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Originally published Tuesday, January 29, 2013 at 8:02 PM

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Saint Martin's Keith Cooper coaches a world away from March Madness

Saint Martin's men's basketball coach Keith Cooper has spent a lifetime in coaching and does more with less.

Times staff columnist

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Great Story. Nice way to start winding down Steve. MORE
Keith is a great guy and a great coach. I coached with him at St. Martin's. I really... MORE
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LACEY — After the team bus returned home from Saturday afternoon's 82-54 loss at Seattle Pacific, Saint Martin's basketball coach Keith Cooper sat in his office, surrounded by the flotsam and jetsam of a decade at the school, and did some long, hard soul-searching.

"Have I lost it as a coach?" Cooper asked himself. "Can I do it anymore? Can I get it done here?"

Periodically, he left his office and walked across the hall to check on the team's laundry. Yes, after games, the head coach is in charge of washing the team uniforms. It isn't just X's and O's for Cooper at Saint Martin's. It's also wash and dry.

Before he left the building that night, he would have each uniform washed and folded and ready to wear at Thursday's game at Western Oregon.

This is the world of small-college coaching, a world far away from Rupp Arena and Allen Fieldhouse. A much different neighborhood than Krzyzewskiville.

If you want to advertise on the walls of the Saints' home court, Marcus Pavilion, you have to contact Cooper. He's in charge of selling the pavilion's signage. He's also the team's traveling secretary and schedule maker.

But most of all, Cooper, 49, is a basketball lifer. And that's a compliment. He's a gym rat who coaches because it's all he's ever wanted to do.

He prepares just as hard as the icons we watch every night into late winter and early spring. And the losses hurt just as bad in Lacey as they do in Louisville.

"Those guys are very, very underappreciated," Washington coach Lorenzo Romar said. "But I have a great appreciation for those coaches. They're definitely not coaching for the accolades. They love to do it. They're ball coaches."

Cooper's salary is about $45,000 a year. He has maybe half as many scholarships as most of the other coaches in his conference, the Great Northwest Athletic Conference. But when asked how many he has, he only answers, "Enough."

Cooper has one part-time assistant coach, Antonio McClinon, with whom he shares an office. The décor of that office is Vintage Coach Clutter. On the floor are stacks of three-ring binders filled with practice plans, scouting reports, drills, offensive sets, defensive sets, season's goals and goals for every game. He has binders with information on high-school recruits and potential junior-college transfers.

On his wall are pictures from his team's trips to Hawaii and Florida, Arizona and Alaska. There are snapshots of former players like Blake Poole and a photo of Cooper and his wife Linda posing with ESPN's Dick Vitale.

The bookshelf above his desk is lined with motivational hardbacks from Nick Saban, John Wooden, Dean Smith, Pete Carroll and many more.

He underlines quotes from those books, like Bill Walsh's "Tough times don't last. Tough teams do," and recites those lines to his players at practice.

Kentucky coach John Calipari has walk-in closets at his home that are roomier than Cooper's office. But there is a warm, lived-in feel to this office. It's the office of a coach who is comfortable with the choices he has made in life.

When asked about his 26 years in coaching, Cooper quotes a line from Lakers Hall of Famer Jerry West: "It's been a teddy bear's picnic."

The Saints are 6-11 this season. But in the five previous seasons, Cooper's teams were 73-67. The season before he arrived, Saint Martin's won two games. He has made them competitive again, and for purists who like watching programs that run their stuff like it was drawn on the grease board, his teams are a pleasure to watch.

Still, above all else, Cooper wants to win. His fire burns as intensely as Bill Self's and after a loss as lopsided as Saturday's, he fights the urge to summon his inner Bob Knight.

"It's hard to sleep at night," he said, "when you just got your butt kicked."

But Cooper knows he can't turn tyrannical like Knight with this team. He knows how hard and committed the players are. And he also knows that they are limited.

"I have low-maintenance, hardworking, great kids," he said. "They've done what I've asked them to do. I think that's a lot of why I've stayed."

He has done more with less. He has graduated 91 percent of his players. The team's grade-point average is 3.2. And only once in 10 years has he had to suspend a player for breaking a team rule.

Those numbers are supposed to mean something in college athletics.

"He's one of those guys who's pretty much dedicated his life to coaching," said Washington assistant Brad Jackson, who coached at Division II power Western Washington for 27 years.

"He wanted to be a coach at an early age. And at Saint Martin's, he's given his heart and soul to that program to develop it and make it as good as it could possibly be. He's worked really hard to be the best he can be at his chosen profession, and I think that says a lot about him."

Coaching is a noble occupation. And there are many coaches like Cooper who, far from television's eyes, have contributed just as much or more to the game as the gods of March Madness.

"Growing up, I've always loved the game," Cooper said. "That hasn't changed. But the great thing about coaching basketball is that you also get to teach life skills. As frustrated as I was after getting blown out at Seattle Pacific, I had to think about what I could tell my players.

"What can you tell them? Well, they're going to have to persevere when they become husbands and fathers and employees. They're going to have to be resilient. Our players are going to face some adversity. They're going to lose some games. But they're going to become better people."

Last Saturday, Cooper left Marcus Pavilion around midnight, four hours after the team's return from Seattle. The laundry was done. The game film had been critiqued. He turned out the lights, locked the doors and walked into another wet evening.

After a day off, his team would return to the floor to prepare for Western Oregon. And as he walked hunched against the rain, still feeling the lingering pain from the loss, Cooper knew he was exactly where he wanted to be.

Keith Cooper is a basketball coach. A noble profession.

Steve Kelley: 206-464-2176 or skelley@seattletimes.com. More columns at www.seattletimes.com/columnists

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