KNOXVILLE — As the University of Tennessee athletics beat writer for The Chattanooga Times Free Press, one of my constant assignments is following the careers of players from our three-state coverage area.
Typically, by the time a tri-stater is a senior, I know them pretty well.
Baylor School graduate Kevin Cooper is no exception.
This week’s Wednesdays with Wes is a one-on-one with UT’s senior fullback, who is at least publicly keeping a positive attitude despite recently losing the starting position he enjoyed since his sophomore season.
Happy Thanksgiving to all of you and your loved ones.
Q: Let’s get right to it. After starting at fullback the past two and a half seasons, you lost that role to (true freshman) Channing Fugate after missing the South Carolina game, and you haven’t regained it. Has this been a frustrating way to an otherwise fairly successful college career?
Q: Not at all? Come on, man. You’re a senior.
COOPER: “I just don’t see it as frustrating. I’m just still trying to do everything I can for the team. Other people got opportunities, and they’re making the most of it. I want them to do well for themselves, because that’s what’s best for the team. I don’t wish bad on anybody. Maybe I feel like, ‘Yeah, I could have done some things different.’ But at the same time, I’ve always felt like in situations like this that you’ve just got to keep pressing.”
Q: So you and Fugate are on good terms?
Q: You’re both fullbacks. It’s not like either of you will get any glory out there on the field.
COOPER: “(Laughter.) That’s fine, though. We don’t care. He’s just like me. We just want to play. We try to play the game at its natural state. It’s a tough game. We want to play the game the way (1931 UT All-American guard) Herman Hickman played the game. Just tough football, man. That’s all we want. That’s fun for us.”
Q: Do you know who Herman Hickman is, or are you just looking at his picture on the Wall of All-Americans behind me?
COOPER: “I just read his name on the wall. But, hey, he was an All-American here, and he played a long time ago, so I’m guessing he was a tough guy. All-American guard in the 30s? That’s a tough guy right there.”
Q: I’m one of 16 guys selected to vote on this year’s Associated Press All-America team, and there’s no fullback spot on the ballot. There are two running back spots, and we all know every voter is picking two tailbacks.
COOPER: “Yeah, man. No glory. Wasn’t Owen Schmitt from West Virginia an All-American? (Arkansas’) Peyton Hillis wasn’t All-American?”
Q: I think they were both just all-conference guys, honestly.
COOPER: “Dang. Hillis is my favorite player. I think he plays exactly just like me.”
Q: Every week I ask someone on this team who is the smartest player on the team, and your name has come up at least two times. So I hear that, and I know you graduated from Baylor School, and then I learned you would miss the South Carolina game with an unspecified team academic rule violation. I was stunned. Some of the these other guys wouldn’t surprise me a bit. But you? That’s a stunner. Did it stun you?
COOPER: “No comment.”
Q: I hate no comments, Coop, and you know this.
COOPER: “Sorry, man. Just probably shouldn’t say anything.”
Q: Well, then, Mr. Super Secret, what have you done since then to make up for that mistake?
COOPER: “I just moved on. It’s exactly what you said, Wes — I just moved on, kept it in the past and just came to practice every day with the right attitude.”
Q: This senior class has been through some things; you know, just a few little things here and there.
COOPER: “(Laughter.) Yeah, you could say that. You could definitely say that. You know it, man. You’ve seen it.”
Q: What was the lowest moment?
(NOTE: The Vols lost 13-7 to Wyoming on Nov. 1, 2008 — mere days after former head coach Phillip Fulmer’s forced retirement announcement. Fulmer coached the final three games, and UT needed three wins to reach bowl eligibility. It lost to Wyoming before beating Kentucky and Vanderbilt.)
COOPER: “By far. Oh, gosh. With Coach Fulmer’s job ending and everything, that was the lowest moment, no doubt. Just about everybody on that team came to Tennessee to play for Coach Fulmer.”
Q: How big of a factor was Coach Fulmer in your recruitment?
COOPER: “Huge. I feel like a lot of the players in my class, just to be honest with you, we came to play for Coach Fulmer. I don’t know. I guess it’s like they say, ‘That’s how the cards were dealt.’ Those are the cards we got. He wasn’t here as long as we thought he would be, so I don’t know, man. It wasn’t much fun.
“I was actually an LSU fan as a kid because I liked the colors and stuff, but not after I met Coach Fulmer. Coach Fulmer is just such a good person, and I felt like he was the man who would lead me in the right direction. Coach Fulmer and his staff ... man, I really liked those guys.”
Q: But now you’ve gotten to know three staffs!
COOPER: “Yeah. I know a whole lot of offenses now. Believe that.”
Q: I’ve heard Dooley’s offense isn’t necessarily catered to the fullback, and its more designed for tight ends. Is that true?
