Less than six months after leading Granite Bay High School to its first State Bowl football championship, a teary-eyed Ernie Cooper stunned his players at the start of Wednesday's practice by telling them he no longer had the fire in his belly and was immediately stepping down as the school's football coach.
Cooper, 51, is just the latest high-profile coach to step away from the year-round grind that is the evolution of high-level prep coaching. He joins Nevada Union's Dave Humphers and Vista del Lago's Chris Jones as high-profile coaches who have retired since last season.
Cooper steps down after 17 seasons as Granite Bay's only football coach, having compiled a 155-43-1 record. The Grizzlies won 10 league and five Sac-Joaquin Section titles.
The 2012 campaign ranks as his finest. After starting 1-3, the Grizzlies repeated as Division I section champions, won the inaugural CIF Northern California Regional, then culminated a 16-game season the longest in school history by beating Long Beach Poly 21-20 in the State Bowl final in December in Carson. He was named The Bee's Coach of the Year and the Cal-Hi Sports State Coach of the Year.
But the season wore on Cooper.
"You could see that Ernie was tired," said Phil Grams, his good friend, former assistant and Capital Christian football coach. "Ernie always burns the candle at both ends, but this was a different kind of tired. The season was taking a toll. He doesn't sleep well during the season. He worries about every little detail and worries about his players."
Cooper, who didn't return phone calls or text messages, issued a statement to the media calling himself the "luckiest guy in the world to have been the head football coach at Granite Bay High School."
"For me that fire has not been burning as brightly," he wrote. "Believe me when I tell you that no one has put a damper on that fire. It is just time for me to hand over the reins to someone else."
Grams talked with his former mentor for a few minutes shortly after he told his players.
"Our conversation was very brief," Grams said. "He just wanted me to know before hearing it from somebody else. He said it just was time. The fire is not there right now."
Former Grizzlies line coach Mike Lynch, who until his retirement after last season had been a Cooper assistant since the school opened, was shocked more by the timing than the decision. Granite Bay has a team camp scheduled this weekend at Sacramento State.
"For Ernie, it was 24/7," Lynch said. "While on one hand it's surprising that he's walking out on something he obviously loved and built into a huge success, it's not so surprising considering how all-consuming coaching is at this level."
While shocked by the news, current and former players praised Cooper.
"GBHS is very lucky to have had such a tremendous coach these last 17 years," tweeted Colin Brown, the team's star kicker who graduated Saturday. "I'm very fortunate to have been one of his players."
Tweeted junior linebacker-tight end Dylan Keeney: "I can't thank coach Cooper enough for all that he's done for this school, program, community, and my life. He gives it his all everyday."
Grams thinks Cooper has etched a special place in Northern California football history.
"I think he has been one of the best in the business right up there with (Bob) Ladouceur," Grams said of the nationally recognized De La Salle coach who retired in January. "He may not have the winning streak, but I don't think anyone has done it better."
Call The Bee's Bill Paterson, (916) 326-5506.