplished resume that included three NCAA tournament appearances as a head coach at Wright State and five more at various stops as an assistant coach, including two trips to the College World Series with Miami (Florida). Cooper was twice named the Horizon League Coach of the Year and guided Wright State to three league tournament championships and two regular season championships after the team suffered six losing seasons in the seven years before his arrival.
With Cooper seeking to complete yet another program turnaround, the Lions started making gains during his second season in Happy Valley in 2015. Penn State totaled 18 wins against a schedule ranking in the bottom third nationally during his inaugural campaign in 2014, but rose to the challenge the following season, matching the previous season’s 18 wins despite playing a schedule that ranked in the upper third in difficulty and involved 10 games against top-25 opponents. The Nittany Lions rallied from a 7-0 deficit against No. 21 Indiana for their first win over a ranked opponent in three seasons and gave eighth-ranked Illinois its biggest scare during its record winning streak, battling for 15 innings. Penn State ultimately won one more conference game than the year before, despite the Big Ten enjoying arguably its most competitive season to date with a league-record five teams earning NCAA tournament bids.
A major part of Cooper’s scheduling philosophy involves getting the Lions in “NCAA Regional environments” to prepare them for success beyond Memorial Day. The Lions have certainly done that the past two seasons, travelling to traditional powers Texas A&M and South Carolina (twice), while hosting TCU. ACC and Big 12 schools have also dotted the Lions’ slate, as the Big Ten as a whole has staked its ground as one of the premier baseball conferences in the country despite notions that Northern schools cannot be successful.
Shortly after Cooper accepted the PSU head coaching position in 2014, the California native traveled to Taichung, Taiwan to serve as the head coach of USA Baseball's 18U National Team at the IBAF U18 World Cup. Cooper steered Team USA to an 8-1 record in World Cup play, including seven consecutive victories to win the gold medal.
Not long after the triumph in Taiwan, Cooper received one of the highest honors bestowed in the profession, as he was announced as the Rod Dedeaux USA Baseball Coach of the Year. With the honor, Cooper became just the 16th individual in the award's history to receive the accolade, joining the likes of Scott Brosius, Davey Johnson and Tommy Lasorda.
Cooper was also a member of the coaching staff for the 2007 and 2009 USA College National teams. The 2007 team earned a silver medal at the Pan Am Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Fourteen of the 20 players on the 2007 team reached the Major Leagues, including 2013 All-Star Pedro Alvarez. Fourteen of the 22 members of the 2009 team have also reached the Major Leagues, including 2015 All-Stars Gerrit Cole and Yasmani Grandall.
Cooper methodically built Wright State into a perennial contender in the Horizon League with seven 30-win seasons, two Horizon League regular-season titles, three Horizon League Tournament crowns and six Horizon League Championship game appearances. In nine seasons starting in 2005, Cooper accumulated a 286-230 record, including a pair of wins over No. 1-ranked opponents Virginia (3/5/10) and Georgia (3/24/09). He was named the Horizon League Coach of the Year in 2010 and 2011.
Cooper saw 47 players earn all-conference accolades and 18 garner all-newcomer honors. He also produced five Horizon League Players of the Year, one Pitcher of the Year, three Relief Pitchers of the Year and two Newcomers of the Year.
The 2011 season saw Cooper record his 200th coaching victory and earn the Horizon League Coach of the Year award for the second consecutive year. The Raiders won their second-straight Horizon League regular season title with a 16-7 record, claimed the league tournament crown by winning three-straight games and advanced to the NCAA Regionals in College Station, Texas. In 2010, the Raiders won the Horizon League regular-season title with a mark of 17-6, the first regular-season conference crown for the program since the 1997 squad won the Midwestern Collegiate Conference title. The 2009 Wright State Raiders compiled a 33-30 overall record and returned to the NCAA tournament following a Horizon League tournament championship.
At season's end in 2008, Cooper watched as a school and Horizon League-record three players were drafted during the 2008 Major League Baseball First Year Player Draft. In 2007, Wright State enjoyed one of the most prolific offensive seasons in school history as it broke three career records and 11 single-season school records. Ross Oeder, now a Penn State assistant coach on Cooper's staff, was named the Horizon League Player of the Year and garnered second team All-America Honors. The 2006 edition of the Raiders set six school records and posted the most season wins in five years. Cooper's squad defeated nationally-ranked TCU on the road, topped national-powerhouse Notre Dame in South Bend and was on the brink of an upset against eventual national champion Oregon State in the NCAA Corvallis Regional.
Before arriving at Wright State, Cooper served as the hitting coach, recruiting coordinator and bench coach at Oral Roberts University. A perennial power of the Mid-Continent Conference (now Summit League), ORU advanced to the finals of the NCAA Austin Regional in 2004, beating TCU twice before falling to Texas 7-3 and 7-5. The Golden Eagles finished with an overall mark of 50-11 in 2004 and had five players selected in the Major League Baseball draft, two honored as All-Americans by the ABCA and three named All-Americans by the College Baseball Insiders website.
Cooper began his coaching career at national power Miami, spending two seasons (1994-95) as a student/graduate assistant on the Hurricanes' staff. While at Miami, Cooper helped the Hurricanes to College World Series berths in 1994 and 1995. Cooper spent the 1996 season as an assistant and team academic coordinator at Wake Forest, then moved on to Tulane for the next two seasons, serving as the Green Wave's hitting coach. In 1997, the Green Wave won the Conference USA regular-season crown, and in 1998, they advanced to the NCAA Tournament. Cooper left Tulane following the 1998 season and returned to Sacramento City College, where he starred in the early 1990's before lettering at Miami in 1993.
Along with his college coaching experience, Cooper also was an associate scout for the Los Angeles Dodgers from 1990-92 and has been selected to four coaching stints with USA Baseball in 2000, 2007, 2009 and 2013.
Cooper earned his bachelor's degree in psychology from Miami in 1994 and a master's in sports sciences/administration from Miami in 1996. He is married to his wife, Maureen, and has two sons, Jake and Tyson.