Kevin Duffy: Showing incident-free progress at Harding is Cochran's mission
Updated 12:45 am, Sunday, June 23, 2013
A school all too familiar with the 50-point rule has hired the man commonly blamed for it.
Harding football has been getting whipped forever, on the wrong side of so many blowout losses that, if not for the mercy rule, could have been much, much worse. The Presidents have won nine games in the past 10 years. Jack Cochran has won eight state championships, dismantling opponents -- sometimes by laughable margins --along the way.
So now it's Jack Cochran at Harding, arguably the state's most accomplished high school football coach leading one of its most feeble programs. It's Jack Cochran attempting to put the Presidents on the fun side of a 49-point win. And it's Jack Cochran trying to do so without drama.
"I definitely hope," Cochran said, "that this is my last stop."
It's his fourth stop, a pairing that citywide athletic director Neil Kavey describes as "a perfect marriage." For Kavey and Harding, the argument for Cochran is obvious: The guy has won everywhere -- from Bloomfield to New Britain to New London. He's made an insane 15 state playoff appearances in 16 seasons. He's won 15 league titles. He's placed 59 players in Division I schools and has a noted reputation for helping kids excel academically.
He also has a noted reputation for stirring up trouble.
"You know, not to get into specific things, but I can tell you with a straight face, look you in the eye, and say you'll never find one player who played for me that says anything negative," Cochran said Saturday. "A lot of it came from adults."
"My son being present at one of my practices in eighth grade; I had an athletic director who felt that was a violation," Cochran said. "... If you want to go out and find a violation, its pretty simple."
It has been with Cochran, at least.
He left New Britain in 2005 amid allegations that he pocketed fund-raising money. The attorney general found no evidence of Cochran's mishandling of funds, but couldn't conclusively rule anything out. According to a Hartford Courant story, the attorney general described New Britain's fund-raising practices as "wholly insufficient and incomplete" and Cochran's methods of handling cash as "completely unacceptable."
By the time the findings were finalized, Cochran had already landed in New London, where a highly successful tenure unwound like this: Suspended for all of 2007 after allegedly punching Fitch coach Jim Buonocore during a weightlifting competition, Cochran returned to the sidelines for 2008, a season that culminated in his eighth state title. Soon after, he was named the school's varsity baseball coach. He quickly became the subject of another CIAC violation, this time accused of opening the gym for illegal offseason practices.
He was eventually terminated and out of coaching until Saturday.
It's true: A coach can do far worse things than what Cochran has been accused of over the years. But that doesn't make any of his past alleged transgressions right.
His winning pedigree record aside, the question for the Harding administration is simple: Why?
Hasn't there been way too much smoke for there not to be some fire?
"What's the appropriate time for blacklisting someone?" Kavey asked rhetorically. "I kind of feel that's what it is with this guy."
"I've been in his presence a half-dozen times," he added. "He doesn't seem like Dr. Lecter to me."
Cochran had been blacklisted, so to speak, for four years, leaving a void in his football-driven life. Contrary to the rumors, he didn't go for many jobs. But Harding had a certain appeal. The situation, Cochran said, was "almost identical" to Bloomfield in 1992. Prior to his arrival, Cochran estimated Bloomfield had a 30-game losing streak. The Warhawks had no freshman or JV program, and were close to dropping football altogether.
A rookie head coach, he began the job combing the streets of Bloomfield for potential talent. He left with the state's most dominant program. In due time, Bloomfield was beating teams by outrageous scores: An 83-6 trouncing of Windsor in 1998 and a 76-0 demolition of Hall-West Hartford, to name a few.
And he did it again at New London, a perennial loser that in 2005 defeated Griswold 90-0 (the next season, the CIAC enacted the 50-point mercy rule, widely believed to be directed at Cochran).
"He turns programs around, he knows how to do it, so I think (Harding) is an ideal situation," said New Canaan coach Lou Marinelli. --¦ He's going to change the landscape of FCIAC football."
As Ridgefield coach Kevin Callahan put it, "If there's a person who can do it, it's him."
This is what Jack Cochran does. He builds up pedestrian football programs, he sends kids to college, he does all this good stuff -- and he finds trouble. At Harding, where legendary basketball coach Charlie Bentley was often accused of illegally recruiting players, trouble could be lurking.
"Maybe he's learned," Marinelli said.
Despite little evidence, Kavey is a believer.
"We did discuss individual incidences in the past, and he answered our questions to our satisfaction," Kavey said. "I have no doubt that through the years, everybody has a couple of things they'd like to take back. I don't anticipate those things (happening)."
Cochran talked the talk, wowed the Bridgeport brass and won the job with what Kavey called a "terrific interview."
"You know, this feels right to me," Kavey said.
So Saturday, just as he did 20 years ago in Bloomfield, the newly hired Cochran hit the streets to meet the kids, to build a buzz around Harding football. He stopped by the Bridgeport basketball courts, stopped a few kids on their bikes to introduce himself. He's wasted no time in what may be his most demanding project to date.
"I would say there's not a job that Jack Cochran cannot turn around," Callahan said, "but with all the jobs that opened up this year -- 22 or 23 jobs -- this is going to be very challenging."
Yes, winning football games at doormat Harding, in the state's most competitive league, is a tall task. Winning them by his accustomed margin -- now a mandated 49 points -- is even tougher. But, as always, Jack Cochran's greatest challenge will be staying at Harding -- and doing it incident-free.