Longtime Rifle coach Gordon Cooper inducted into Colorado Dugout Club’s Baseball Hall of Fame
The Colorado Dugout Club Baseball Hall of Fame honored Gordon Cooper for his amazing achievement as Rifle High School baseball skipper
For three decades, Gordon Cooper was a fixture in the dugout and on the sidelines.
Cooper coached almost every sport he could during his career and led the Rifle Bears to numerous victories. He was recently honored with his second induction into the Colorado Dugout Club Baseball Hall of Fame two weeks ago.
“I never even thought about this hall of fame — I was inducted into the University of Denver hall of fame several years ago,” Cooper said. “The baseball coach from Rifle recommended me for it. I think it was mainly because I won those two state championships (for Rifle in 1981 and 1985).”
Cooper was unable to make it to the Jan. 18 banquet in Denver due to weather, but current Rifle head baseball and softball coach Troy Phillips accepted on his behalf.
Phillips, who has coached in Rifle for more than two decades now, said he meets with some of Cooper’s former players from time to time, and that the love of the game coach Cooper instilled in them is evident.
“Obviously, they won two state championships. They kind of set a culture of success in baseball,” Phillips said.
“It’s great as a current coach to be able to have our players look back and say, hey, this is part of a legacy that was set before we got here, and it’s something we have to live up to … to emulate that kind of success.”
Cooper said it is great to be recognized for all the efforts he put into the baseball program over his three decades at the helm.
Sports and coaching have been Cooper’s lifetime passion, which all began in a small eastern Nevada town.
Originally from McGill, Nevada, Cooper excelled at sports at nearby Ely High School, playing every sport he could in high school, but starring in football, basketball and track.
Chance at the big leagues
Cooper said they didn’t have organized baseball in his school, so he spent his summers on the diamond playing in the American Legion league. His accolades on the diamond earned him a tryout for the big leagues straight out of high school.
“When I graduated from high school I tried out for the Cincinnati Reds, and they wanted to send me to Montana right then,” Cooper said of the Reds’ farm team.
At only 18 years of age, Cooper said he was a little spooked at the offer and caught the first bus out of Salt Lake back to Nevada.
“The next day, the Cincinnati scouts were out at my house in McGill,” Cooper said.
Still unsure of what he wanted to do, a phone call sealed his fate soon after.
Cooper received an offer from the University of Denver to play football and baseball, and he jumped at it.
During his college career from 1949-51, Cooper received nine varsity letters as a wide receiver in football, a shortstop in baseball and a javelin thrower in track and field.
Known for his speed, Cooper was selected to the All-Skyline Conference football team three consecutive years. His career totals of 113 receptions for 1,577 yards and 18 touchdowns set school records.
After graduating with a degree in physical education, Cooper signed with the Detroit Lions, playing in three exhibition games. Cooper said he was one of the fastest players on the team at the time.
Before he could suit up for a regular season game, though, Cooper was drafted into the Army.
“I only had to be in the Army for 21 months because I had a contract job with the Detroit Lions,” Cooper said.
“I spent 16 months in Germany. I was lucky there was 200 soldiers in Camp San Luis Obispo. They sent 12 of us to Germany, and the rest went to Korea.”
While in the Army, Cooper played football but injured his knee.
Road to Rifle
He came back to the states and tried to give football another try, but the Lions cut him because he had lost that speed he was known for. Cooper even gave the Canadian Football League a try, but it didn’t pan out.
Weighing his options on what to do next, Cooper returned to Denver and earned his master’s degree in secondary education in 1955.
An avid outdoorsman who loves to hunt and fish, Cooper was offered a job as the physical education teacher at Rifle High School and didn’t hesitate in moving to the small western Colorado town in 1956.
Wanting to stay close to his passion for sports, Cooper started coaching as soon as he came to town.
“I coached football, basketball and track,” Cooper said.
Cooper led the Bears on the gridiron for 24 years, collecting six league titles and two state titles in 1961 and 1973.
During his time at Rifle, Cooper also coached wrestling, where he helped three wrestlers earn state championships.
Cooper was successful coaching all sports, but his career in the dugout stands above them all.
“They didn’t have baseball at Rifle when I first came,” Cooper said.
He was instrumental in starting the program in the 1960s, helping build the ball field on the north side of the fairgrounds just off of Railroad Avenue, which was named after him.
“I had pretty good luck at baseball,” Cooper said modestly.
In a career that spanned three decades Cooper amassed more that 200 victories, eight league titles and won the program’s only two state titles in 1981 and 1985.
Cooper retired in 1987. Over his 31 years at Rifle, Cooper taught, was the athletic director and a school counselor.
Cooper has now lived in Rifle for over 60 years. He and his wife, Vonda, who passed away in 2011, raised two boys — one lives and teaches in Fruita, and the other splits time between Rifle and Vail.
Cooper said he had a few offers to leave for college jobs over the years, but he couldn’t pull himself away from the Rifle area.
“Jeez, I just liked the good fishing and hunting, and that’s what I like to do; and so that’s what I did,” Cooper said.
From his living room window, Cooper can see most of Rifle. Just across the way, he can see the high school.
Nowadays, Cooper, who is 89 and will turn 90 in April, still tries to hunt and fish as much as he can, although he said it has become a little more difficult as he gets older.
“Once in a while I go out and watch a game. Coach Phillips is a good guy, and a good coach. They do pretty good,” Cooper said.
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