UNIVERSITY PARK — Shortly after being informed he would take over as the Penn State baseball team’s new coach, Rob Cooper didn’t wait long to pack a few necessities in his car and head east to Happy Valley.
Driving through Columbus, Ohio, on Friday afternoon, Cooper made note: He was suddenly in enemy territory — Buckeye Country — and his excitement level reached a climax.
“I am really jacked up and so excited to get started,” Cooper told the Centre Daily Times. “I probably could get out of my car and run there faster.”
Cooper’s hiring marks the first time in nearly a decade a new face will lead the Penn State baseball team. The former Wright State coach replaces Robbie Wine, who resigned in June after the Nittany Lions finished 14-36 and went 4-20 in the Big Ten — the worst result in Wine’s nine-year tenure.
Two of those losses came at the hands of Cooper’s Wright State Raiders. Now, Cooper — a 10-year coaching veteran — will look to turn around a Penn State team that went 15-9 in the Big Ten in 2012 and hasn’t won a conference tournament game since the 2008 season.
Penn State feels like it has the right man to turn the program around.
“Rob has an outstanding background with great collegiate and USA Baseball experience and success,” Penn State Director of Athletics Dave Joyner said in a univerity release. “He has done a fantastic job building the Wright State program into a perennial conference championship contender and we expect that he will have similar successes at Penn State.”
Cooper has experience with rebuilding.
The Raiders suffered three straight losing seasons before Cooper took over in 2005. Although Wright State went 26-33 in his first year at the helm, Cooper helped guide the Raiders to seven straight winning seasons in which they won at least 30 games, claimed three Horizon League titles and made three NCAA tournament appearances.
He has lofty goals for his new program. First and foremost he knows he must lure more Pennsylvania standouts to Happy Valley.
“When I interviewed, I made the comment that there are 30-plus players from the recruiting classes over the last couple of years that are Pennsylvania kids that have signed with Top 25 baseball programs, BCS-level programs other than Penn State,” Cooper said. “That tells you there are really good players there. Our job is to work hard to keep those guys in state.”
Cooper got a taste of what it’s like to play at Medlar Field at Lubrano Park in early April. Cooper’s Raiders took two of three games on Penn State’s diamond.
The quality of the facility combined with the campus’s layout made an impression on Cooper.
“I think with the commitment to baseball and the facilities and the education and the people and the community, this could be a special, special place,” Cooper said. “I really believe that with time we can go to Omaha. That’s going to be our goal.”
First, Cooper has to put his staff together. He plans on sitting down with Jason Bell and Eric Folmar — assistants on Wine’s staff — first.
Bell recently finished his ninth season with Penn State and oversees the pitching staff. Folmar, an eight-year veteran with Penn State, is the team’s recruiting coordinator and coaches infielders and outfielders, and serves as third base coach.
Cooper isn’t in a rush.
“I want to make sure I’ve got the right guys,” Cooper said. “I want to make sure that they understand the plan and we go with it. This is not something that’s going to happen overnight. But the great thing about it is, with work ethic and energy and time, it’s something we can get after.”
Recruiting trips across the state will follow.
He already has a dugout full of players with potential, he believes. Penn State will likely return all but five players from last year’s team.
“One thing that people say to you when you take a new job in coaching is, ‘Hey coach, you’re going to do a great job once you get your guys in there,’ ” Cooper said. “Well that always makes me mad because the truth of the matter is that I chose to come to Penn State because it’s a great place. These are my guys. We’re going to recruit quality players to bring in here but there’s nothing about my guys, their guys, whatever. These are my guys.”
Cooper graduated from the University of Miami, where he began his coaching career in 1994 as a graduate assistant. The Hurricanes appeared in the College World Series both seasons. He moved on to Wake Forest and then Tulane where he served as hitting coach. During Cooper’s stint, the Green Wave won the Conference USA title in 1997 and advanced to the NCAA tournament in 1998.
Immediately before taking the job at Wright State, Cooper served as recruiting coordinator and bench coach at Oral Roberts University.
Cooper also brings international experience to Penn State. He did two tours with Team USA as an assistant in 2007 and 2009 and helped the U.S. squad win a silver medal at the Pan-American Games in 2007.
Twelve of Cooper’s players have signed free agent contracts with Major League franchises while seven others have been selected in the MLB draft.
“I want our baseball alums to come back and be a part of this and help us build this thing the right way and be proud of this program,” Cooper said.
Follow Travis Johnson on Twitter @bytravisjohnson.