‘I couldn’t keep quiet’: The college coach exiled after standing up for players’ rights

Every evening, in the dying twilight, a football coach without a team to call his own yanks on his boots and heads to the stable.

He shovels Chief and Traveler’s manure, changes their water and restocks their hay. He brushes the horses’ hair. He takes deep breaths, and he sits, and he tries to reconcile his activism with all it has cost him. He is not grooming the horses. The horses are grooming him.

“They’ve saved my life,” he says. “If you’re nervous, they’ll get nervous. If you’re calm, they’ll stay calm.”

That’s easier some days than others. John Shoop, a stout man with a hearty red beard and a thick Rust Belt drawl, got into coaching to be a teacher, but it wasn’t long before he realized he had a lot to learn about Division I college football. In the early 2010s, as the cacophony of outside noise criticizing college sports’ governing body, the NCAA, approached fever pitch, Shoop joined the chorus and became more than a players’ coach. He became a player advocate.

“So many coaches [privately] said, ‘You’re exactly right. We’re with you,’” Shoop says. “I’m not sure anyone was with me.”

On 1 July 2021, more than five years after Shoop coached his last game, the NCAA permitted college athletes the right to benefit from their name, image and likeness (NIL), meaning they can earn money from areas such as sponsorship and public appearances. That was not the case in November 2015, when Purdue fired Shoop after three seasons as offensive coordinator. Shoop had called for NIL rights, among other things, and he believes his advocacy played a part in his ouster and the isolation that followed.

The Boilermakers, to be clear, finished with the fourth-worst offense in the Big Ten that season, but the truth remains that in the months and years that followed, Shoop, who had been a fixture in football since landing his first NFL offensive coordinator gig at the tender age of 30, couldn’t find a job.

As much as he misses the game, and the community he once called his own, Shoop does not regret his decision. It was grounded in a higher purpose. Faith is interwoven with college football, where stadiums that look like cathedrals fill with people who pray before games. It is perhaps comforting to believe a higher power is watching over sanctioned violence. For Shoop, it was his faith that pushed him away.

“It started to feel like God is with me, and [wondering] what I’m going to do here,” Shoop says. “Am I going to stand on the right side of justice? Or am I going to just look the other way?”

That led him to the farm in Asheville, North Carolina, to the barn where Chief and Traveler live. One evening, early in his first year away from the game, Shoop approached the barn in a huff, frustration in every step. Chief could tell something was wrong, and so he knocked Shoop to the ground, bruising his ribs, and teaching the coach a lesson he’s still trying to implement: Don’t hold on to anger, even if you’re right six years too early.

Shoop first started to spend a lot of time with Chief and Traveler late in his tenure at Purdue. He and his wife, Marcia Mount Shoop, had built their dream home in West Lafayette, Indiana, where they’d host wiffle ball games for Boilermakers players and neighborhood kids. But as the years wore on, and Shoop’s relationship with Purdue administration grew increasingly rocky, it became a place of stress. As Shoop sat beside the two horses, spilling his heart, he wondered how he’d gotten so far from the man he had wanted to be.

In 1979, when Shoop was 10, his hometown Pittsburgh Pirates won the World Series. Sister’s Sledge’s hit, We Are Family was the Pirates’ unofficial theme song, and Shoop fell in love with the idea of being on a team.

That led him to play quarterback for coach Bill Samko at Sewanee, a small school on a mountain in Tennessee. Samko instilled in Shoop the desire to become a coach himself. He figured he’d work at Division III or high school level, where he could build relationships similar to his with Samko.

Instead, at age 26, he landed in the NFL as a quality control coach for the Carolina Panthers, then served as offensive coordinator for the Chicago Bears and Oakland Raiders. The competition was thrilling, but Shoop felt more like a cog than a confidant. In 2007, he took the offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach job at North Carolina. He developed a close connection with quarterback Bryn Renner, who Samko had recommended he sign, and introduced him to black coffee; Shoop brewed a pot upon arriving at the office at 5am while listening to NPR’s Morning Edition. .

Then, in the summer of 2010, after it was reported some North Carolina players had attended a party thrown by a sports agent, violating NCAA rules, it was revealed that other UNC footballers might have benefited from academic fraud after a tutor allegedly wrote papers for them. Running back Devon Ramsay was among those suspended.

Months later, at a Thanksgiving dinner, Ramsay told the Shoops that the tutor had only offered a few minor suggestions – which was perfectly legal – but he had been told his eligibility would be restored if he pleaded guilty to receiving improper help. Instead he was ruled ineligible without any due process.

Shoop was floored. “I just didn’t keep quiet anymore.”

“When players would get called in, John would go in with them,” Marcia Mount Shoop says. “That changed our relationship with the other coaches.”