COOPER: “(Laughter). No comment.”
Q: Here’s a happier thought. (True freshman) wide receiver Da’Rick Rogers, another kid from our coverage area down there in Calhoun, Ga., just walked by and called you, ‘My hero.’ What do you think of a dude nicknaming himself “Prettyboy?”
COOPER: “No comment.”
Q: You’re killing me, Coop.
COOPER: “Sorry, man. I’ll probably talk bad. (Laughter.)”
Q: Who censored you? Was it Dooley? I’ll fix this.
COOPER: “(Laughter.) I just ... I’m just one that speaks my mind a lot, and I know sometimes, when I say what I want, it comes out the wrong way, so I try to keep quiet myself.”
Q: I won’t tolerate this. Man up. You’re a senior in college. You’re a man now. Or are you still a boy?
COOPER: “(Loud laughter.)”
Q: This season started 2-6, but even you veterans kept playing hard, and now you’re one win over Kentucky — which you’ve beaten 25 consecutive years — from playing in a bowl game. Why didn’t this team pack it in?
COOPER: “Well, without a doubt (true freshman quarterback) Tyler Bray created a spark. He created a nice, little spark and kind of lit a fire under us. And at the same time, people need to understand that this is still Tennessee. Players aren’t recruited here if they can’t play, you know what I mean? We still have a lot of talent here. Regardless of how the season’s went, or how bad things have gone, there’s still talent here. And not just talent, but big-time talent. And everybody loves this game.
“Tennessee recruits players that love to play the game and have a lot of talent. So as far as quitting? Naw, you’ll never see that at Tennessee.”
Q: Every game here is taken one at a time, so spare me that cliche. The difference in a win and loss in this game is staggering. If you win and go to a bowl game, Dooley’s first year will be judged as a positive. Even though many — including I — picked you guys to go 5-7, if you lost to Kentucky, the national story is Dooley’s first season ended with a loss to KENTUCKY and a postseason at home. Agreed?
COOPER: “Yes, probably so.”
Q: So would you call this a huge game?
COOPER: “Yeah, I would, but it’s always a huge game. Every one of them is a huge game. It’s always fun to play Kentucky. We know it’s going to be a hard-fought game, because they bring it every time against us. We’re not really looking at all that other stuff, because it was the same situation last year.”
Q: No, it wasn’t the same situation. You guys already secured a bowl game heading into last year’s game at Kentucky.
COOPER: “Yeah, we did. We did. But at the same time, we’re not really focused on that, or that long streak. As you start focusing on other things like that, that’s when bad things start to happen.”
Q: Do you guys have a mental edge on Kentucky? This series keeps having close games recently, for the most part, and they’ve all gone Tennessee’s way. Some big plays and, honestly, some luck have been the difference. Have you guys been testing the law of averages too much? At this rate, we all know Kentucky will win one at some point.
COOPER: “I guess I’ll just have to keep praying to the football gods about that one. (Laughter.) I don’t know. I don’t know if it’s mental. It’s just going out there and playing the game every time we play them. I can’t explain why things just keep happening to go our way. Both teams fight hard. I guess we just fight harder.”
Q: Come on, Coop. It’s not just that. Dan Williams, a short defensive tackle, blocked a field goal to keep you guys from losing up there in 2007. That’s fight, but it’s also luck. And I’ve always liked Big Dan.
COOPER: “(Laughter.) The football gods just got Big Dan up that high, I guess. But he is strong, and he can bust through there, though. He doesn’t have to get up if he just busts on through.”
Q: Fair point. What’s your major?
COOPER: “Sports Management.”
Q: How close are you to getting your undergraduate degree?
COOPER: “Spring. This spring.”
Q: Still on track despite whatever those undisclosed academic problems were?
COOPER: “Yeah. It’s all good.”
Q: What do you want to do when you’re finished with football, whether that’s next year or 10 years down the road?
COOPER: “I’ve thought about this a lot, and the answer still remains the same: I have no clue.”
Q: That’s a lot of thinking to not have an idea.
COOPER: “I just don’t know, man. I don’t know if I want to go into coaching, because I don’t think I do. These kids these days are loco, man.”
Q: Aren’t all you guys loco these days? I’ve see the loco dance. We’ve all seen the dance.
COOPER: “I don’t know how coaches these days do it. I couldn’t do it. But I really don’t know.”
Q: Actually, the whole team doesn’t go loco. You and (junior tailback) Tauren Poole go ‘Barney.’
COOPER: “What?” (Loud laughter.)
Q: I have sources. I hear things.
COOPER: “Oh, I know. But Barney? What is that?”
Q: Don’t play dumb with me. The Barney touchdown dance you and Poole do, when you sway back and forth like that big, purple dinosaur.
