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By Mike Wilson  

It probably makes sense that a school that has had to look for a head football coach all of three times in the past 36 years hired someone who has shown that he doesn’t regard a particular coaching position as a steppingstone. 

Kevin Cooper, an assistant coach at Bend for the previous 15 seasons, was hired as the school’s head football coach in a process completed this month. Cooper succeeds Matt Craven, who left the head coaching job after 11 years. Cooper’s first four seasons at Bend were under Craven’s predecessor, Craig Walker. 

“If Matt wanted to go another 20 (years), I would have loved to have continued to be his assistant,” Cooper said, adding that becoming a head coach was a goal of his.

“I don’t think I was ever a ‘coach in waiting’ with Craig or Matt the last 15 years. I just wanted to be the best assistant coach I could be,” Cooper said. “When it became an opportunity, I took a liking to it.” 

Cooper’s ascension to the Bend program’s top job exemplifies a continuity and a unity in the school’s football coaching staff that is at least noteworthy if not remarkable.

Walker was an assistant at Bend for seven seasons before he moved to the head coaching job in 1988. Craven was an assistant on Walker’s staff before he succeeded his former head coach in 2012. Now, the pattern continues with Cooper, a former assistant of Craven’s, taking over for him.

Kevin Cooper Bend

Cooper, when he considers that Bend is on its third head coach dating to 1988, said: “That’s unheard of in high school.” 

Cooper, who will continue as the Lava Bears’ offensive play caller, characterized the program’s coaches as like “a bunch of brothers” — not afraid to hold one another accountable but in the end a cohesive, positive group.

“We like going in and being together,” he said. 

The foundation of that bond, Cooper said, comes from the coaches viewing themselves as educators first. He credits the school’s principals — Chris Reese and predecessors H.D. Weddel and Mark Neffendorf — for hiring coaches who are teachers.

“We take a great deal of pride,” Cooper said, “in the fact we don’t have plays drawn up on the whiteboard or we’re not watching game film” in class as in cliché scenes from movies and television.

Cooper related an anecdote from this school year, when a student — unaware of Cooper’s role with the team — asked if he was going to attend that week’s football game.

“A couple of football players were standing next to me, and they had a giggle,” Cooper said. “Logan Malinowski (the team’s starting quarterback) goes, ‘He might be on the sideline calling the plays.’ “

Cooper’s two predecessors both graduated from Bend. Although Cooper didn’t, his familiarity with the school’s football program far predates the start of his run as an assistant coach.

Cooper’s father, Bill Cooper, was head coach at Miro Costa High School in Manhattan Beach, Calif. During Cooper’s tenure, one of his assistants was a former Miro Costa player named Mick Craven — Matt Craven’s father and later a longtime assistant football and head track coach for the Lava Bears.

After Matt Craven’s playing career at Linfield was over, he also coached at Mira Costa under Cooper, his first season coinciding with Kevin Cooper’s final season of high school football..

“We’re practically brothers,” Cooper said. 

Cooper, who became activities director at the school two years ago after teaching social studies and economics for 13 years, said he will put his own stamp on the program but that the big-picture schematics will remain the same.

The Lava Bears, who advanced to the OSAA Class 5A semifinals last season, will continue to run the wing-T on offense and keep a defensive scheme that resulted in seven shutouts, including two in the playoffs. Craven orchestrated the defense last season, and Cooper said he will continue to do so.

The staff will have a much younger group to work with in 2023. Last season’s team had 34 seniors, and as it stands, the Lava Bears project to have five seniors this coming season.

“Young is an understatement,” Cooper said, looking ahead to 2023, and adding, “We took care of several teams where a lot of the 2s got snaps last year. They have varsity experience but it’s nothing like taking the first snap versus the 70th snap.”

Cooper’s wife, Kristin Cooper, is head coach of the Bend volleyball program.