Ramsay was reinstated before the start of the 2011 season, but the scandal hovered over the team’s seven-win season. After a rain-soaked 41-24 loss to Missouri in the Independence Bowl, Renner, who’d played the season on a broken ankle, dropped to the ground and cried. Soon the Shoops John, Marcia, and children Sidney and Mary Elizabeth – joined him on the hallway floor. Shoop knew he’d be fired in the coming days, with the rest of the North Carolina staff, but it didn’t matter. He handed the quarterback a t-shirt with a message written in black marker: “Family is forever.”

Shoop took the next season off, then signed on to be Purdue’s offensive coordinator ahead of the 2013 season.

It wasn’t long before Shoop sparred with the administration on player eligibility and concussion education. Then, in the summer of 2015, Shoop attended an banquet headlined by an attorney for the Big Ten, one of college sports’ elite divisions. A unionization attempt by players on the Northwestern football team was in the news, and the attorney spoke gravely about how the NCAA’s model of amateurism was at risk. Shoop raised his hand.

“I said, ‘What’s at stake for Purdue, or universities everywhere, if students make money from their name, image and likeness?’” Shoop recalls. Purdue athletic director Morgan Burke abruptly cancelled the meeting, Shoop says, and the next day he was called into head coach Darrell Hazell’s office.

“[Hazell] said, ‘What are you doing? We have a really good deal here as coaches. You can’t fight a billion-dollar business. Don’t screw this up,’” Shoop says.

Hazell, who was fired the next season, could not be reached for comment. Tom Schott, Purdue’s former senior associate athletic director for communications, declined comment. Burke died in 2020.

After his firing, which Marcia learned was decided upon weeks earlier when her husband posed for a photo with Purdue players in solidarity with a racial justice protest at Missouri, Shoop found creative ways to work off frustration. He hacked at dead trees in the yard with his chainsaw, then burned them. He coached his daughter’s softball team. He sat with the horses.

After it became clear college football did not want him – calls and texts to people he thought were allies went unanswered – the family moved to Asheville, where Marcia got a job running a local Presbyterian church. The isolation weighed on him.

“It was really hard,” Shoop said on a recent phone call, his voice trailing off. Shoop speaks slowly and deliberately, but it is not often he is at a loss for words. He and Marcia, who he met during a summer semester at Oxford University, co-host Going Deep: Sports in the 21st Century, for their local Blue Ridge Public Radio station. But on the emotional toll of his divorce from college football, Shoop struggled to put together a sentence. Birds chirped in the background. “It was … Just hard.”

Shoop’s influence on the modern game is difficult to miss. NIL infrastructure is now a recruiting necessity for Division I programs, and Alabama coach Nick Saban recently bragged that Crimson Tide quarterback Bryce Young is nearing $1m in sponsorships. Clemson’s DJ Uiagalelei and North Carolina’s Sam Howell signed endorsement deals with Bojangles, and dozens more players have inked deals with local businesses.

Shoop, meanwhile, teaches world history at a local high school, and in the fall is a volunteer quarterbacks coach for the football team.

“He [got] screwed,” Samko says.

After his playing career ended, Renner decided he’d become a coach himself. Now, in his first season as FIU’s quarterbacks coach, he gets to the office at 5am, just like his mentor. He takes his coffee black.

“John Shoop changed my life,” Renner says. “I get goosebumps just talking about him.”

Renner often picks Shoop’s brain, much like Shoop did years earlier with Samko. In recent months, however, Shoop’s conversations with friends have taken on a different tone. Early in the pandemic Shoop was diagnosed with prostate cancer. He beat it, but then he was diagnosed with Langerhans cell histiocytosis, a rare cancer more commonly found in children. Samko sends him clips of fight scenes from the movie The Last Samurai and other “corny BS,” Samko says. He’s not the only one.

News of Shoop’s illness has spread through the community that once turned its back on him.

“There’ve been coaches, even some I’ve had disagreements with, who’ve reached out,” Shoop says. “I don’t want to have cancer, but that’s been an unbelievable gift.”

Shoop was offered a Division I job last year, he says, but turned it down. He’s glad the game is game changing, but he prefers to be on his farm in Asheville.

Most mornings, he rises before dawn and pours himself a cup of black coffee. He plops into a seat on his front porch and opens the drawing app on his iPad, where he sketches comic strips documenting the “absurdity” of Division I football. Buck and Huckleberry, his two dogs, and Cricket, his cat, sit at his feet, and Chief and Traveler, the horses who showed him it’s OK to be put out to pasture, are asleep in their barn. He has cancer, but he is not alone. He is not angry. The sun rises over the Blue Ridge mountains, and, for a few moments, it feels like the coach has a team again.

Comments are closed.