John Cooper was born on July 2, 1937. He grew up in Powell, Tennessee. Upon graduating from high school, he spent two years in the United States Army. Upon receiving a discharge, Cooper enrolled at Iowa State University. He played football all four years that he was at Iowa State, serving as team captain and winning the Most Valuable Player Award his senior season.
Upon graduating in 1962, Cooper embarked upon a football coaching career, first serving as the freshmen's coach at Iowa State. In 1963, Cooper left Iowa State to become an assistant coach at Oregon State University (1963-1964). Over the next several years, Cooper also served as an assistant coach at the University of California at Los Angeles (1965-1967), the University of Kansas (1968-1971), and at the University of Kentucky (1972-1977).
In 1977, Cooper became the head football coach at the University of Tulsa. He quickly turned the losing program into a winning one. Cooper's teams won five straight Missouri Valley Conference championships from 1980 to 1984. Following the 1984 season, Cooper became the head coach at Arizona State University. He remained at Arizona State for the next three seasons, winning a PAC-10 conference championship in 1986. That same season Arizona State defeated the University of Michigan in the Rose Bowl.
On December 31, 1987, Cooper became the twenty-first head football coach at The Ohio State University. Cooper remained at Ohio State through the 2000 season. While suffering a losing season his first year with the team, Cooper always maintained a winning record in subsequent campaigns. With the Buckeyes, Cooper totaled a record of 111 wins, forty-three losses, and four ties. Unfortunately for Cooper, at the end of the 2000 season, Ohio State fired him, primarily due to off-the-field problems involving his players and a poor record against the University of Michigan (2-10-1) and in bowl games (3-8).
While at Ohio State, Cooper was active with several charity organizations, including Big Brothers/Big Sisters, United Way, the Alzheimer's Foundation, the Arthur James Cancer Hospital, and Children's Hospital. He currently serves as a consultant with the Cincinnati Bengals.