By Michael Haag | Sports Editor
The Long Island Sharks will make the trip to Waco this weekend in hopes of snapping a two-game skid. It mirrors the situation Baylor football is in, as both squads hope to come out of this final tune-up game before conference play on top.
LIU (0-2) head coach Ron Cooper spoke with The Baylor Lariat on Wednesday to discuss the upcoming matchup with the Bears (0-2).
What’s the excitement like going into this game for you and your team? Is it pretty cool to face a power conference opponent like Baylor?
“This is really, really big for our team and our program. We’re a young team in Division I-AA FCS, but it’ll be big. It’s a good trip for our players. They get a chance to see a major big-time environment. Getting a chance to play in that atmosphere is really good, and I’m excited for our players. We’ll bring about 70 guys there. I know it’ll be hotter than what it usually is here [in New York], but our guys are excited, and I just want us to go out and have fun and play as hard as we can play.”
What issues have come up in weeks one and two for your team? What has made it difficult to get that first win?
“Well, the first week, we played Ohio U, which is a non-Power Five, but it’s still a group that has 85 full scholarships, and we’re working with nowhere near that amount. And then last week, we had a big rain delay, and our starting quarterback was injured for the rest of the game. … But this is how we started off last year. Last year, we started off with some larger schools, and we finished the season with four wins. I’m just looking for our guys to play well [and] to play hard, and let’s see what happens. They can only put 11 out on the field at a time like us. So they probably have more on the sidelines than we get, but it’s still an 11-on-11 game that’s played.”
“The good thing about football is we get a chance to look at each other’s film. And when I look and see how hard — especially their defense — played this past week, those guys played hard and aggressive. If they play like that every week on defense and protect the ball, they’re a good football team. They’re young. … It makes it fun knowing that we get a chance to try to match their intensity. Coach [Dave] Aranda is a good coach. They have a great staff. I know a lot of guys on their staff. … They’ve lost two games. … They’re not going to let those two games mess up the rest of their season. So I know we have to have our guys ready to play. And there’s no doubt, if it’s done anything, it’s made them focus and say, ‘OK, let’s get back on track’ — because I know who they have next week [in No. 4 Texas].”
What jumps out to you from Baylor’s tape? What do you see from this team, and what are you expecting?
“They play hard. I think on offense, they’ve dealt with several different personnel groups. They have some tight ends that can play, [and] their offensive line’s big. They have a runner that can run. I don’t know who’s going to play quarterback for them. … But they’re well coached, man. [Offensive coordinator Jeff] Grimes knows, man. … I’ve been on a major level most of my life until I got back here, until I took this job. So I mean, those guys can coach football. … They’re good on both sides. They can move the ball. I think Texas State probably stunned them a little bit, you know what I mean? [They] got ahead, got them off track, felt good. And Texas State went last week and lost their game [at UTSA]. And then [Baylor] played a good Utah team that they had a chance and should’ve or could’ve won [against a team] that the week before beat Florida, who’s supposedly an SEC power. So they’re a good football team. Once you get your first win, there’s no telling what happens when they start rolling. So, like I said, we’re just looking to go in there and play hard. Honestly, just play hard one play at a time. And look on the scoreboard at halftime and see where we’re at and look at it at the end of the game. And let me be able to go in and say that we have played with uncommon great effort.”
What gives you the confidence in your two quarterbacks, Luca Stanzani and Chris Howell, to be effective against Baylor?
“Well, Luca’s a sophomore, and the other two guys [Howell and Maurice Smith or Ethan Greenwood] are freshmen, and so they’re still young. We started Luca [in] the last four games last year, and he went 4-0. And so, he’s a talent. He’s not very tall, but he’s a talent. The other two guys have what I call fast twitch [or] quick twitch speed that can run with the ball. So they give us options to where you can run and you can throw it. Luca ran last week and scrambled and hurt himself, so we’ll see where he is by the end of the week and how he feels. But we have two other guys [who] at least had to go in there and play last week. So, until we get it settled, we’re not going to just play one guy the whole game. We’re going to see who gives us the best chance to win.”
How do you prepare for the atmosphere of McLane Stadium? Have you ever played in a venue quite like that?
“Well, when we land, we’re going to the stadium at 3:45. So we’re going to get over the ‘Oh, look at this. Here it is.’ We’re going to see the locker room. I’m sure their visiting locker room is better than every home locker room that we have in our conference, so we will let them [enjoy it]. ‘Guys, here it is. See it. Take your pictures. Pull your phone out. Call your mama and whoever else now.’ Because when we step in there Saturday morning … I know what Baylor does: They put all the students [and] they run and take [to the field]. So, I mean, hey, I’m looking forward to seeing it myself just like our players are. All the fanfare has nothing to do with 11-on-11 when you get on the field.”
Have you ever been to Waco before? If so, what’s your experience been like?
“I’ve been to Waco. It’s been a long time. Years [and] years ago, we played there. I mean, I’ve followed the program for years. I mean, I’ve been coaching 39 seasons. So it’s a great place. It’s a great environment. I know it’s a great university, academically and athletically. And I know plenty of coaches that have coached there. Like I said, I know a lot of the guys that are there right now, females and males that are working on that staff. And I know that Coach Aranda has established an unbelievable staff on and off the field. So I look forward to being in that environment, letting our players experience that environment, letting our administration who will be with us and be able to see that environment. That just helps us keep moving this program forward.”
This game hasn’t been scheduled for long, but what’s the benefit of playing a game like this against a large program?
“It helps us move forward. First of all, it gives us a little bit of money to put in to help our other sports and football move forward. Really, three of our games this year do that. It gives us an automatic dollar amount … but at the same time, it gives us a great experience. And our president, she’ll be at the game, and [our] CEO and the AD. … I’ve seen plenty of environments like this, but I’d like for others to experience and see it. And who knows, one-in-a-thousand, sometimes the small underdog finds a way to make it a game.”
What would you tell a Baylor fan who’s never heard of Long Island University before? What’s a little bit about you and the program, and what it’s like there?
“It’s two campuses, one in Brooklyn and one in Brookville. We’re in what would be the suburbs, I guess. The other one’s in the city. It’s a great environment, a great academic institution. Our students have a great time here. … We’re 22 miles from the city. Our guys get a chance to go into the city and experience things that they may never experience. I’ve recruited all over now. We’ve got guys from the South, Midwest, all over. It’s a fun place. You get a great education and have a lot of fun in college, which is what college is about.”
Is playing hard and making it a competitive game the mindset going in? What’s ideally going to be the big takeaway from this matchup?
“The big takeaway is we’re playing a team that is a Power Five team, and their goals at the beginning of the season are a little bit different than ours. We can’t even make it to some of the places that they are. … They may have 85 to 95 different scholarship guys. They may have us outnumbered by 30 scholarships. But at the same time, only 11 guys can get on the field at the same time at one time. I’ve been a part of these games before. … I’ve been on the other end, where it’s probably more scary on that part. The longer a game goes, the closer it gets, the more pressure goes on the other team. It doesn’t go on the team that no one expects to win. So our guys are going to come in, and we’re going to play as loose as we can [to] see if we can make some things happen. And if it does, we’ll look at the scoreboard in the fourth quarter and say, ‘Well, it’s a game,’ or we’ll have a lot of our guys in the game experiencing playing in that environment.”
Here’s a full bio for Cooper, who at 61 years old has a plethora of coaching experience. Kickoff between the Bears and the Sharks is set for 11 a.m. on Saturday at McLane Stadium. The game will be streamed on Big 12 Now on ESPN+.