Bob Stoops, the grand not-so-old man of college football

MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. – Bob Stoops does not possess the bearing of an elder. A thicket of brown hair fluffs over his visor, and glasses are absent from his wrinkle-resistant face. None of his three children have yet graduated college. He does not mind picking a fight, whether it is with the Southeastern Conference or the cynics among his own fan base. Remind him about this time last year, when the barbarians were rattling his gates after a horrid bowl game. Ask if the bile surprised him. Listen to the edge he flashes.

“Oh,” Stoops said. “You mean given that we had just won the Sugar Bowl and were [ranked] six in the country the year before?”

Stoops’s vivacity would not be notable, except that coaches who own the title he holds usually appear perpetually on the verge of handing out Werther’s Originals. When Frank Beamer retired from Virginia Tech, Stoops became the longest-tenured coach at any one school in major college football, tied with Iowa’s Kirk Ferentz. He is more fiery than grandfatherly, 55 going on what-are-you-looking-at? He has responded to the lowest of his 17 seasons at Oklahoma with another title contender, which he will lead Thursday into the Orange Bowl against No.1 Clemson.

That Stoops has outlasted every peer reflects his remarkable consistency and the profession he has long resided at the top of. Since Oklahoma plucked Steve Spurrier’s defensive coordinator at Florida, the rest of Division I-A college football has changed coaches 362 times. Stoops is what passes for a grand old man in a sport that no longer produces grand old men.

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“It’s just harder and harder in today’s world,” Stoops said in a phone conversation earlier this month. “Sometimes people want change just to change. It doesn’t mean it’s going to be better. The amount of exposure everybody gets, if you’re not winning at a great level, people get tired of it and want a different voice.”

Stoops credits his longevity in part to consistent administration – Joe Castiglione and David Boren have been the athletic director and university president during his entire tenure. He’s realistic about the biggest reason – he wins.

Stoops won the 2000 national championship and played for the crystal again in 2004, 2005 and 2009. He has led Oklahoma to nine Big 12 titles, stacked up 13 10-win seasons, lost just five times at Memorial Stadium, produced 13 first-round NFL draft picks and coached two Heisman Trophy winners. Oklahoma has been ranked in the top 10 at some point in 16 consecutive seasons. If the Sooners win twice more this season, Stoops will join Urban Meyer and Nick Saban as the only active football coaches who can claim multiple national championships.

“They usually like it when you’ve done those kinds of things,” Stoops said.

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And coaches with such resumes usually begin seeing greener grass. In 2001, the Cleveland Browns, the NFL team closest to his hometown of Youngstown, Ohio, attempted to lure him. In 2003, Stoops turned down an interview with the Jacksonville Jaguars.

As Stoops considered the Browns job, Barry Switzer advised him to stay. He had coached Oklahoma to a national title and won a Super Bowl with the Dallas Cowboys. “If you leave, more people would want this job than the one you left for,” Switzer recounted telling him. “You got a better job than anything you could get in pro football.”

Stoops stayed, and he has been staying ever since. Stoops did not shut the door on leaving for the NFL some day. “Unsure right now,” Stoops said. “At this point, I’m too excited about what we’re doing here. It’s just hard to project.” But the longer he stays, the harder it will be to leave.

“College jobs, what [else] are you going to do?” said Mike Stoops, Bob’s brother and defensive coordinator. “He had Florida, probably. I don’t know. I don’t get into that, whether he could have went. I know he had a strong connection in [athletic director] Jeremy Foley a couple times that position opened. I just think he’s a very loyal and trusting person. He loves the people and loves the program. This is his legacy now. Going somewhere after a certain point, it probably wasn’t going to happen.”

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Switzer believes, despite more than a decade of rumors, that Stoops and his family have never been close to leaving.

“Hell, no,” Switzer said. “They built a damn mansion here.”

Stoops left Youngstown to play defensive back at Iowa when he was 17 years old. He coached at Iowa another five seasons, stopped at Kent State for one, spent seven years at Kansas State and stayed just three years at Florida before the Sooners came calling. He has lived in Norman for as long as he’s lived anywhere. His daughter Mackenzie was 2 when he arrived. She’s an OU student now. “When people ask me where I’m from,” Stoops said, “I say I’m from Oklahoma.”

Familiarity can also breed dissatisfaction, especially at Oklahoma. After World War II, “the state had an inferiority complex” stemming from the dust bowl days, said Switzer, who devoted a chapter of his book to the history. “It’s just a negative image of the Okie.” State and university officials envisioned football as a way to inject pride. They hired Bud Wilkinson, who built a dynasty that Switzer reinvigorated in the 1980s. As much as anywhere in the country, Oklahomans attach their identity to their football team.

“You try to keep it going,” Switzer said. “You try to keep feeding the monster.”

Stoops rescued the program. When he went 7-5 his first year, it was Oklahoma’s first winning season since 1993. The next season, the Sooners won their first national title since 1985. His success did not create leeway – just a hungrier monster.

Some fans, in the wake of disappointment, started to employ the moniker “Big Game Bob” to mock their coach rather than toast him. Last year, Oklahoma finished 8-5 despite entering every game as a favorite, including its 40-6 loss to Clemson in the Russell Athletic Bowl. In Norman, the ground shook.

