When Gophers football head coach Jim Wacker dismissed running back Rafael Cooper from the team last week, he threatened his team’s chances for success next season. Cooper was set to take over for departed back Chris Darkins — who is now with the Green Bay Packers — in the starting lineup. His absence leaves a gaping hole at a premier position and doesn’t bode well for a team hoping to turn things around, or a coach looking to save his job.
But Wacker’s decision, in light of its probable negative effects on the team, was courageous and necessary. Cooper had apparently worn thin Wacker’s considerable patience, which was no small feat indeed, and — regardless of his level of talent — no longer deserved a spot on the team.
The men’s athletic department issued a press release last week stating Cooper had been dismissed for “violating team rules regarding personal property rights,” stemming from the alleged theft of a checkbook, $100 in cash and a compact disc. Two of Cooper’s teammates, freshmen Tony Vann and Spergon Wynn, were given one-game suspensions for their involvement in the incident. “You can’t have that type of behavior on our football team,” Wacker said. “He (Cooper) knows it was handled right.” Then again, Cooper may not know better.
In a radio interview with KFAN, Cooper reiterated his assertion — first reported in the Daily — that Wacker overreacted. He said players at other schools, such as the University of Miami or Michigan, are not punished as severely. Well, so much the worse for Miami and Michigan. If a university is comfortable with football players who break the law, that’s its prerogative. Wacker, however, made it clear that illegal activity will have no place in a program under his watch, and we applaud him. Cooper used up his three strikes, and he’s out.
There’s no getting around the fact, as Cooper correctly mentioned, that removing the best players from a team will not lead to more wins. That, then, poses the question: What sort of program do we, as a community, want to see at the University? Do we want a coach who wins, regardless of the students and citizens the program is turning out? Or do we want a coach who puts greater emphasis on character, integrity, hard work and academics, while trying like the dickens to put a winner on the field? Coach Wacker has promised — and delivered, for the most part — the latter; Cooper’s dismissal is evidence of that fact.
Will the Gophers ever win? Recent history tells us it won’t be easy and Coach Wacker may not even be around to see it happen. But we hope Cooper’s dismissal won’t develop into an excuse for future on-field shortcomings. Wacker should remember that he, too, has a couple of strikes — a record of 12-32 in his four-year tenure — against him.
We’re confident that, regardless of the numbers in the win-loss column, Wacker is keeping an eye on the future, with his priorities and values firmly in place. A few more wins would be nice, no doubt, but the coach has proved that, at Minnesota, first things come first.