John Cooper, a 30-year-old offensive line coach from Wakulla County who was an assistant coach for the Seahawks five years ago, has accepted an offer to lead the Franklin County High School football program.
Superintendent Steve Lanier said he plans to recommend Cooper’s name for school board approval this month, with the coach expected to come onboard Jan. 23.
“I think he’s going to be the difference maker,” said Lanier, who has pressed to fill the position ever since coach Dirk Strunk announced his retirement Dec. 1.
Cooper, who lives in Crawfordville with wife Beth and 3-year-old son Jackson, did not apply in the opening round, as the couple’s 2-month-old daughter Jordan had just entered their lives.
“When the process started my daughter was 1-month-old at the time,” said Cooper. “With the whirlwind of having a new kid, the mind gets cloudy. Family comes first.”
Lanier at first had hoped to lure Apalachicola native Bill Thomas from the highly successful Sneads Pirates football program he has built up over the last decade, but Thomas, who coached the Pirates to an 11-1 record this past season, decided to stay put.
The interview committee, which along with Lanier included Principal Danielle Rossen, Human Resource Director Karen Peddie, County Commissioner Ottice Amison and longtime volunteer Seahawks coach Eddie Money, also reviewed applications from former Apalachicola High School Sharks football standout Albert Floyd and former Seahawks coach Tony Yeomans, who posted a 6-4 record in 2017-18, the Seahawks’ last winning season, when Cooper served as his offensive line coach.
A defensive coordinator at Bay High School, Floyd, 36, decided to take the head coaching position at Rutherford instead. Yeomans posed the challenge of bringing in a non-certified teacher on to the staff, and no agreement could be reached.
Coming in highly recommended by his colleagues. Cooper is a certified teacher, in both ESE and history, and has been at the Wakulla Institute, a “second-chance program” similar to Franklin County’s Learning Center. In addition he has served as offensive line coach for the Wakulla War Eagles.
“The timing worked out to give me a long time to think of the process,” said Cooper. “When we put the numbers together, we made a decision and I became 100 percent certain at that point.”
A powerful factor in Cooper’s decision was that he had nurtured personal relations with Seahawk players and their families during his time at the school.
“I think it goes back to when I served, and made a lot of close connections with players at that time that I still talk to today,” he said. “I felt like I made a connection with players at that time and the community there. I don’t feel like I’m a stranger to it, I feel like I have some qualities to make a positive change, and have a positive impact on the program.”
Cooper won’t be athletic director
A 2014 graduate of Faulkner University, a private, Christian liberal arts university based in Montgomery, Alabama, Cooper played offensive line for the Eagles while earning a bachelor’s degree in sports management.
Cooper said he and wife Beth decided she would leave her job as a loan officer at the credit union to be a stay-at-home mom even before he explored the Seahawk job offer.
Including the coaching supplements, Cooper will make $58,890, with 10-year teaching experience, about $7,000 less than Strunk, who had twice the years of teachhing experience, earned as both coach and athletic director.
The couple owns their home, so he’ll make the commute from Wakulla County, just as a few other Seahawk teacher-coaches do, with housing prices here a factor in these choices.
“When I was here before I lived in Lynn Haven, which was in a different time zone,” Cooper said.
He decided against serving as athletic director, with the post expected to be filled soon based on Rossen’s decision. He won’t be handling a teaching load in the classroom spring semester, either, among his job duties.
“It’s a lot of work and for me to be successful, I have to put my main attention and not spread it out just for the sake of a stipend,” Cooper said.
The young coach said he is building a strong lineup of assistant coaches, based on “as many stipends as I’m allowed,” he said. “Some hires within the community and one outside hire, and a volunteer coach, Eddie Money.
“Me and him have a great relationship. The community’s also going to be happy with the offensive coordinator,” Cooper said. “I can’t guarantee nothing but hard work and hopefully fruits will go from that.”
The new coach, who will direct both of the school’s weightlifting teams, said he is making it a priority to involve the entire community in the process of revitalizing the football program, one in which winless seasons are not quite the norm, but close to it.
“For a small community program to be successful its parents and community, as well as communications, are key to that,” Cooper said.
“I’m going to establish relationships,” he said, targeting March as what he called “the money month.
“Parents will have a chance to meet me and time to digest expectations,” he said. “I want to challenge the parents. Yes, the weight room is tough but if you can handle the weight room you can handle stuff in life.”
Lanier sounds clearly pleased the district has a promising prospect on the sidelines.
“I think he’s going to be an outstanding coach,” he said. “He takes the oxygen out of the room; he’s a listener. He’s going to bunch coaches together. He’s got this grand plan; he’s going to get these kids that haven’t played interested, and will be recruiting our local kids to play.”
Lanier, who played for the famed Apalachicola coach Bill Wagoner, from 1972 to 1975, was a quarterback and linebacker for “The Mighty Sharks,” and points to a 30-10 record on the gridiron in his four years, including the undefeated regular season in 1973 when he was a sophomore, before a loss to Jacksonville University Christian in the state semifinal ended the team’s title hopes.
“I listened to my coaches, I was very coachable,” he recalled. “When I interview these coaches, I think ‘Would I want to play for that man?’ That coach, this man we picked, I’d play for him in a second.
“We just haven’t had the level of participation that we need,” Lanier said. “We need to revamp our weight room. If we want to be a football school, that includes weight training and getting qualified assistant coaches with experience who know how to coach.
“If we can get some of those guys we’re going to be real good,” he said. “The idea is to get the community behind us. If we start winning, the community will come.”
Cooper has promised to do all he can to make sure players have a shot at college offers, and for reaping the personal and professional benefits that small-town football stardom offers those who live up to it.
“There could be opportunities outside of football through the game,” Lanier said. “You’ve got to get their parents to commit, and a coach visible in the community really helps that out.
“If you get a coach that stays here longer, if he makes a commitment to these kids,” he continued, stopping short to note that “Coach Wagoner coached my father. When you’ve been there that long you know everybody.”