ABCA Convention: Penn State's Rob Cooper Talks Fixing Broken Culture
CHICAGO – Early in 2017, Penn State coach Rob Cooper couldn’t quite put his finger on it, but he knew he had culture issues bubbling up in his program. Furthermore, he knew it was a culture he created that had gone bad and he knew he had to fix it.
Cooper spoke with candor and humility about the situation Penn State baseball was in back in 2017 during his session Saturday morning at the American Baseball Coaching Association convention in Chicago.
The session, titled “How to Repair a Broken Culture that You Created,” walked through how Penn State hit rock bottom and how Cooper and his coaching staff began the process of building the program back up. This is not to say that it was an altogether pleasant experience for Cooper.
“This isn’t easy for me to talk about in public,” he said. “It’s not easy for me to talk about in front of people that I’ve competed against that I have massive respect for, (and) people that have mentored me and coached me.”
Before the struggles of 2017, the Nittany Lions had been on a steady climb under Cooper, going from five conference wins in 2014 to six in 2015 to finishing 12-12 in the Big Ten in 2016.
The 2017 season was a different story. Just a few weeks into the season, Cooper knew something was wrong.
“About, I don’t know, three weeks into the season, a month into the season, I could tell something was just off,” Cooper said.
His intuition was correct, and that season turned out to be a rocky one. The Nittany Lions failed to win a single Big Ten series on the way to finishing 4-20 in conference play, with the absolute bottom coming in an early-May series at home against Minnesota.
After a close 6-5 loss in the Friday game, PSU lost the final two games by a combined 29-5 score.
“Saturday and Sunday, this is hard to admit, but it was the first time that I felt like—and we got destroyed—it was the first time in my coaching career that I felt like a team that I was the head coach of quit playing,” Cooper said. “(The team) didn’t want to be there. Just went through the motions. Just wore the uniform.”
The 2017 season might have been lost, but at that point, it was time to begin thinking about how to avoid similar stumbles in future seasons.
Cooper started simple, by sending out an anonymous survey to all of his players to get their feedback on how things had gone and the ways in which things could be done better. Every single player turned in a complete survey and the results were clear. The feedback suggested that the culture was broken, there was a disconnect between the players and the coaches and there was a general lack of communication throughout.
The steps that Cooper took from there were varied and voluminous, but they can be placed into a couple of different buckets.
One bucket is a series of player-centric initiatives. After having never named team captains in his time at Wright State or Penn State, Cooper developed the idea of a player leadership group called the Lion Council. Players were also organized into “boats” with designated “boat captains” and were each given a “swim buddy” in the style of Navy SEAL training as way to promote accountability to each other. He also worked with the team to develop a living document called the Manual of Excellence that players and coaches in the program can refer back to time and again.
Perhaps most notably, especially in a sport with limited practice time each week and with many coaches wanting to map out how each second at practice is spent, he instituted some player-led practices, players’ choice practices, player-coached practices and player-driven culture workshops as a tool not only to gauge what his players think the team needs to work on but also to give the team some ownership in how their time is spent.
The other bucket were things Cooper did as a way of rebuilding himself as a coach, because it was during the 2017 season that Cooper began to have doubts about his ability to do what he’d been doing his entire career.
“We get into the 2017 season, and like I said, I can tell something was off, so I came home—and my wife’s a daughter of a college and NFL coach (and) been in college athletics her whole life—and I said to her ‘I tell you what, I don’t know what it is, but maybe coaching has passed me by. I don’t know how to do this anymore,’” he recounted.
Cooper really got back to basics in this regard. He listed out his strengths as a reminder of all that he was capable of, even as losing and self-doubt had led him to believe otherwise. He sought out sounding boards in his life. He journaled and practiced visualization techniques. And he reminded himself that he needn’t make any changes for the sake of making changes.
Success in building a program isn’t always linear, of course, and Penn State struggled in 2018 to a 3-21 record in the Big Ten and weren’t much better in 2019 in going 4-18 in league play. But noticeable steps have been made since then, best shown in the Nittany Lions going 18-24 in 2021 in the conference-only schedule put together by the Big Ten.
Most importantly, though, Cooper has gotten back to being himself and he’s happy with the way the culture has evolved, even if the results aren’t guaranteed.
“I’m not really sure how it’s all going to play out,” Cooper said. “But I love how we’re going about it. I really do. And I like how I’m going about it better.”