BLMS’s Tom Cooper is hanging up the clipboard
In his 18 seasons at Basehor-Linwood Middle School, eighth-grade football coach Tom Cooper has set a lot of records. Since he is the only coach the school has ever known, that's not too surprising, but on the brink of his retirement, Cooper felt like setting one final record. Unfortunately, it's not the kind of record he was shooting for.
In his final season at BLMS, Cooper coached the only winless team in eighth-grade history. A 32-12 loss to Piper Middle School on Tuesday, Oct. 16, sealed the deal.
While Tuesday marked Cooper's final game on the sidelines, it will not be his last game involved with BLMS sports. Cooper is stepping down as the Bulldogs football coach, but he will continue to be the school's athletic director and occasionally he'll help out with the basketball team as well.
"If I wasn't going to stay on as the A.D., that might have made a difference," Cooper said. "But it's just time to move on. I'm just not as young and enthusiastic anymore, but I've loved every minute of it."
For BLMS, Cooper's time lasted a year longer than originally planned. Cooper said he had planned on retiring at the end of last season, but after he won his final game against Piper Middle School, Piper's coach, Steve Mercer, talked him into staying.
"I think it was because he didn't want me to beat him in my final game," Cooper said.
Back in 1988, BLMS's first ever football game was against Piper and in the 14 seasons since, Cooper and Mercer have built a healthy rivalry.
This time around, however, Cooper said it would make no difference if Mercer tried to talk him into staying or not he's done. And according to current BLMS principal Mike Boyd, he will be missed.
"You just don't replace someone with the kind of experience that Tom has," Boyd said. "He's just been great with the kids and that's something very few people have."
After teaching and coaching for four years at Basehor High School in the mid 1980s, Cooper's initiative helped get the Basehor and Linwood schools consolidated.
From there, he said he felt like it was his duty to be heavily involved with the inceptions of the schools' athletic programs.
"I guess it's just been tough because since the middle school started I've been the only football coach," Cooper said. "That's not to say someone else couldn't have done it, it's just that I was involved in picking the school colors, the logo, the mascot everything." The 1988 season marked the first year that the area had middle school football. Cooper said the anticipation and pressure of having a successful middle school sports program captivated him.
"We really wanted to put our best foot forward because that was really an exciting time to be in the area," Cooper said. "We only won one game that first season, but that was mainly because we lacked numbers."
In the seasons since, Cooper has racked up more than his share of wins. In 1993, Cooper said his eighth graders went undefeated and that, to his knowledge, they are the only 11-man team at any level in this district to finish undefeated. A few years later, in 1998, Cooper's eighth graders (currently juniors at Basehor-Linwood High School) finished the season 6-1 and Cooper said they should've been undefeated.
Cooper said he really enjoys watching athletes he coached at a young age develop into the types of players they become at the high school level, and he said it's even nicer when they come back to say hello.
"It is fun and interesting to see how some of your old kids do at the next level," Cooper said. "And it's nice to know they remember you."
Current BLHS junior John Clouse said he was shocked when he heard Cooper was retiring. He thought Cooper would coach forever, but he has some fond memories of his old coach.
"I remember him being a tough coach to play for," Clouse said. "He always worked you real hard and he was real competitive, but he always did it with a smile. He had a joke for everything."
Even those athletes who are long gone from the area still hold special places for Cooper in their hearts.
"He was always just a really fun coach," said Greg Laffere, a former BLMS and BLHS standout who was a two-year starter at the University of Miami. "I didn't really start playing football until middle school and he made something that I wasn't sure about into something positive."
Cooper mentioned Laffere when he talked about some of his most memorable players.
But much in the same way that Laffere and Clouse remembered Cooper, Cooper remembered his high school coach in Iowa, Rich Harrop, who became his mentor as Cooper himself joined the coaching fraternity.
"I didn't realize it at the time, but I do now," Cooper said of the lessons he learned from Harrop. "You have to be extremely humble in the coaching business because that rubs off on your kids. You're teaching fundamentals, sportsmanship and most importantly character at this level. It's not about wins and losses."
Cooper said stepping away from the football field will allow him time to do some other things he enjoys. Watching and attending football games as a fan, along with gardening, yard work and music were all on Cooper's list of free-time activities. But at the top of the list was family. He has two sons one in college and one in junior high school and he said he's really looking forward to going to some games as a father and not as a coach.
"I will have a lot more time to be more organized," Cooper said. "And I'll have some time to spend with my family and to go watch my son's games. That part of things will be a lot of fun."
Just because he's retiring doesn't mean that he won't be seen around the football field. In fact, it might just mean the opposite. When Cooper talked of his responsibilities after coaching, he couldn't help but get fired up about scheduling games, working with referees and watching the games from a different perspective.
Sure he might be done coaching, but his legacy will continue to grow.
"The biggest thing I'll remember is that he's always kept his sense of humor," Boyd said. "He's had undefeated teams and he's had teams that only won one game, but through all that, he's kept his head and been a great person. We're really going to miss him."