COOPER: “(Loud laughter. Nearly falls to the turf.) That’s funny. You got me.”
Q: Give me the genesis of this idea. Who came up with that dance?
COOPER: “Which one?”
Q: The Barney one, fool.
COOPER: “That’s just ... that’s nothing, man. Tauren’s a good friend of mine, and that’s just ... you know ... it was a spur of the moment type of thing.”
Q: I wish you weren’t a liar.
Q: That dance was planned out.
COOPER: “It was not.”
Q: Poole said it was completely planned out. He said that he promised you he’d do the Barney with you if he scored a touchdown. Then you approached him after his last touchdown against Ole Miss, and he knew he had to do the dance.
COOPER: “(Laughter.) It was spur of the moment. I wouldn’t say it was planned, but we’d both been talking about it all season, like, ‘If we’re both on the field and you score, let’s him with it.’ And we hit them with it.”
Q: That’s called a “plan,” Coop.
COOPER: “(Laughter.) Naw. He scored once earlier when I was in, and we didn’t do it. But that was just one of those times where it was like, ‘We got it. Let’s do it.’ It just happened.”
Q: Did Dooley or the officials yell at you for it?
COOPER: “Naw. Neither one of us got yelled at for it.”
Q: BUSTED! Again.
Q: Poole said the officials yelled at him and made Dooley yell at him, too. Are you calling Poole a liar?
COOPER: “Naw. Not at all. I guess Dooley did get to him.”
Q: So maybe fullbacks don’t get the glory, but they don’t get yelled at, either?
COOPER: “Pretty much, yeah. We’re just there.”
Q: How was that adjustment for you? You were the man at Baylor. You were the star running back, and now you’re just an anonymous fullback.
COOPER: “How many times have I told you that I’m not one that’s all about the glory?”
Q: I’ve known you for a while. You’ve said that plenty of times.
COOPER: “Yeah. I just like this game. I love to play it. That’s pretty much it, yeah. I just want to get out there and play.”
Q: Since Dooley used to be a lawyer, would you ever ask him to represent you if you got in trouble with the law?
COOPER: “(Laughter.) Hopefully I’ll never get in that predicament.”
Q: Do you think he was a good lawyer? He couldn’t have been too good, right? He’s a football coach now.
COOPER: “(Laughter.) I don’t know, man. I don’t know. Let’s go with a no comment again. Yeah, that sounds good. No comment.”
Q: You’re close to setting a Wednesdays with Wes “no comment” record.
COOPER: “Anything’s better than being in trouble.”
(Other reporters, including a young radio guy, approach Cooper for questions. The young guy calls him “Channing.” Cooper tried to pretend he was Channing Fugate but couldn’t stay in character and eventually admitted he wasn’t.)
Q: How about that guy calling you “Channing.” That was awesome.
COOPER: “Yeah, it was.”
Q: Are you and Fugate related in some way?
COOPER: “(Loud laughter.)”
Q: OK, seriously, you can’t “no comment” this question, because everyone has commented all season. Tell me something embarrassing that most people don’t know about one of your teammates. You’ve been here a million years, and you’ve always been a really popular guy with your teammates. I know you know things.
COOPER: “I got a bunch.”
Q: Good, because I’d like to hear a bunch.
COOPER: “OK, let me think of ones I can say.”
Q: Take your time.
COOPER: “(True freshman tailback) Rajion Neal is still just 17 years old, and he acts every bit of it.”
Q: No way.
COOPER: “No. He’s really 17. And he’s up here with a lot of men. Coaches get onto him all the time, but he’s a boy. He really is just a boy.”
Q: Can you even ride roller coasters at 17?
COOPER: “(Laughter.) I don’t know. Probably not all of them.”
Q: OK, give me something else.
COOPER: “OK, (senior wide receiver) Denarius (Moore), on his birth certificate, it said ‘Darnius’ all the way until he got up here to college. His name was ‘Darnius Earl Moore,’ not ‘Denarius.’ He changed it when he got up here. I don’t know if his name was messed up or what, but his name used to be spelled “D-A-R-N-I-U-S.”
Q: I’ve always heard his name was Denarius, but that some reporters called him Darnius, and he used to be so quiet and shy that he never corrected them.
COOPER: “No, no, no. His name was Darnius. I think he went to court and got it changed and everything.”
Q: If you could legally change your name to anything, what would it be? I think you should change it to “Coop Cooper.” No middle name.
COOPER: “I was going to go with “Super.”
Q: “Super Cooper?” That’s fantastic.
Q: You should legally change your name if you guys go to a bowl game, so UT’s bowl media guide and roster will have the name “Super Cooper” on there. Do it. Do it. Do it.
COOPER: “(Loud laughter.) Like Ochocinco? Ochocinco is ridiculous.”
