With his new job as coach of the Southern Cal women's basketball team still months away, Michael Cooper is focused on the task at hand _ winning another WNBA championship with the Los Angeles Sparks.

Right now, that looks like quite a challenge.

Reigning league MVP Candace Parker missed the first part of the season after giving birth to a baby girl on May 13. She just rejoined the team and is getting herself back into playing shape.

All-Star center Lisa Leslie, one of the league's most popular players, is retiring at the end of the season and has been sidelined for the last few weeks with a sprained ankle. A team that was predicted to win a third WNBA championship has gone 4-8 and is languishing near the bottom of the Western Conference.

"Nobody feels sorry for us," Cooper said. "This isn't about sending Lisa or I out with another title. It's all about where we are playing at the end of the year. If we can make the playoffs, I like our chances. "

Even with his mind on the Sparks, Cooper admits he's excited for the chance to coach at the collegiate level. The former Los Angeles Lakers star, who helped the team win five NBA titles in the 1980s, will be taking over a program at USC that has made the NCAA tournament only twice since 1997 _ neither time advancing past the second round.

"It's going to be different, but I'm happy to have the chance to bring my uptempo basketball philosophy to the college level," said Cooper, who has never coached in college.

He's guided the Sparks for nine years with a brief hiatus to coach the Denver Nuggets and a developmental league team.

Those around him have faith he'll succeed.

"He's going to be very good for USC. He has a really refreshing way to approach the game and the players will really enjoy playing for him," said Sparks associate coach Marianne Stanley, who coached at USC from 1989-93. "The biggest adjustment for him is going to be recruiting. Getting used to the whole recruiting piece and how important it is and how much time it's going to take up."

Stanley led USC to the 1992 regional finals and recruited Leslie and Tina Thompson to Southern Cal.

"The biggest difference he'll have is that instead of it being a four-hour-a-day job where once the game is over you don't have to worry about your players to becoming a much more time consuming venture," Stanley said.

Thompson was happy that Cooper will have a chance to rebuild her alma mater, which finished 17-15 last season but did manage to pull off two upsets in the Pac-10 conference tournament before falling in the championship game to Stanford.

"He's in for a tough job there dealing with kids who have yet to pay taxes," Thompson said. "But he'll adapt well. He's a really good coach and hopefully he'll get them back where they belong among the Pac-10 elite."

By coaching the Sparks this summer, Cooper is missing a major summer recruiting period. Still, he isn't concerned.

"I surrounded myself with great assistants who will go out and identify the people we want to play for us," he said.

He sees the exposure he gets as a WNBA coach helpful in bringing in future players.

"Hopefully, the kids we recruit will know who I am from the league and their parents remember my playing days for the Lakers," he said.

Even though he's been out of the NBA for 18 years, Cooper still is recognized by fans _ sort of.

As he walked to Madison Square Garden for the Sparks' shootaround before a game against the Liberty on July 9 he was stopped by a fan, who thought the 6-foot-5 coach looked familiar.

When asked who he was, Cooper answered with a smile "Michael" _ and with a brief pause _ "Jordan."

"No way," said the fan, suddenly delighted. "MJ, can I get your autograph?"

Cooper laughed it off, walking into MSG shaking his head. It was nice to still be somewhat recognized.

He can only hope that his future players at USC know who they're getting as a coach.