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2009 Track Week 5

Coach Mark Cooper

Smoky Hill HS CO

Throughout the 2009 track season, the editors of DyeStat.com will choose an Eastbay National Coach of the Week to recognize coaches around the country for outstanding recent achievements in guiding prep athletes.

Coach of the Week Archive

"I feel our program helps each person grow and develop individual happiness and ethical values which are strong building blocks for their future."

Interview by Dave Devine

When Smoky Hill CO senior pole vaulter Chase Cooper recently cleared a big PR of 17-04.75, he wasn't merely joining an exclusive high school fraternity of 17-footers, he was continuing a family tradition of elite vaulting that extends back two generations to his grandfather, Don Cooper.  When Smoky Hill head boys track coach Mark Cooper guided his senior star over that elusive bar, he wasn't only cultivating the latest state champion-caliber vaulter from his high school in the foothills of the Rockies, he was helping his son become the highest climber in family history. 

As the head boys coach at Smoky Hills for more than thirty years, Cooper has turned out an impressive string of top-level vaulters-- 15 state champions in 32 years-- but his balanced teams have also featured distance standouts like Brent Vaughn and Ryan Deak, stellar field eventers and strong sprinting.  A one-time decathlete himself, Cooper has parlayed that broad experience with various track events into a reliable formula for success.  But like many of the best coaches, he speaks of himself primarily as a teacher, and considers character development and ethical values to be the real cornerstones of his program. 

With the Colorado State Championship Meet looming this weekend, Coach Cooper took a few moments to share some of that coaching philosophy, and his own family's rich history in the sport.

Coach Cooper Q&A

DyeStat:  You mentioned that your father, Don, was a track coach while you were growing up, and now you in turn have been a coach for your two sons, Kirk and Chase.  Can you talk about the influence of having a father who was a coach on your own decision to enter the profession, and when it was that you first realized that you were destined to be a track coach as well?
Coach Cooper: Growing up, my father had a great influence on my decision to be a coach-- watching his influence while working with young athletes and seeing the joy and passion he had for developing and molding these young athletes.  As a young boy I would often look through my father's scrapbooks and read about his accomplishments in track and field as an athlete, and I was amazed.  As I grew older I became interested in all sports, and as kids do, I played them all.  In junior high I went out for the track team, and with my father's help, I learned different track and field events.  After the success as a young athlete, I went on to be a decathlete in college, placing in the top three in our conference as a junior and senior.  I studied teaching in college, knowing then that I wanted to be a coach and influence young athletes like my father did.

DyeStat:  Don Cooper was also an elite pole vaulter from what I understand, ranking in the top 3 in the US in the 1950's and the first collegian over 15 feet while at Nebraska.  You, and now your sons, have following in that generational path toward success in the pole vault.  Simple question, which is probably not so simple: Why the pole vault?  What is it about this event which has captured the passion of three generations of Coopers?
Coach Cooper:  Pole vaulting is fun!  It's the allure and challenge, to see the bar go higher.  Pole vaulting is not easy, but the thrill, that feeling of accomplishment, is amazing.  The bond, the connection, the experiences we share are the glue that connects the family, the one common denominator.

DyeStat:  As a head boys coach for more than 30 years, you've produced some great vaulters (15 state champions in 32 years), but have obviously had to focus on success in the other events as well.  Did the things you already knew about vaulting translate well into coaching other events, or did you have to spend a lot of time educating yourself about other event areas?  As a coach--even though you probably have some event-specific assistants-- how do you balance the load and make sure all the athletes get attention and development?

Three generations of Cooper pole vaulters: Kirk, Mark, Don and Chase.  Photo submitted
Coach Cooper:  Being a decathlete has helped me get an overall education and expertise in many of the track and field events.  However, track and field being a complex sport with over seventeen events, I realize the importance of developing a staff of highly-qualified assistant coaches to help me and our athletes achieve their own individual and team successes. I have been very fortunate to have had great assistants who have had the same passion that I have had.  When you put this all together, this is the reason Smoky Hill Track team has had the accomplishments they have.

DyeStat:  If you could identify some key principles or ideas that you've internalized over the years, what would those be?  When a new kid shows up to compete for the Smoky Hill boys' team, what can they expect from you as a coach?
Coach Cooper:  I first believe in the recognition and dignity of each person or athlete as a human being.  I feel the relationship between coach and athlete must be genuine, and based upon mutual respect and trust.  As a coach, I feel athletes that enter our program will receive great motivation, which is the essential element in teaching.  I feel our program helps each person grow and develop individual happiness and ethical values which are strong building blocks for their future.

DyeStat:  The pole vault, especially at the most elite levels of high school competition, seems like a fairly small and close-knit community.  Do you interact with any of the other coaches working with some of the country's top vaulters-- the Tim St. Lawrence's, the Morry Sanders', the Jeff Guy's--at big meets or national clinics?  What's the best thing you ever learned from a fellow coach?

Coach Cooper:  As a pole vault coach I am always learning, picking the minds of other successful coaches around the country.  I have great respect for those coaches.  I feel you can always learn something from other coaches and their experiences.

  Smoky Hill CO grad Brent Vaughn at the 2008 US
  Olympic Trials.  Photo by John Nepolitan
DyeStat:  Many high school track coaches talk about needing to "beat the bushes" or "trawl the hallways" for the untapped talent that exists inside the walls of their school.  Are there particular approaches you and other Smoky Hill coaches take to encourage young athletes to come out for the track team?  How do you convince the second-string wide receiver or the JV shooting guard that if he dedicated himself to track, he could be a champion?  Can you recall any big successes and/or surprises you've had in that area?
Coach Cooper:  I, like many other coaches, "walk the halls," trying to sell the program.. With success you usually breed more success.  The main idea is to have fun and improve as individuals.  That is truly the goal of any high school program.  I try and convince athletes of other sports to give track a  try.  I had one JV basketball athlete that comes to mind.  He came out for track and found success as a two-time state champion and record holder.  He became a Collegiate All-American for the University of Colorado.  His name: Brent Vaughn.

DyeStat:  Finally, can you say a few words about the dynamic of coaching your own children?  Do you find that difficult, easy, somewhere in between?  What's been the most rewarding aspect of that relationship as a coach and father?

Coach Cooper:  Wow!  These have been some of the most rewarding moments as a coach and a father.  Seeing my boys reach heights beyond what I did is truly rewarding. It hasn't always been easy.  Coaching my sons has built a lasting bond we will share, along wth my Dad, forever.

Congratulations to Coach Mark Cooper, the fifth Eastbay National Coach of the Week for Spring 2009! Eastbay Coach of the Week Coaches will receive a team color Eastbay jacket.

Coach of the Week Archive