- Dave Wilson is an editor for ESPN.com since 2010. He previously worked at The Dallas Morning News, San Diego Union-Tribune and Las Vegas Sun.
On Nov. 28, a bad weekend for Oklahoma football fans turned even worse. A day after losing to Oklahoma State in Stillwater and getting eliminated from Big 12 title contention, head coach Lincoln Riley made a swift, stunning departure for USC.
For the first time since 1947, a Sooners coach had left for another college job. Oklahoma, once the bastion of sustained success and stability, was in free fall.
“For 24 to 36 hours, there was panic in the streets, and people didn’t know what was going to happen with Oklahoma football,” said Dusty Dvoracek, a former Sooners player who lives in Norman and hosts a daily radio show on SiriusXM, contributes to television in Oklahoma City and calls games on ESPN. “People were freaking out around here, I mean, freaking out. Oklahoma’s not a place that somebody leaves.”
Then Monday rolled around, and Oklahoma president Joe Harroz and athletic director Joe Castiglione had a news conference inside Gaylord Family-Oklahoma Memorial Stadium. Beside them sat a familiar face: former Sooners coach Bob Stoops, who would be the new interim coach. Stoops took the podium and announced that Oklahoma football would be just fine.
“It’s Lincoln’s choice to leave,” Stoops said he told the team after Riley announced his departure and left the room. “It’s OK. You’re the ones who are going to make all the plays or not make the plays. You guys win and lose. You’re OU football. He isn’t. I’m not. And any other coach who comes here isn’t.
“OU football has been here a long time. And it isn’t going anywhere else. It’s going to be here, and it’s going to be at the top of college football and it’s going to continue that way.”
It had only been five years since Stoops stepped aside, handing the keys to the storied program to the 33-year-old Riley at the end of a legendary career that included a 190-48 record at OU. Stoops was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame earlier this month.
But when Stoops got his turn at the microphone, fans had flashbacks. Every time he spoke, thousands of tweets were launched as fans celebrated his confident assertions that this was a “bump in the road.”
Rick Knapp, the executive director of the Touchdown Club of Oklahoma who has been to 591 Sooners games, said Stoops’ comments stopped the panic after Riley’s departure.
“It was darkness and, all of a sudden, it’s light,” he said.
“It’s just amazing how quickly it flipped,” Dvoracek said.
“That really helped quickly change the narrative,” Castiglione said. “Those are the identical characteristics that made him the winningest coach in Oklahoma history. A coach that, through his players, achieved greatness on so many levels. And why he is so beloved.”
For OU fans, it was a stark contrast. Riley jilted the Sooners and the coach who hired him from East Carolina and handed him a national championship-caliber team; whereas Stoops — who Castiglione said immediately asked, “How can I help?” — embodied loyalty.
The man who wore the OU visor for 18 years and turned away dozens of opportunities to leave for the NFL or other college jobs just happened to be down the road, still living in Norman. With Stoops leading the charge, fans have been thrilled to be along for the ride that will culminate with Wednesday’s Valero Alamo Bowl, when Stoops and Oklahoma play Oregon (9:15 p.m. ET, ESPN/ESPN app).
“Here’s the thing,” said Berry Tramel, the longtime columnist at The Oklahoman and radio host. “They loved Bob. But it’s possible they love him more now than they did back then.”
Tramel covered his first Sooners game in 1979 when OU faced Iowa and a freshman named Bob Stoops was making his first start at safety for the Hawkeyes.
“I think people sort of forgot that persona,” Tramel said of Stoops. “No matter what’s going on, he projects confidence. The world falls in, and the next day, he’s up there saying, ‘Hey, everything’s gonna be fine. Everybody settle down.'”
It wasn’t much different than Dec. 1, 1998, when Stoops arrived from Florida — where he was Steve Spurrier’s defensive coordinator — to be introduced as the new coach of the Sooners.
“People are going to expect what they want,” Stoops said then. “Certainly, I expect more. I expect us to be in a position next year to be very good, to have a chance to win many games, if not all of them.”
Nothing was guaranteed. The Sooners hadn’t had a winning season in six years before Stoops arrived, going 12-22 under John Blake, 5-5-1 in one season under Howard Schnellenberger and 6-6 in Gary Gibbs’ final season.
The Sooners didn’t win all of them that year, finishing 7-5, while making their first bowl appearance in five years. But they did run the table the next season, beating No. 11 Texas 63-14, before knocking off No. 2 Kansas State and No. 1 Nebraska then No. 8 Kansas State again in the title game to finish 13-0 with a win over No. 3 Florida State in the BCS National Championship. The Sooners were back, and under Stoops, they went to 18 straight bowl games and won 10 Big 12 titles. The school built a statue of him outside the stadium alongside those of Bud Wilkinson and Barry Switzer.
