NORMAN, Okla. – Ironically, it was one of Bob Stoops’ closest confidants, Steve Spurrier, who once suggested that head coaches in college football probably shouldn’t stay in one place for too long.
The son of a Presbyterian pastor, Spurrier remembers his own dad moving from church to church when the Head Ball Coach was a kid.
“Sometimes, congregations just sort of get tired of your words. It’s the same way with coaches and why guys move around,” Spurrier said. “It’s not their choice a lot of times. But you look around, and I’m not sure we’ll see many guys staying at one school for 15 or 20 years anymore.”
Stoops is one of the rarest of exceptions, and even with his remarkable consistency over the past 16 seasons, there are winds of unrest blowing across the Oklahoma plains. Only one other FBS head coach enters the 2015 season with more uninterrupted seniority at the same school than Stoops: Frank Beamer, who is entering his 29th season at Virginia Tech.
Beamer, too, is dealing with a restless fan base. It comes with the territory, especially when that fan base has tasted success and the coach has the audacity not to accumulate wins with the regularity he once did. Just ask Mack Brown, Phillip Fulmer or Bobby Bowden.
In Stoops’ case, he understands what the standard has been, is, and always will be for the Sooners.
As the winningest head coach in Oklahoma history, he helped to re-establish that standard when he inherited a broken program and promptly won a national championship in his second season in Norman in 2000. On his watch, the Sooners have also won eight conference titles and won 11 or more games in 10 of his 16 seasons — and hasn’t won fewer than eight games in a season since his first year in 1999.
“When you taste it, some people think you’re content,” Stoops said. “It’s just the opposite. When you’ve had some of it, you want more of it.”
It’s why he’s as upset as anyone about the way last season ended. The Sooners started No. 4 in the polls, but wound up 8-5, including an embarrassing 40-6 loss to Clemson in the Russell Athletic Bowl.
“It starts with me,” Stoops said. “The bottom line is that we didn’t play well enough last year to have the kind of season we expect to have around here. I’ve got to get it better, and we’re all working hard to do that. There aren’t any excuses.”
He also isn’t afraid to change, as evidenced by the four new assistant coaches he brought in this offseason. One was 31-year-old offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley, who will bring his version of the Air Raid offense back to Norman. It’s the same offense Stoops installed with Mike Leach as offensive coordinator when he first got the Oklahoma job.
“I say this in a respectful, humble way. But sometimes, some of those NFL guys might rather have my job.”
Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops
Stoops doesn’t see it as going back to his roots as much as he does doing whatever it takes to get the Sooners back into the national championship equation. They last played for a national title in 2008 when they lost to Florida.
“That’s where the game is now, spreading it out and going up-tempo,” said Stoops, whose defensive background has never gotten in the way of wanting to play fast on offense. “It’s going to change your defensive statistics a little bit to play that way on offense, but so be it. If you’re winning and can stay on the field offensively and move the ball, that’s what we want.”
While football philosophies have changed during his OU tenure, one thing has not. Joe Castiglione is the only athletic director he has ever worked under at Oklahoma, and David Boren is the only school president Stoops has worked under since his hiring on Dec. 1, 1998. The solidarity with his bosses is a prime reason Stoops is still there.
It has been a winning model, literally, for the Sooners. No team from a Power 5 conference owns more wins than Oklahoma (168) since Stoops took over as coach in 1999. Only Ohio State has a better winning percentage during that span.
“Our relationship is rooted in trust,” said Castiglione, whose hiring of Stoops came just five months after Castiglione was hired as athletic director. “We believe in what we do, and it’s because it’s rooted in the right things and for the right reasons. We’ve had times when things occurred and they were wildly popular, and there have been times when things occur and criticism takes place. We get it. We’re fortunate to be a part of one of the most visible programs in America, something that’s very important to the entire state of Oklahoma.”
And Stoops’ visibility on campus transcends football. That was never more apparent than after a racist video surfaced this spring featuring members of OU’s Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity. The Sooners skipped practice, and Stoops joined his players in an on-campus demonstration.
