When John Cooper looked down the bench he didn’t see much company.
At one point last season, the Tennessee State coach had just six scholarship players and two walk-ons at his disposal. Cooper could have had more bodies, but he chose to part ways with players who didn’t follow the rules.
“My thought process is, ‘I’ve got to do what is right,’ ” Cooper said. “I don’t care if we end up with five guys. I think you have to do right by your kids, and you have to do right by your program. If you don’t establish your culture, if you don’t establish a baseline, then eventually it becomes impossible to be successful.
“What starts happening is everyone understands that they can buck the system.”
Fast-forward to this season and it appears those decisions paid off for Cooper and the Tigers. TSU was five minutes away from reaching the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1994. A 54-52 loss to Murray State in the championship game of the Ohio Valley Conference Tournament on March 3 prevented that from happening. But that near miss can’t overshadow a 20-win season — the program’s first since 1979 — and an appearance in a postseason event, the CollegeInsider.com Tournament.
It is a program that has just three players left from when Cooper arrived three years ago. In his first two years, 11 players either quit or were dismissed from the team.
The way the Tigers turned turmoil into good fortune should give hope to Lipscomb.
The Bison and head coach Scott Sanderson went through numerous headaches this season on their way to a 13-18 record. Lipscomb dismissed four players due to either violation of school policy, academic ineligibility or a coach’s discretion.
By season’s end only nine players were on the roster. Seven will return — senior Justin Glenn graduated, and redshirt-junior Jacob Arnett begins pharmacy school.
Sanderson can’t recall losing more players in 13 seasons at Lipscomb. For the most part he has experienced success with the Bison, twice winning Atlantic Sun Conference regular season championships (2006 and 2010). They also reached the NIT in 2006.
“I’m doing what I think is necessary for our team to move forward,” Sanderson said. “We’ve had a lot of success here. You can’t let one season disrupt what you are trying to do. You’ve got to move forward from it and learn from things that went on.”
From the end of 2010-11 to the beginning of this season, four players transferred. That included former Springfield High standout Cory Stanton, who arrived from Clemson but at the end of the fall semester he transferred to Tennessee, where he is a walk-on.
In January, sophomore guard Robert Boyd, the team’s second leading scorer, was declared academically ineligible. Last month, senior guard Jordan Burgason, the team’s leading scorer and the nation’s leader in 3-point shooting percentage, was dismissed from Lipscomb after a violation of the school’s code of conduct policy. To cap it off, in the final week of the season, redshirt freshman forward Damarius Smith and freshman forward Marvin Williams were suspended indefinitely and later dismissed from the team due to a coach’s decision.
“I wouldn’t say bad apples, but they were isolated incidents and it happened to happen in the same year,” Sanderson said. “Did I foresee that really coming? Probably not. Not really. There is no perfect science to recruiting. There is just not. You try to do the best you possibly can at evaluating guys both on and off the floor to the best of your ability. That is what you try to do with each person. You try to get to know their parents: all of those things factor into the recruiting process.
“Sometimes things work out. Sometimes they don’t.”
And when they don’t, the coach will usually send them on their way. In 10 seasons at MTSU, coach Kermit Davis has seen nearly 30 players leave, whether it was their choice or the school or coach’s decision.
Davis and Cooper both lost sleep over Josh Sain.
Choosing MTSU over Alabama in 2007, the 6-foot-5 guard/forward from Jackson, Tenn., was the highest rated recruit Davis had landed. He lasted only one season. Davis suspended him twice before kicking him off for violating university policy.
He transferred to a junior college before landing at TSU for the 2009-10 season. He led the Tigers in scoring, but that didn’t mean he was above the rules. Cooper, in his first year at the time, made a statement by booting Sain and three others that February.
“I don’t have regrets, but I’ve felt awful,” Cooper said. “I hate dealing with that when you have to get rid of kids. I understand the value of getting an education. I’m an adult, and at the end of the day they are still kids. By no stretch of the imagination is it easy.”
To fill the roster on short notice, many coaches rely on transfers.
Five MTSU players this season arrived from junior colleges or Division I schools, including Sun Belt Conference player of the year LaRon Dendy. With fresh faces, the Blue Raiders won a program-record 25 games and captured the Sun Belt regular-season crown for the second time in three years, which ultimately guaranteed them a spot in the NIT. The defeated Marshall on Tuesday and will face Tennessee in the second round Tuesday..
Cooper turned to three Division I transfers this season but also had to wrestle with junior college transfer Kenny Moore. The senior forward was a starter and the team’s leading scorer in 2010-11, but Cooper suspended him for seven games this winter due to “conduct detrimental to the team.”
Moore’s story has a better ending. He returned and embraced a new role coming off the bench. More importantly, he graduated in December.
“The last thing any coach wants to do is dismiss a player,” Davis said. “You are always wanting to help a player in every possible way to succeed. But the bottom line is sometimes you have to because of rules and regulations and for the betterment of your team.
“In a lot of cases, short-term it may hurt you, but in the long run it is going to make your team a lot stronger.”