Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Before Brad Coachran Changed The MHSAA, He Changed Sports

If I said Brad Cochran fundamentally changed the Michigan High School Athletic Association and switched sports 30 years before the MHSAA was forced to do so under the weight of a federal judgment, you might expect a more detailed story.

Let me explain. And no, Cochran doesn't live in Grand Rapids.

I spent last Saturday at West Bloomfield High School, watching Birmingham Brother Rice advance to the Division I regional this weekend at Birmingham Seaholm. During the final I spent some time talking with longtime Birmingham Groves baseball coach and teacher Jim Crosby along the left field foul line. We talked about the many years Crosby and longtime assistant Phil Roy have coached at Groves. Later, as we recalled the MHSAA's transfer rules were born when Cochran's parents enrolled their son at Rice for the 1980 season, Crosby's eyes lit up.

"Did you know Brad Cochran was a cross country runner at Royal Oak Dondero when he was a freshman?" Crosby asked with equal part smirk and smile. I was already surprised when Crosby told me he had been a cross country coach at Groves, but a high school freshman running five miles races and starting at defensive back in the Big Ten a handful of years later? Brad Cochran was All-Big Ten at the University of Michigan, earned All-American honors and was the 3rd round pick in the 1986 National Football League draft of the Oakland Raiders.

Are you kidding me?

When you think of names from the running circuit of south Oakland County, you think of guys like Birmingham's Kermit Ambrose. Hazel Park's Jack Broughton and Dan Lutkus come to mind quickly, and Dick Zulch, too. Trust me, I was shocked, and I like to think I know a little prep football history. Most kids who run cross country have as much chance of becoming Big Ten football heroes as the kid playing tuba in the marching band has at becoming the next Tom Brady or Broadway Joe Namath.

I ought to know -- I was a skinny track guy in high school.

"It's true. I remember the races we saw him at," Crosby said of his time coaching the harriers. "Brad Cochran was a tall, lanky kid who hadn't filled out. He was about 6'2" without any meat on him. Of course, the next year we saw him on the football field and he had turned into a man among boys. He was filled out and was a natural for football."

The MHSAA's transfer rules were, for many years, nicknamed The Brad Cochran Rule among the media covering prep sports statewide because of Cochran's sudden transfer. It wasn't the first time a Royal Oak kid had spurned the public school. When I cornered John Wangler at last season's Michigan-Michigan State football game media event, I boldly told John, "If you had gone to Kimball instead of Shrine, Paul Temerian would have won three state titles!" Wangler laughed and diplomatically offered, "I would have loved to play for Coach Temerian!"

We then both laughed because Wangler would have thrown the ball about four times a game if he had gone to Kimball, where running the football was the alpha and omega of the playbook. Wangler would have been the greatest prep quarterback to ever hand a football off a million times consecutively - that would have been a shame.

Brad Cochran was different. He could return punts and kicks. He covered opponents like a glove, and was big, fast and strong. Playing under head coach Ivy Loftin, the '78 Dondero team finished a game behind league champion Birmingham Groves at 4-1 in the Metro Suburban Activities Association (MSAA) and 6-3 overall, but the season ended bitterly with a 14-0 setback to Southeastern Michigan Association (SMA) champion Kimball. In '79, with Cochran as a junior captain, Dondero marched to the MSAA title, going 5-0 in league after opening the season with wins over Ferndale and Hazel Park. At 7-0, Dondero was ranked as high as No. 2 in the state and primed to earn their first playoff invite. But the Oaks stumbled in a 14-12 loss at Cass Field to their former Thanksgiving Day rivals, Birmingham Seaholm.

The next week, playing 4-4 Kimball, Cochran hauled in a 23-yard touchdown pass for Dondero's first score on the game's opening possession. That would be Dondero's lone highlight - Kimball trounced the Oaks by three scores, 27-6, in front of an upset-minded rival crowd. This loss specifically drove Cochran's parents to seek out a different option for their son. They were upset that no scouting and no film prep had been put into The Oak Stump game, a game that, if won, could have salvaged the season and possibly still earned Dondero a playoff berth.

The next year Cochran was proudly wearing the orange and black of Brother Rice. With no transfer rules to stop him, Brad Cochran joined future Big Ten players Paul Jokisch and Dave Yarema in taking Rice to a 12-0 slate and the season's Class A title. The Warriors outscored their opponents 345-74. They topped Sterling Heights Stevenson in the quarters 25-13, and defeated Detroit Central's Trailblazers 49-12 in the semifinal. In the Pontiac Silverdome, Yarema found Yokisch for a touchdown late in the 4th quarter to give Rice a 6-0 win over Dearborn Fordson, completing an undefeated, championship season.

In the months to follow the transfer rules were drafted and later enacted. In every MHSAA membership bulletin since, those affiliated with the state's prep association can read the minutes and details of the many requests to waive the transfer regulations, month after month, and often with little success.

Today, Cochran doesn't hate Dondero. He doesn't hate Kimball, either, where his brother, Brett, played football for both George Hanoian and recently-retired Terry Powers. Cochran still gets his hair cut at the Kimball Barber Shop, where Tiger broadcaster Paul Carey visited regularly for nearly 20 years when he lived in Royal Oak.

Thirty years ago, an All-State football player was a cross country runner at a different school. The one-time runner, turned footballer and head-turning transfer, became a state champion, All-American and NFL draft pick. He broke hearts, leaving one big school for another, and changed the high school landscape we live in today.

That was Brad Cochran.

(Photo courtesy of The Oakland Press)

~T.C. Cameron is the author of Metro Detroit's High School Football Rivalries, due August 25th, 2008 from Arcadia Publishing

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