“Coach Stoops sets the tone in everything we do here,” Oklahoma senior receiver Sterling Shepard said. “We know he has our back and that he’s going to be there for us. Football’s just a part of it. There were five or six of us on the leadership group. We stayed up to 1 or 2 in the morning thinking about what we wanted to say. We knew we had to do something about it, and making the statement we did was way more important to Coach Stoops than anything having to do with football.”
Because of all those factors, Stoops isn’t taken for granted at OU. Castiglione and the Oklahoma administration have taken measures to keep Stoops, who has been routinely courted by NFL clubs and other big-name schools in college football.
Florida has shown interest on multiple occasions, and Stoops said there was at least one NFL opportunity that he seriously considered.
“Coaching is coaching whether you’re here or I chose to go somewhere else,” Stoops said. “It doesn’t change. You’ve still got to work hard, prepare your team and find the right formula for success. I’ve been fortunate to have the same president and same athletic director. You can’t beat that kind of support, and now we’re entering into a $300 million project to bowl in the stadium and improve all of our facilities. We’ve constantly pushed to improve things.
“I haven’t felt the need to want to pursue something different. You never say never, but everything is in place right here to have the success we all want.”
And Spurrier says Stoops doesn’t take Oklahoma for granted, either.
“I know he was tempted to go to Florida at one point, but Oklahoma has taken good care of him,” Spurrier said. “He and the AD get along super; the president, too. You can’t beat that, especially at a place like Oklahoma where one bad year can change everything. Last year was a hard one for him. Nobody likes losing.”
Stoops even concedes there has always been a “natural connection” with the Gators because of the positive experience he had there with Spurrier.
“It’s been attractive a couple of times, and if things through the years hadn’t been as positive as they’ve been here, that is one of the places I always felt like was a great fit for me,” Stoops said.
Similarly, there’s always the itch of the NFL.
“I’m big on that: In life, everything has its time,” Stoops said. “Maybe that comes at some point. Maybe it doesn’t. But in the end, it needs to be the right time if I felt the need to leave here or for family reasons. Right now, the age of your children and what they’re doing matters. Everything has its time. I haven’t felt that time yet.”
Stoops’ twin boys, Drake and Isaac, are 16, and it’s certainly not lost on Stoops that he has been able to raise his family in the same place, which is unheard of in the coaching profession.
“Bobby is as tough-minded as anybody, and he’s also big on family,” Spurrier said. “That’s one of the reasons he’s stayed there for so long. When you have kids who like their school and are playing sports and so forth, you hate to pick up and go. I’ve always admired that about Bobby as much as anything, that those things are important to him.”
Stoops said he’s also not convinced that taking an NFL job would be a step up from coaching at Oklahoma.
“I say this in a respectful, humble way. But sometimes, some of those NFL guys might rather have my job,” said Stoops, who received a raise to $5.25 million annually last June. “Depending on where you’re at or the ownership you’re working for, some of the college jobs may be better than some in the NFL.”
The Oklahoma players are well aware that Stoops has passed on multiple opportunities to stay put. It’s one of the reasons they felt so badly about last season.
“His loyalty goes a lot deeper than just the players. It’s also to this state,” Oklahoma junior cornerback Zack Sanchez said. “He’s won with different staffs, won with Mike [Stoops] leaving and Mike coming back. Even when we have a bad year, it’s not going to be multiple bad years.
“Last year was a big disappointment, but the players were more disappointed in letting him down than he was in us.”
And even though three of Oklahoma’s losses were close ones last season, coupled with a few bad breaks along the way, there were murmurs across the college football landscape that Stoops might have lost his fastball.
It’s a criticism that has reverberated throughout the Oklahoma football complex during the offseason.
“You hear it, people saying he can’t win another national championship,” Sanchez said. “It pisses him off just like it pisses us off. We relate to him. He hears the criticism and says, ‘I’m going to prove you wrong, shut you up,’ and we have the same attitude as players.”
Castiglione, too, has heard the grumbling from what he calls the “Oklahoma Universe” ever since that forgettable performance in Orlando in the bowl game. But just like Stoops has always chosen to look at the big picture and remain at Oklahoma, Castiglione chooses to look at what lies ahead.
“We have a clear direction with our program and what we’re doing going forward, and it gets back to the pro-active spirit that we all share,” Castiglione said. “That’s never going to change, and I can assure you that Bob Stoops is the one driving that.”
Going on two decades now.