“He didn’t just come in and wake a sleeping giant, but he left it in a situation where it was gonna continue to thrive for decades to come,” Dvoracek said of Stoops. “So for him to be able to step in when there is that little gap as everybody was somewhat stunned, I think is really unique.”
Tramel joked that Stoops didn’t exactly upend his life to take on this role, saying, “He didn’t move back from Miami Beach or anything. He lives right there on I-35.”
Stoops, who isn’t much for the adoration, agrees. He doesn’t quite see what the big deal is.
“I think it just allowed people to have some comfort,” he said of his return. “I mean, obviously, coming back after being out five years is different. Just the fact that I’ve been here so long made it easy to do.”
He has been around the team frequently. He recruited some of the players who are still there. His son Drake is a Sooners wide receiver. Several of the assistant coaches worked for him.
And Stoops was just 56 when he retired, which means he still looks the part at 61.
“He left when he still had a lot of fire,” Tramel said. “And now, here, five years later, he’s still got a lot of fire. He’s not a relic, you know? He sounds just like he used to, and he looks — outside of the beard — a lot like he used to.”
Stoops also spent an entire season firing up OU fans while working on Fox’s college football pregame show, even leading the crowd in a “Texas Sucks!” chant before OU’s Sept. 18 game against Nebraska. It endeared him to a whole new generation of fans and even to those who criticized him for not winning a national title after his second season, which is the true measure of success at Oklahoma.
“Anybody that was on the fence about him was off after that,” Tramel said.
Stoops hit the road recruiting, helping the Sooners maintain a top-10 recruiting class during a coaching change. And while Riley was a Stoops assistant for two seasons, the Sooners’ new coach, former Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables, is a longtime Stoops loyalist.
Venables played linebacker at Kansas State when Stoops was defensive co-coordinator of the Wildcats, then the two coached alongside each other at K-State from 1993 to 1995, until Stoops left to become Spurrier’s D-coordinator at Florida. When Stoops got the Oklahoma job, he brought Venables to Norman, where he served as Stoops’ defensive coordinator from 1999 to 2011, including several of those campaigns as co-coordinator with Stoops’ brother Mike.
“Brent’s the absolute perfect fit for OU,” Stoops told reporters after Venables was hired on Dec. 7. Stoops was in Las Vegas, where he spoke at the National Football Foundation dinner on behalf of all his fellow College Football Hall of Fame inductees. “He’s perfect for us. I love his experience, not just with us, but at Clemson, seeing it at the best level. So he’s going to bring us a lot, I think, to even improve us.”
A popular Christmas gift this year in Oklahoma was a T-shirt that said, “Bud. Barry. Bob. Brent.” The guy who went 55-10, won four Big 12 titles in five years and made three College Football Playoff appearances has already been excommunicated.
It seems a few weeks of holding down the fort while a protégé moves into his old office has given Stoops’ legacy a new shine.
“We need to build him a second statue, maybe with a beard and some Rock N Roll Tequila and a cigar on it,” said Oklahoma fan Travis Davidson, who organizes regular Twitter Spaces gatherings about the team, in a nod to Stoops’ post-coaching side business.
Congratulations to our owner, partner, and dear friend @CoachBobStoops on being recognized for the work he’s put in, day in and day out for his entire life, to become one of the newest members of the College Football Hall of Fame… #Boomer pic.twitter.com/2ycMXQmVnp
On Tuesday, Stoops was asked if he would mind substituting a Gatorade bath for a splash of tequila if he led the Sooners to a victory in the Alamo Bowl.
“That’d be OK,” he said. “What’s the administration gonna do, fire me?”
Comments like that are how Stoops has already gotten Oklahoma fans excited about a bowl game that would have been a disappointing destination when the season began with national championship aspirations.
“Quite honestly, OU fans are a little jaded. And they don’t quite stir very easily, especially for a bowl like the Alamo Bowl,” Knapp said. “But we have people wanting to go to the Alamo Bowl just to see Bob beat Oregon.”
They’ll be watching to see Stoops in the visor one more time, one last chance to thank a Hall of Famer for his devotion.
“When he left, he didn’t leave,” Tramel said of Stoops. “You know, Florida loves Urban Meyer, but when he left, he went to Ohio State. When Pete Carroll left USC, he went to Seattle. Most guys move on to something else. And now, when you look back, you think, you know what? Turned out when he said he liked Oklahoma, he wasn’t just babblin’, compared to Lincoln, who you never thought was going to pull something like this. But he did.”
For Knapp, this chapter puts Stoops in even more rarefied air among legendary company in OU history.
“Everybody in Oklahoma says Barry Switzer is the king and then Bob was the prince,” Knapp said. “But Bob is the king for the generations after us.”
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