June 8, 2017
SAVANNAH – The laid back lifestyle of Georgia’s biggest coastal city was appropriate for the pace of Ken Cooper, the one-time Georgia end who experienced singular college football highlights as a player and coach.
Everything about him was measured, studied and deliberate. His modesty and humility belied his intellect and his competitive verve. Few who chose the sports arena have dealt with the game’s vicissitudes as well as this Tift County farm boy who may have been the last football player in college football to have drop kicked an extra point. We cannot prove such, but dropkicking went out of style before the Great Depression came about.
Originally, the football was more rounded like a basketball, which made drop kicking standard. With the advent of the passing game the football became oblong, evolving into what we have today. More about that later.
It was humbling and refreshing last Sunday to see the many kids at Benedictine Academy show up to say goodbye in an emotionally uplifting service. Cooper coached them with old fashioned toughness, but enveloped with a cloak of fair mindedness in which he gave of himself and confirmed to the kids that he wanted the best for them.
His head coaching resume includes defeating Notre Dame, 20-13 in 1977. It would be the only Irish loss in a national championship season. His Rebel teams upset his alma mater in back-to-back years in Oxford, one the season the Bulldogs were SEC champions (1976).
Two of his major decisions became costly, however. He took games away from Jackson, the state capital, moving them to Oxford to make game day a campus experience, and he was aggressive with regard to recruiting black players. Nothing could have been more politically incorrect for the times in Mississippi than those two decisions. Businessmen in Jackson were offended and advocates of recruiting minority athletes in Mississippi were as prominent as Jane Fonda stickers at Ft. Benning.
When it didn’t work out in Oxford, Cooper was still a young man. What did he do? He came home to Georgia, began a second career with Southern Bell, enjoying substantial business success. He never told anybody who he was and where he had been. He was never the subject of a flashback. He spoke to no touchdown clubs and he had no scrapbooks resting on his coffee table.
His resume, however, was more appreciable than with many. At Georgia, he was a rugged end who was compatible with being under the radar. Football was a means to an education and he was proud and deeply appreciative that his scholarship gave him opportunity that he otherwise would not have had. He made good grades because he was intelligent and due diligent. Football was picking up all checks. He was not about to squander opportunity.
When his eligibility ended, he soon became a high school coach at Turner County in Ashburn but returned to Athens for graduate study and was named assistant coach for the freshman team when Vince Dooley took over in 1963. When Billy Kinard, with whom he worked at Georgia, got the Ole Miss job in 1971, Kinard hired Cooper as his line coach.
Kinard, verbally abrasive and often tactlessly outspoken, burned bridges and did not last long as the head coach of his alma mater. He was fired, along with his older brother, Bruiser Kinard, the athletic director, in the middle of the season of 1973 in a move that became known as the “Midnight Massacre.” Johnny Vaught, the Rebel legend, came out of retirement to finish the campaign and then stayed on as athletic director. At the end of the season, Cooper bumped into Vaught at the athletic offices. Vaught advised Cooper he should apply for the job. “If I have your support, I will,” Cooper told Vaught. “You have my support,” Vaught replied. When the press conference was scheduled, Cooper knew what would take place.
One spring, I looked up Vaught at the SEC meetings and asked him about Cooper. “He has,” Vaught said, “one of the brightest football minds I have ever known. I wish he had come along sooner when I was in my prime years as a coach.”
When harking back to Cooper’s signature moment at Georgia, it should also be pointed out that Cooper had other noteworthy achievements. In addition to lettering for three years, it was his field goal that enabled Georgia to defeat Florida State, 3-0, in 1956. He was the right end who blocked down on the defensive left tackle to help create the hole that enabled Theron Sapp to score the touchdown on Grant Field in 1957 to “break the drought” against Georgia Tech.
About that drop-kicked extra point kick versus Texas in Georgia’s opening game in 1957—you have to go back to Cooper’s growing up days on the farm in Tift County in the early fifties to appreciate his serendipitous feat. In high school, he and his brothers fashioned goal posts out of pine saplings and spent time amusing themselves by kicking an old ball Ken had gotten at Christmas. Ken kicked hours and hours by himself. There was nobody to hold the ball, so he learned to drop kick and became proficient at what had become a lost art—never once thinking he would drop-kick in competition.
That day, however, would come. Against Texas on Grant Field (Butts as AD felt Georgia would draw better in Atlanta at night than in the afternoon in Athens), following the Bulldogs only touchdown, Cooper lined up behind the holder who fumbled the snap. Cooper picked up the loose ball and moved a few steps to the side and drop-kicked the ball through the uprights. Nobody could prove it, but that is likely the last time anyone scored in college football by drop-kicking a football.