The Tulsa World ran a column headlined, “It’s time for Bob Stoops to go,” which contained the line, “Clearly he’s done all he can do as head football coach at Oklahoma.” Not a small collection of Sooner fans concurred. The din ratcheted up so much that Stoops felt compelled to respond. In his first postseason news conference, Stoops walked to the podium and declared, “My dedication has been questioned the last few weeks. . . . I’ll promise you, I’m as dedicated as the day I walked in.”

“It was probably his hardest year of all of them,” Mike Stoops said. “To see the people turn on you that quickly, it’s unbelievable, the noise surrounding everything.”

Years ago, a fan emailed Stoops the poem “If” by Rudyard Kipling. “I live my life by it,” Stoops said. “I read it just about every day.” He is fond of the first stanza, which begins:

If you can keep your head when all about you

Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,

If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,

But make allowance for their doubting too;

Last January, Stoops trusted himself and made allowance for the doubting. Stoops made a bitterly hard decision. He fired co-offensive coordinators Josh Heupel, who quarterbacked his national title team and coached under him nine seasons, and Jay Norvell. “Very difficult,” Stoops said. “I did what I felt was necessary to move forward.”

He replaced them with Lincoln Riley, a 32-year-old disciple of Mike Leach, whom Stoops launched to stardom by hiring him as his offensive coordinator his first season in Norman. With former walk-on quarterback Baker Mayfield behind center, Oklahoma averaged 45.8 points, third in the nation.

“I’ll tell you what’s really helped Bobby,” said Spurrier, who remains close with Stoops. “He’s reinvented what they do out there. Went and got that young kid. He doesn’t stand pat.”

“He’s not afraid to evolve and change with the game,” said Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables, who held the same position under Stoops for 13 years. “Coach Stoops has shown both loyalty and the willingness to make change when he feels like he needs to.”

Venables met Stoops for the first time in the locker room at South Salina High in Kansas, Stoops an assistant there to recruit him to Kansas State. Years later, Stoops asked Venables to leave the Kansas State coaching staff and come with him to Oklahoma. Kansas State had come off its second straight 11-win season, and Coach Bill Snyder asked Venables, “How do you know you’ll win at Oklahoma?”

“I was like, well, that’s not a very smart question,” Venables said. “That’s Bob Stoops. He’s a winner. Even though I was an assistant coach, that was my player’s perspective. Players always gravitated towards him.”

Stoops still attracts support from his players. Last year, he marched with them in protest of a racist fraternity video that shook the campus. Mayfield called Stoops “kind of a legend.” Defensive lineman Charles Tapper lost his father at a young age and struggled with family issues last season. He said Stoops has invited him to his home, and he knows he can walk into his office anytime.

“He treats my mom like he knew her forever,” Tapper said. “When he did that, I started talking to him about anything I needed to in life.”

As a Kansas State assistant, Stoops and his fellow coaches would remain at the office until midnight some nights under Snyder’s orders. Inevitably, they would ask themselves a version of the same question: What else are we gonna do? Under Spurrier, Stoops left the office at 9:30 on the roughest nights. At Oklahoma, he stresses balance. Like Spurrier, he does not react to losses as tragedies. Every other Wednesday is family day inside OU’s coaches office, and children roam the halls.

“He realized when you feel comfortable with your preparation, you don’t have to beat yourself into the ground to have those long hours,” Spurrier said. “I think it leads to longevity.”

College football coaching has grown into a sport without longevity. Gone are such three-decade dinosaurs as Bobby Bowden and Joe Paterno. Once fixtures, coaches have become interchangeable parts. Georgia fired Mark Richt. Saban took an NFL sabbatical between LSU and Alabama.

“It’s a tough business,” Beamer said on the day he announced this season would be his last. “I think it’s a younger guy’s business, talking about practices and games. Everything is critical. Every loss is critical. After you do that a number of years, I think it wears on you a little bit.”

“It seems like now when a coach has been there a while and he has one or two bad years, it’s just, well, we got to make a change,” Stoops said. “You get to a certain age, it affects the recruiting. The kids are told, ‘Hey, he’s not going to be there much longer.’ And it’s true. I waited about a half-year too long. But Bobby’s got another 10 years.”

The changes of the last year, Mike Stoops said, have reenergized Stoops. On a recent day, Switzer ran into Stoops walking out of the football complex wearing sunglasses. “Are you trying to hide?” Switzer said. Stoops laughed. He has no reason. He is two wins away from a second title. Kyler Murray, the nation’s No. 1 recruit a year ago, left Texas A&M and transferred to Oklahoma. One of the most innovative young minds in football is running his offense.

“I always have had a very healthy perspective on it all,” Stoops said. “I have a very strong faith. I know what really matters in my life. At some point, this will all be gone, and that will all be okay. Put it away and move on. What matters are my faith and my family. If I’ve got that, and maybe a little bit of health, I’m okay.”

Stoops has a favorite line of “If,” one he can quote off the top of his head. It is the part in the middle that goes like this:

If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster

And treat those two impostors just the same;