April 26, 2017
By Brad Muller | More Features
After an All-American career in which he helped South Carolina win the 2010 College World Series, Blake Cooper (2007-2010) enjoyed six years of professional baseball and was fortunate enough to retire from the game on his own terms. Now he’s carving a new a path as an aspiring coach, and South Carolina’s Degree Completion Program is helping him get there.
“I had a good career in college and went on to play professionally for six seasons,” Cooper said. “I had plenty of success in professional ball, but I found myself wanting to coach more than I was actually playing. In order to do that, I knew I needed to get my degree. My wife had her degree so I decided it was the best thing to do for me as well as my family.”
The degree completion program is part of the Gamecock Student-Athlete Promise for student-athletes who left the university in good academic standing to pursue a professional career, or did not complete their degree due to personal circumstances. The program allows those former student-athletes to apply to be readmitted to come back to campus and finish their degree.
Cooper’s hard work as a Gamecock saw him ascend to one of the weekend starters in South Carolina’s pitching rotation, culminating in the team winning its first national championship in 2010, while he also took home several personal accolades, including third team All-America and first team All-SEC honors.
“That was a ride of a lifetime,” Cooper said of the 2010 College World Series title. “That’s something that will stay with me for the rest of my life.”
Cooper was selected in the 12th round of the Major League Baseball draft that year by Arizona, and spent six years in pro baseball. He retired in 2015 after having one of his best professional seasons, posting a 7-4 record with a 2.63 earned run average with the Triple A Iowa Cubs.
“I’d say my last two years of professional ball, I lost some of the interest and drive,” Cooper said. “I was having success, but I felt like I wasn’t myself off the field. I felt like I was always wanting to do something different or do more. I feel like I’m in a happier place now that I’m coaching and being around the young kids so I can help them be what they want to be.
“The amount of games and playing almost year-round, every day was the toughest part of playing pro ball. All of the bus rides were hard, too. It’s a different animal, especially when you have a wife. I was married right of college, and we had to move around a lot.”
Coach (Jerry) Meyers is one of the best pitching coaches in college baseball, so I felt that if I could be around him and learn what he does on and off the field with the pitchers, then that could really help me in my career.
The Neeses, S.C., native came back to school and has worked as a student-assistant coach for the Gamecocks while he finished his sociology degree requirements with a cognate in coaching and will graduate from South Carolina in May.
“I want to go the college route with coaching,” Cooper said. “That’s why I came back here to be a student assistant. Coach (Jerry) Meyers is one of the best pitching coaches in college baseball, so I felt that if I could be around him and learn what he does on and off the field with the pitchers, then that could really help me in my career.
“The biggest thing I’ve learned from the pitching side of things is routines and learning how to approach players from the coaching side, and also how to come up with offseason throwing programs. I also learned about how to approach the kids and instill the knowledge that you want them to have. From the position player side of it, I’ve learned a lot more about the game with hitting and base running as well. I’ve really learned a lot so far.”
Having seen Brian Buscher, Drew Meyer, Scott Wingo, Matt Price and several other former Gamecocks go through the program, Cooper was excited that the opportunity to finish his education was still there after his playing days were finished.
“It’s definitely helped me,” Cooper said. “It’s definitely something that is very useful and helpful for former student-athletes who really wanted to pursue their careers in professional sports and then they can come back and finish their degree. Coach (Ray) Tanner and people in our compliance office had told me about it during my playing days. It was always in the back of my mind when I was playing. It’s really helpful.”
As part of the program, the former Gamecocks have access to all of academic resources that were available to them as student-athletes, including tutors and the Dodie Academic Enrichment Center. Seven years removed from his days pitching for the Gamecocks, Cooper still enjoys talking about the College World Series, but he doesn’t flaunt his championship ring around the current student-athletes.
“I haven’t worn it at all,” Cooper laughed. “It’s something I keep close to me, but it’s definitely a keepsake. I don’t brag about it, but it does bring up good questions with them. There’s a reason why we were successful. That’s an instance where I can jump in and tell them about what we had going on with camaraderie, toughness and grittiness that those guys on our team had.”
For now, he and his wife, Casey, are enjoying life with their six month old daughter, Kylee.
“It’s fun,” Cooper said of balancing classes, coaching and family life. “You should try being a dad and taking a Spanish class. I’m eager to see what her first words are going to be.”
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