Needless to say, Prairie View head coach Reagan Morrison was astounded when someone with five years of NFL experience applied for the Spartans' offensive coordinator vacancy. Morrison, an avid Alabama fan, could even overlook the fact that Robert Cook once played defensive tackle for the Tennessee Volunteers.
Morrison immediately called Cook to set up an interview. Truthfully, the interview process was to give Cook a chance to see the school. The job was his if he wanted it.
“When I read Robert's résumé, my eyes nearly popped out of my head,” Morrison recalled.
In addition to coaching football, Cook was hired to teach American history, world history and eighth grade science.
Cook was the Atlanta Falcons' defensive quality control coach from 1995-99 under June Jones and Dan Reeves. His coaching career also includes stints at Tennessee-Chattanooga, Livingston University (now Western Alabama), Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College and several high schools.
Now for the obvious question. How did someone with Cook's credentials land at a small, private school, far away from his Tennessee home? The answer is simple — a tragic set of circumstances led Cook to re-evaluate his priorities.
Following the death of his 3-year-old daughter Ashton, Cook was no longer willing to meet the time demands of an NFL job.
“My daughter was born with a heart condition, but we didn't find out until it was too late,” Cook said. “When I was coaching (the Falcons), I would go to work at 6 (a.m.) and wouldn't come home until 11 or 12 at night. I had a tremendous amount of guilt for never being there for her, so I retired from coaching.”
Cook's retirement was short-lived. Hired at Mississippi Gulf Coast in 2000, Cook resumed his career with a different perspective.
“When I got back into coaching, I made up my mind that I would never put the time into it that I once did,” Cook said. “It took too much time away from my family.”
Ashton was the youngest of Cook's four children. His sons, Thomas (26) and Nathan (26), and daughter, Lauren (23), all reside in the Chattanooga area.
Though he has no desire to return to the NFL, Cook has maintained some of the friendships that he made during his climb through the coaching ranks. Cook and Morrison recently made the trip to Columbia, S.C. to visit with University of South Carolina defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward.
“The one thing I miss about the NFL is the camaraderie with the coaches,” Cook said. “Bill Kollar, (now the assistant head coach of the Houston Texans) is a great guy. I plan to go see Ricky Lugo, the defensive line coach at the University of Houston, soon.”
One of the players Cook respected the most during his tenure with the Falcons was quarterback Bobby Hebert.
“I walked into the locker room — it had to be a Tuesday because that was the day players came in for treatment — and Bobby Hebert was standing in front of his locker with a bruise as big as this sheet of paper,” Cook said, holding up an 8 ½ x 11 sheet of blank paper. “Bobby Hebert was a gamer and a great human being.”
Cook's résumé covers all the bases. Hired at Russell Christian in Meridian, Miss. last summer, Cook was surprised to discover that he had accepted an eight-man coaching position.
“I went to Russell Christian strictly to teach and they kept hounding me to coach, so I finally did. When I went to practice, there were three people missing,” Cook laughed.
One season of eight-man was enough. Cook began searching for a more traditional coaching job.
“I started checking the MAIS job site and saw that Prairie View had an opening, so I applied,” said Cook, who played for Tennessee under Bill Battle and Johnny Majors from 1976-79. “Dawg (Morrison) called me for an interview and I came down here and fell in love with the place.”
Cook's impression of Bastrop soured quickly.
“I've had nothing but bad luck since I've been here,” he said. “My apartment was broken into and my mail has been stolen. And, I can't find a soul to do anything about it.”
Cook says he now has his mail delivered to the school.
However, Cook has a more positive opinion of Prairie View.
“I love the kids and the coaching staff. The coaches from the other sports have been great,” Cook said.
“The kids here are phenomenal; just great young people to be around.”
At first glance, Cook's career path appears to have taken a downward spiral. But Cook is perfectly content to be coaching at the high school level. Besides, his coaching philosophy no longer fits into the brutal business of the NFL.
“It's all about the kids,” Cook said. “I've devoted my life to Christ. (Coaching) is a great way for me to expound on a ministry. I try to be somewhat of a role model to these young men.
“I want them to understand that football's just a game and I want them to have fun.”
During the heat of the game on Friday night, Cook doesn't have to look far to be reminded of what really matters.
“I wear a wrist coach with Ashton's name on it every game,” Cook said.