Coop makes seamless transition
Of course, the Southern California players didn't know for sure what to expect. They'd gone to Los Angeles Sparks games and watched on television. But they still had to wait to actually have Michael Cooper around before they really knew what it would be like having him as a head coach.
"He's a funny guy, but he gets his point across," USC guard Ashley Corral said. "He and I are very good at talking about what needs to get done team-wise and what I need to get done individually. It wasn't hard to acclimate to it like I thought it would be."
Briana Gilbreath also said the transition from playing for Mark Trakh and his staff came fairly quickly. After Trakh's resignation -- which came in April and did not really seem entirely "voluntary" -- Cooper was announced as the new coach on May 1. However, he still had a whole WNBA season in front of him.
Ervin Monier was brought aboard as associate head coach, a role he'd previously filled with Rhode Island. Prior to that, he'd been an assistant to Dawn Staley at Temple. And before that, he'd coached at the high school and juco levels in the greater Los Angeles area.
Cooper had known Monier for many years, so Cooper had full confidence in Monier to run things at USC while he was guiding the Sparks all the way to the Western Conference finals in Lisa Leslie's final season.
Then, Cooper settled in to acclimate himself on a college campus for the first time since 1978, when he'd finished his collegiate playing career at New Mexico.
"We had all the other coaches during the summertime, and when Coach Cooper came in, we were kind of concerned. Like, 'Will it be awkward?'" Gilbreath said. "But it was an immediate clicking. We weren't expecting that. But when it did happen, we were grateful.
"I knew a lot about the L.A. Sparks, especially since I was a Houston Comets fan growing up. I knew he was a defensive coach, of course. When I saw him coaching, I thought he would be more mellow. When he came here, he was so into it, and I loved that. That was different from what I'd seen."
Cooper can indeed seem somewhat "mellow" when it comes to his bench demeanor. Not all the time, of course, but his general mode when coaching in the professional ranks was to do most of his talking in practices. He wanted his teams to be prepared enough that come game time, they were executing and not still trying to figure out what he wanted.
But with the move to college, he knew he'd need to make some sideline-demeanor adjustments.
"It's still pretty much the same, although here I'm a little more animated because I want to show them encouragement," Cooper said during the team's recent trip to Durham, N.C. "In the WNBA and other professional levels, I would sit back a little more because the players know the information. You don't want to muddy up the water by being up a lot yelling at them.
"What I find now is our team understands what I expect of them and what they can get done, and you're seeing them play a little more freely. I can let them play more. But I know when they need my help; they'll look over at me, and I need to get up and be supportive."
So far, USC is 4-4 under Cooper -- but that's encouraging considering a very difficult schedule. The losses were to Xavier, Gonzaga, Rutgers and Duke -- the latter coming in Durham, N.C., in a game that USC led much of the way. USC has defeated the likes of Texas and Mississippi State.
"I think we're playing harder, and we have focused on rebounding and boxing out," Corral said. "That cost us more games last year than it should have. We're always running the floor, and with Coach Cooper you have to play hard whenever you're out there. If you're not doing that, you're going to come out."
Most women's hoops fans are quite familiar with Cooper's background: In his 12 seasons playing for the Lakers, Cooper won five NBA championships and was on the league's all-defensive team eight times. After then working with the Lakers both in the front office and on the coaching staff, he moved to the WNBA in 2000.
Under Cooper, the Sparks won both their league titles, in 2001 and 2002. He left the WNBA to spend time as an assistant and interim head coach with the NBA's Denver Nuggets and then went to the NBA's Development League. In 2007, he returned to the Sparks.
Now, he's experiencing a different level of competition with Division I women, but he said the basics of what he does are pretty much the same.
"It's been a very easy transition," Cooper said. "Coach Monier got there before me and did a great job of setting everything up. My job was to come in and work with all the pieces already there.
"We've got a lot of young, talented kids who are trying to learn how to play the game at another level. It's fun to be part of that excitement. They haven't yet tapped all their talent level. You teach them the fundamentals and the discipline, and when that talent kicks in, they can take it to another level. Our players are very receptive to what we know, and the experience that I bring from each level I've participated in is something I try to relate to them."
An interesting aspect is how Cooper approaches the subject of the WNBA and postcollegiate prospects. Unlike some coaches who have been in the college game all their careers and at times lament that modern-day players might spend too much time thinking about the pros, Cooper doesn't hesitate to say he wants to cultivate that dream in those players who do have that potential.
"One thing I try to encourage in our players is that there is some money to be made either in the WNBA or overseas," he said. "As young men, we always had that light at the end of the tunnel. Our goal is to put our players in that position. I want them to be able to go overseas and/or to the WNBA and make a living if possible."
Cooper knows very well that to do that, elite players have to become as sharp as possible. So he feels preparing people for the potential of playing after college is also an effective way to help them make the most of their ability while still in college.
While he has four seniors, his top two scorers are sophomores Corral (16.1 ppg) and Gilbreath (12.9).
"They have some terrific players," Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer said. "The main thing is to keep them healthy; that seems to be their biggest hurdle. Their best player has never played a minute for them."
She's referring to Jacki Gemelos, the heralded recruit from Stockton, Calif., who finished high school in 2006 but has been sidelined with knee problems ever since. Gemelos, though, is scheduled to make her long-awaited debut for USC in late January or early February. (Her journey -- and that of teammate and fellow multiple-ACL victim Stefanie Gilbreath -- is a story we'll look at more in-depth next week.) Suffice it to say, Cooper is very eager to see Gemelos at last get a chance to compete.
In the meantime, Cooper will rely on the players he has. Corral is his "extension" on the court, a role she took to very easily.
"Being 'him' on the court isn't hard, because I feel we have the same thought processes about what play needs to be run, who's hot and who's not," Corral said. "He's taught me so much even in the short time he's been here. I feel like I've grown a lot.
"I didn't exactly come into college being the best defensive player. In practice, he's said, 'If you're not playing good defense, just get off the floor.' If you don't do it, you're not going to play for him. It's the force that drives him."
Mechelle Voepel, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read her blog at http://voepel.wordpress.com.
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