Michael Cooper: Sparks are No. 1 priority before coaching USC women
After Michael Cooper described the USC women's basketball coaching position as "something I couldn't pass up," he switched the focus to his immediate duties. After all, he's still slated to coach the Sparks in the 2009 season, against the Detroit Shock. Cooper had maintained he would coach the Sparks through the 2009 season amid reports of USC's interest in him this past month.
"My focus, heart and energy is coaching the Sparks to another championship," he said. "Chemistry is very important. We'll be missing an important piece with Candace Parker, but we added new people like Tina Thompson to last year's team. Basketball-wise, it's going to come down to defense, defense, defense and rebounding, rebounding, rebounding. Last year, we didn't get it done when we needed to get it done."
Another factor determining the Sparks' success entails how Cooper keeps that balancing act of focusing on adding his third WNBA championship while making sure the pieces are put in place for USC. That's why he says the hiring of Ervin Monier as the Trojans' associate head coach was critical. Both Cooper and Monier said he'll oversee program operations, including recruiting, until the WNBA season ends. That could be as late as Oct. 9 if the Sparks make the WNBA finals. USC starts its season in mid-November.
Ervin was an associate head coach for Rhode Island and an assistant coach for Dawn Staley at Temple from 2001 to 2004. Ervin took over coaching and recruiting duties with the Owls when Staley competed with Team USA in the 2004 Athens Olympics.
"When she was away from the office, we were still able to have student athletes on task," Monier said. "What he wants, we will implement. He has entrusted me with that. The fact I've done this before, I think it makes sense in terms of making this transition as smooth and as seamless as possible."
Cooper replaces Mark Trakh, who resigned April 8 after compiling a record of 90-64 record in five seasons. The Trojans reached the NCAA tournament his first two seasons but not in the last three.
Trojans guard Jacki Gemelos, who will be a junior next season, said Cooper, Monier and senior associate athletic director Carol Dougherty met Friday with the team. Gemelos said the team has felt excited since reports last month indicated USC's interest in Cooper, who played 12 years as a defensive specialist with the Lakers and won five NBA championships.
Gemelos said Cooper at the team meeting stressed his championship experience, including his two titles with the Sparks in 2001 and 2002.
"We all had heard through the grapevine that he was in the running to be our coach so when he walked through the door, it wasn't a huge surprise to everybody," Gemelos said. "When he was talking, most of us had goose bumps."
Though USC stated the ideal candidate would have five years of college coaching experience, according to the job application on the school website, the Trojans chose Cooper, who has no college coaching experience.
After coaching the Sparks for three seasons, Cooper left midway through the 2004 season to accept a three-year contract as an assistant coach for the Denver Nuggets. He was interim coach of the Nuggets after George Karl. Cooper then accepted a buyout of his contract after being demoted to a scouting position.
He coached the Alburquerque Thunderbirds of the NBA Development League for two seasons before returning to the Sparks in 2007. Cooper has said he'd eventually want to coach in the NBA.
Cooper and Monier don't think that inexperience will be an issue. Cooper said "coaching is coaching," and Monier said the only learning curve would be recruiting and knowing the NCAA bylaws.
"He'll be fine," Monier said. "He knows the game of basketball. Obviously, recruiting is a little bit different than drafting, but it's similar in the sense of identifying talent that you need for your program. He'll handle all that. He has a great eye for talent. We have to recruit the same way he's been scouting. I don't think it's going to be a problem."
-- Mark Medina
Photo: New USC women's basketball coach Michael Cooper at a Sparks practice. Credit: Lucy Nicholson / Associated Press.