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Action over words: How Washington State’s A.J. Cooper is leading change during a time of unrest

UPDATED: Sat., June 13, 2020

Washington State defensive line coach AJ Cooper  (AJ Cooper)
Washington State defensive line coach AJ Cooper (AJ Cooper)

Lamonte McDougle had grown frustrated with the written statements flooding his social media timeline – many of them packed with overused catchphrases, Martin Luther King Jr. quotes and unfulfilled promises from college football coaches who’d crafted well-meaning responses to the social issues engulfing America, but without initiating any real change.

So on May 31, less than a week after a viral video depicted a Minneapolis police officer kneeling on the neck of 46-year-old George Floyd, triggering nationwide protests and riots, Washington State’s junior nose tackle bravely made a call for action.

McDougle tweeted the following message to his 2,332 followers: “PSA College coaches: A statement is not enough Y’all have been benefiting from the hard work of young African-American men your entire careers I need to be seeing some donations and if it really took 6 days for you to address what’s going on you’re just trying to save face.”

Around the same time, Todd Golden, who just completed his first year as the basketball coach at the University of San Francisco, taking over the position formerly held by his mentor and current WSU coach, Kyle Smith, was brainstorming how he could be part of the solution.

The 34-year-old started by consulting members of his USF staff, forming the framework of a nonprofit foundation to help underserved youth in cities where African American kids often don’t have the same resources as their white counterparts, putting them at a disadvantage as they grow older.

Golden sought out more help from close friends in the coaching world – not only those at USF – so it was a no-brainer to call one of his childhood companions, A.J. Cooper, who was hired in January to coach the ends on WSU’s defensive line. Golden, who is white, and Cooper, who identifies as half-Black, half-white, grew up together in Phoenix, attended the same high school, were baseball teammates and traded “best man” duties at each other’s weddings. Cooper still stays with Golden’s parents when he’s recruiting in or visiting Phoenix.

“We come from very diverse and different backgrounds,” Cooper said in a phone interview. “But again, I think that’s just kind of an epitome of who him and I are, what we’re trying to do looking past those things and again, just be around good people.”

On June 3, Golden, with the help of Cooper, USF staff members Vinnie McGhee, Jonathan Safir and Kevin Hovde, and Oklahoma men’s basketball assistant Carlin Hartman, launched the Coaches Coalition for Progress .

The group drafted the following mission statement: “A Coalition of Coaches formed with the mission of fostering community relationships and improving academic and athletic opportunities for under-resourced youth.”

The six initial founding members pooled together their money, and combined with the $50 annual membership required to join the CCP, have already managed to raise more than $15,000. The organization, which employs three pillars – educate, engage and serve – is designed to be inclusive, so coaches at every level can pay a small membership fee to join.

“You look at some of the people that have the most impact on young men and women are high school coaches,” Cooper said. “… I reached out to just about every college and high school coach I have a relationship with and hit them up about it.

“I know they did the same thing. So we’ve got a fantastic response to it.”

The CCP plans to start in inner-city Oakland, California, at the West Oakland Boys & Girls Club McGhee was once part of, and filter into areas or cities to which the group’s founding members have strong connections . The coalition is still ironing out most of the specifics, but it intends to help underserved, underpriviliged communities – Boys & Girls Clubs, YMCA groups – by providing resources and funds that didn’t previously exist.

The CCP’s Twitter page, @CCFProgress , has already amassed 873 followers in 10 days, including head WSU football coach Nick Rolovich and just about every member of his staff. McDougle too.

“I know it impacts them and I know some of these guys have been in really tough situations involving racism that have left some deep scars on them,” Cooper said, “and those are things we’ve been trying to talk through with them and listen to them and try to help them through those things and share some perspective.”

Cooper’s father is a Black man from Panama City, Florida, who grew up during the segregation era and fought in the Vietnam War. His mother is a white woman who was raised in Maine.

The first-year WSU assistant said he was “blessed” to experience diversity from a young age, but acknowledges he wasn’t completely sheltered from racism and was ridiculed for his mixed background.

“I saw a lot of, heard a lot of things growing up as far as what my skin tone was and who I could identify with,” Cooper said. “… What I was taught when I was young was it doesn’t matter the person’s skin, it only matters their character and what they’re about.

“So, I’ve gone through some things, but unfortunately some of our players have gone through a lot worse and some of the stories they shared were really tough.”

Those stories, coupled with the disturbing images that came out of Minneapolis, compelled Cooper to help. Fortunately, he had few like-minded colleagues determined to the same. Now, in a world that needs drastic change, they hope the Coaches Coalition for Progress can make a small dent.

“I think it’s a great opportunity, whether it’s people individually or us as a country, to look ourselves in the mirror and see, do we really like what we’re seeing?” Cooper said. “And if we don’t, then let’s change it.”

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Tags: football, wsu

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