While longtime football coach Eddie Robinson symbolizes Grambling State University's tradition of athletic excellence to this day, the school's baseball program boasts a pair of iconic figures of its own.
As a former GSU baseball player, James Cooper fully appreciates the significance of his position as the Tigers' baseball coach. Ralph Waldo Emerson “Prez” Jones, who held the dual titles of university president and baseball coach, guided the Tigers from 1936-77, before giving way to Wilbert Ellis, his longtime assistant. Ellis, who has been inducted into three Hall of Fames, coached the G-Men through the 2003 season.
Cooper was in Bastrop Thursday night as the Morehouse Chapter of the GSU Alumni Association held its annual summer gathering.
A former All-Conference center fielder at Grambling, Cooper was drafted by the Houston Astros in 2004. Following a three-year professional career, Cooper returned to Grambling as an assistant coach and also served as a recruiter in the office of admissions. Promoted to head coach in 2010, he became only the fifth head baseball coach in school history.
In his first season, Cooper promptly led the Tigers to the SWAC championship and an NCAA Tournament berth.
Ellis is still involved in baseball, serving as an ambassador for college baseball and GSU. Cooper says he never hesitates to turn to his former coach for advice.
“Having coach Ellis around, makes it a whole lot easier. He was able to graduate guys and get kids drafted,” said Cooper, who holds a bachelor's degree in marketing and a master's in sports administration from Grambling. “One of the things he has taught me is to fix one thing at a time. I remember coach Ellis telling me, 'You can overload yourself if you think you have to win x number of games, so just take one thing at a time,' and that's been our approach.”
Cooper has also come to depend on infield coach Davin Pierre, who like Cooper, is entering his fifth season with the program.
“Coach Pierre has been with me every step of the way,” Cooper said. “It's great to have a coach like him on my staff, although I know there's going to come a point in time when we're going to lose him. He may be up for a head coaching job, himself, one day.”
Grambling finished below Cooper's expectations last season, struggling to an 18-30 record, including a 9-15 worksheet in SWAC play.
“Last year, out of my four seasons, I thought this was my most talented team,” Cooper said. “We just didn't go out and execute like we needed to. We pitched well and our defense was good enough, but we didn't get the timely hits. If you don't get all three, you're going to end up in the middle of the pack, which is what we did.”
Page 2 of 3 - Looking back, Cooper sees some positives in the Tigers' 2013 season.
“We had some All-Conference players and this is four years in a row that we had a kid drafted,” Cooper said, noting that righthanded pitcher Cory Jordan was selected by the Tampa Bay Rays in the 35th round of the Major League draft.
Despite losing eight seniors, Cooper is optimistic regarding his team's chances of moving up in the SWAC standings in 2014.
“All eight (seniors) weren't everyday starters, but all eight were contributors,” Cooper said. “We have some holes to fill, but we're really focused on punching our ticket and getting to the NCAA Tournament again.”
Cooper's optimism is fueled by the arrival of 14 signees, a group which includes eight junior college transfers and six freshmen.
“Coach Pierre, coach (Jimmy) McDonald, our new pitching coach, and I feel real good about our signing class,” Cooper said.
Cooper says the program traditionally attracts a large number of players from the Houston and Atlanta areas.
“We recruit nationally, but we have big Grambling alumni chapters in the cities of Houston and Atlanta, both of which have a large number of D-1 players to recruit from,” Cooper said. “If you look at our team's ethnic background, we are extremely diverse. We have blacks, whites and guys from the Dominican Republic, Venezuela, the Bahamas, Lithuania and a couple of guys from Canada.”
Cooper has seen the SWAC baseball league become more diverse as a whole over the years.
“Alabama A&M and Mississippi Valley have white coaches and Alabama State has a Hispanic coach,” Cooper said. “I think it's good for the SWAC.”
Cooper says he would like to recruit northeast Louisiana more frequently — only three players on Grambling's 2013 roster were from the area. But the fact is youth baseball participation in the area has been on the decline for several years.
Morehouse Parish is a prime example of the area's shrinking talent base.
“For so long, Bastrop has been known for its football,” said Cooper, a Springhill High alumnus. “Division I baseball is tough. It's hard to focus on football, then go to college and focus on baseball and try to get by on athletic ability. Our schedule, next year, has LSU, Oklahoma State, Dallas Baptist, UCA (Central Arkansas), Arkansas-Little Rock and Jackson State, which won our conference last year.”
Nevertheless, Cooper will evaluate two walkons from Bastrop during the preseason. Pitcher/shortstop Dita Ridgell has transferred from ULM where he did not play baseball last season and outfielder Khalil Key is trying to make the team as a true freshman. Cooper has never seen either prospect play, at least not baseball.
Page 3 of 3 - “I saw Dita play quarterback his senior year,” Cooper said. “I know he's athletic.”
Bastrop has contributed to the GSU program in the past, too, as Cooper was teammates with Maurice Campbell, Michael Darrington and Lonnie Hines.
His playing days behind him, Cooper has the opportunity to make an even greater impact on the GSU baseball program as a coach. Following in the footsteps of Jones and Ellis, Cooper could be a Grambling legend in the making.