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Penn State earns 300th Big Ten baseball win in dramatic fashion
Rob Cooper enters his third season at the helm of the Nittany Lion baseball program in 2016. He was selected as the 14th head baseball coach in Penn State history on August 9, 2013 after a successful nine-year stint as the head coach at Wright State.
Cooper brought an accomplished resume to Penn State that included three NCAA tournament appearances as a head coach and five more as an assistant coach, including two trips to the College World Series with Miami (Florida). As a head coach, seven of the players he coached were drafted, including eventual Major Leaguer Joe Smith, and 12 more signed professional free agent contracts. He 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.
Not shy about stating his goal of building a Nittany Lion program that will compete in Omaha in June, Cooper has made tremendous progress in just two seasons in Happy Valley. The Lions totaled 18 wins against a schedule ranking in the bottom third nationally during his inaugural campaign, but rose to the challenge under his leadership in 2015, 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.
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 certainly did that in 2015, travelling to traditional powers Texas A&M and South Carolina. Five 2015 opponents ultimately advanced to the NCAA Regionals and two advanced to the Super Regionals.
The early season tests paid off in Big Ten play, as 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.
Penn State’s improvement on the field could be traced to the development of its returners and the ability for freshmen from Cooper’s first recruiting class to step up in vital roles. Senior Aaron Novak and redshirt junior Greg Guers both enjoyed career seasons, as the duo combined for 12 of Penn State’s 16 home runs on the season after the team hit just five the year before. The 220 percent increase dramatically outpaced the national average of 44 percent credited to lowered seams on the game ball. Talented sophomore shortstop Jim Haley also became an offensive force, leading PSU in batting in Big Ten games with a .333 average.
On the mound, juniors Nick Hedge and Jack Anderson enjoyed their finest seasons to date, while newcomers accounted for nearly half of the team’s inning pitched. Freshmen Taylor Lehman and Nick Distasio drew weekend starts, while Sal Biasi tallied three saves as a key reliever.
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 PSU. 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.
In two years at PSU, 23 of Cooper's student-athletes have earned Academic All-Big Ten honors. As a military history buff, his 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.
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).
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.
During the 2012 campaign, Cooper recorded career win No. 250. The Raiders also posted the program's second-longest winning streak ever as they reeled off 14-straight victories during March and April, outscoring their opponents 185-67 in the process. 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, Cooper was selected as the Horizon League Coach of the Year as WSU finished 31-25. 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. Horizon League Player of the Year Jeremy Hamilton, Justin Parker and Ross Vagedes were all selected during the draft in the fifth, sixth and 35th rounds, respectively. The 2008 squad set school records for batting average and slugging percentage, while Hamilton (.410) became the fifth WSU player to post a batting average of .400 or better.
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 coming to WSU, 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 and losing to top-seeded Texas 7-3, and 7-5. The Golden Eagles, who finished with an overall mark of 50-11 in 2004, also boasted regular-season wins over national powers Arkansas, Arizona State (twice), Creighton (three times) and Wichita State. Oral Roberts also 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 (Fla.), spending two seasons (1994-95) as a student/graduate assistant on the Hurricanes' staff. While at Miami, Cooper helped lead 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. During his tenure as an assistant coach at Miami and Tulane, his teams advanced to NCAA Tournaments in 1994-95 (Miami) and 1998 (Tulane). In 1997, the Green Wave won the Conference USA regular-season crown.
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. In his first season at Sac City, Cooper helped guide SCC to the California Community College State Tournament championship. Sac City was then the runner-up in 2002.
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.