- Andy Katz, ESPN.com Senior Writer
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John Cooper was well-connected in the Kansas City area. He was a car dealer who had ties to the Kansas City Royals. He knew Frank White. He knew U L Washington. The Royals were his team.
But his grandson, also named John Cooper, had a bond with him beyond baseball. They loved hoops, specifically NAIA hoops, and the conference has held its basketball championship in K.C. for all but eight years since 1937.
So they would go to Kemper Arena. Head to the national tournament every March and watch the best basketball few discussed on a national level. Back in the day, Tennessee State was certainly in the NAIA discussion.
In 1957, TSU became the first all-black team to win an integrated college basketball national championship. The Tigers followed that up by winning in '58 and '59. Five players from those teams went on to play in the NBA.
They were coached by the legendary John McLendon, a former student of Dr. James Naismith while at Kansas. McLendon won 88 percent of his games at the Nashville school.
"Tennessee State and John McLendon were the team we talked about," Cooper said. "There was a lot of pride in that school."
There still is. And there may not be a coach who is as passionate about returning the Tigers to their glory years as Cooper. When you see the transactions in the newspaper or scrolling across the ticker on TV, the names attached to the schools don't always resonate.
Cooper earned the Tennessee State job in March after serving five years on the Auburn staff. He had been an assistant for 15 years, with stops at Oregon, South Carolina and Fayetteville State. So a well-deserved shot for a career assistant who had made much of his mark in the South? Sure.
But there's more.
Cooper knew the history of Tennessee State. This wasn't just a case when an SEC assistant grabbed a head-coaching job because it was within his regional recruiting base. Cooper coveted the position because he has a deep attachment to the program. The connection was spawned through memories of going to games with his grandfather when he was a kid in Kansas City and a lifelong history of wanting to continue a lineage of something he remembers fondly from his childhood.
At the time of the hiring, Tennessee State president Melvin Johnson said in a statement that during the interview process, Cooper was "ultraprepared and knew where TSU basketball was, understood where we wanted to go and had a plan to get us there." Athletic director Teresa Phillips added that Cooper had learned from "great coaches."
Indeed, Cooper's basketball roots run deep. His hometown of Kansas City was long the center of NCAA and NAIA hoops, and he grew up only about an hour's drive from where McLendon learned the game from Naismith. He played (and was a Rhodes Scholar candidate) at Wichita State for Eddie Fogler and later coached with him at South Carolina. Fogler, whom TSU officials consulted about the hire, played for Dean Smith at North Carolina. Smith and his longtime assistant Bill Guthridge grew up in Kansas.
So Cooper isn't a root on the Smith coaching tree, but he considers himself at least part of a branch. He is fully aware of the ties to Kansas from Carolina to Phog Allen to McLendon to Tennessee State and now to him.
The pride with which Cooper talks about TSU seems genuine and not just spin for a first-year coach. He fully understands the history of Tennessee State, the only historically black college or university in a conference that isn't the MEAC or SWAC. The Tigers joined the Ohio Valley in the mid-1980s, and although Frankie Allen had success with three OVC titles, the program hit a skid when it hired Nolan Richardson III. He was fired for a gun-toting incident during the 2002-03 season.
Cy Alexander, who previously had coached well at an HBCU (South Carolina State), was brought in and lasted six seasons, posting a 67-107 record. In a rare move for an OVC school, Tennessee State fired Alexander during the season. He was let go in February when the Tigers had a record of 4-8 in the conference and 6-16 overall after having reached the OVC title game the previous season.
Assistant Mark Pittman coached Tennessee State to a 6-2 mark the rest of the season. The team finished 9-9 in the league, 12-18 overall. The Tigers did lose their top scorer, Gerald Robinson Jr. (17.8 points per game), who transferred to Georgia after the season. Cooper said Robinson had wanted to play up to another level before his arrival.
The new coach credited Alexander with doing a solid job in recruiting, noted by landing Robinson, a player whom Cooper said he looked at while he was Jeff Lebo's assistant at Auburn.
"If you look at this team, they had some of the better talent in the league last year," Cooper said. "What we have to do is establish some structure and toughness and get this to where it has been as a championship team."
Cooper's dream is to tie the school's rich NAIA history to the present. He wants the current players to study the history of the program, as he did when he followed the Tigers in the 1970s and '80s.
"I want these guys to fully appreciate the history of John McLendon here," Cooper said. "He's a direct disciple of Naismith. I want them to appreciate the history of this place."
If Cooper keeps up his passion for Tennessee State, there may not be a better salesman for the program. And if he can recruit and ultimately coach well, the Tigers will have found the perfect ambassador for a tradition-rich school that is still trying to find its footing in the OVC.
"We want guys who want to be a part of this program," Cooper said. "We have something to sell. We can do this the right way."
Andy Katz is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
Not everyone knows that the 1957 Tennessee State team was the first all-black squad to win a college basketball national title. John Cooper knows. As TSU's new coach, he plans on shouting it from the rooftops.