Q: But “Super Cooper” isn’t ridiculous?
COOPER: “No. Not at all.”
Q: How about one more story? Make it another senior.
COOPER: “Would (senior tight end) Luke (Stocker) be good?”
Q: Of course. I love poking fun at Luke. He takes it like a champ.
COOPER: “Luke actually knocked somebody’s whole frame out one time. Not here, but a long time ago, like in high school or something. By mistake, during a game, he just knocked somebody’s whole grill out.”
Q: You mean “grill” like Nelly’s grills, and not George Foreman’s grills, right? We’re talking about teeth here?
COOPER: “(Laughter.) Yeah. All the fronts. Like, all of them.”
Q: How many teeth did he knock out?
COOPER: “I don’t know. He just said the guy looked like a hillbilly afterwards.”
Q: Luke’s from Kentucky, Coop. Most people up there looks like a hillbilly. He probably still had more teeth than half his family.
COOPER: “(Very loud laughter.) No comment.”
Q: Smart answer, considering it’s Kentucky week. You’re the anti bulletin-board guy on the record, and that’s a shame, because you’re money off the record.
Q: What kind of shot do you expect to get to play professional football?
COOPER: “I don’t know. Hopefully I’ll get a chance. It’s OK if I don’t, but I’d like to give it a shot.”
Q: You completely smashed an Alabama linebacker to the ground on Poole’s 59-yard touchdown run this season. Was that the best clock of your career?
COOPER: “That was a good one, but I don’t think it was the best. Against Ohio last year, I was out in front of Tario (Montario Hardesty) on a sweep, and I almost got three guys on the ground.”
Q: Which means you got two guys on the ground.
COOPER: “(Laughter.) Yeah, but I messed up three guys. I got two on the ground, and I tripped up a third guy, and he almost fell down. It was like a 20-yard run. It was nice.”
Q: Is getting three Ohio defenders on the ground kind of like getting one SEC defender on the ground?
COOPER: “(Laughter). Let’s go with no comment again.”
Q: So what was the best block of your career?
COOPER: “I don’t know. That was one. Against UT-Martin (this season), I smashed a guy. I don’t know for sure. I don’t even have a brain anymore after all the hits.”
Q: I’m sure Dooley and the trainers would love to hear that quote. You know how bad this helmet-to-helmet stuff is getting.
COOPER: “Yeah, in the NFL.”
Q: You’re not allowed to do it in college, either. Well, I guess if you play for Alabama, you can do it to Denarius Moore without drawing a flag.
COOPER: “Exactly! You can do it in college. I’ve seen that hit 1,000 times. I don’t know how much that rule applies at our level.”
Q: The floor is yours, Coop. What do you want to say on your way out the door at UT? You can say anything as long as you don’t cuss.
COOPER: “I would like to say to the fans that we’ve probably got some of the best fans in the nation. Just from being here, going through everything that we’ve gone through, I’ve never heard any true, diehard Tennessee fan just straight slaughter us. They’re always behind us.
“But at the same time, we’ll do something (ridiculous), and it gets up in the newspaper. And what I’d like to say about that is football players are people, too. We are in the spotlight, but at the same time, we’re just normal guys who have normal lives, just like anybody else. And we can be affected, just like anybody else.”
Q: So you get frustrated when you see other students do the same stuff as football players, and it’s not written, even though — and you have to admit this — a normal student isn’t getting their name in the paper on a daily basis?
COOPER: “Right. It’s a double-edged sword. You’re (darned) if you do, (darned) if you don’t, but just keep in mind that ... don’t put football players on that pedestal that everybody puts us on. I’m sure if everybody would just talk to any player on the team, they’d probably be amazed. There’s a lot of stereotypes about football players. So I would say to people out there that if you see them out or something, just treat them like a normal human.”
Q: Anything else?
COOPER: “I don’t even go out anymore. But to those guys who do, they’ve got to understand that we are targets, and everybody’s human. Be careful what you do. Don’t do something (ridiculous), or it’s going to be in the newspaper, and that (stinks.)”
Q: How bad would a loss to Kentucky be?
COOPER: “We can’t even think that way. We can’t think of a negative outcome. I don’t even know what to say to that question. ‘If we were to lose’ ... I don’t even know how to answer that, because that sentence doesn’t exist in my vocabulary.”
Q: Even after all the losses you guys have had the past few years? I’m not trying to be a jerk here. I’m just asking.
COOPER: “No, no, that’s fine. I hear you. Yeah, we always want to win. There’s no extra emphasis on it this week ... other than you always want to finish strong.”
Contact Wes Rucker at firstname.lastname@example.org or 865-851-9739.
Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/wesruckerCTFP or on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tfpvolsbeat.