How Bob Stoops turned loyal protege into national champion coach

Bob Stoops shields his Oklahoma program from most outsiders, but he let Isao Hashizume in.

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NORMAN, Okla. — Oftentimes a guy’s coaching tree tells a truer story about his legacy than his trophy case. However with Bob Stoops, that case — cluttered with championship rings, dozens of bowl watches and medallions — actually houses one of the sweeter stories about the long-time Oklahoma coach.

Few big-time head coaches have a tree with as many mismatched branches as the 54-year-old Stoops. A former defensive coordinator under Steve Spurrier at Florida, Stoops’ most successful disciples have all been offensive guys. Mike Leach, Stoops’ first offensive coordinator, left Norman and became the winningest coach in Texas Tech history and won national coach of the year honors in 2008. Mark Mangino, Stoops’ second OC, earned national Coach of the Year honors in 2007 and had a winning record at Kansas and the second-most wins in school history. Kevin Sumlin, another former Stoops assistant, has won Coach of the Year honors in two different conferences, and in his debut season at Texas A&M led the Aggies to their first top-five finish in over 50 years.

However, the Stoops protege who has gone on to win the most championships is a guy few college fans have ever heard of.

His name is Isao Hashizume, although he’s not even the most famous Isao Hashizume in his native Japan. That Isao is a 73-year-old award-winning actor who has voiced-over characters in movies, cartoons and video games. Stoops’ Isao is a 53-year-old American football coach of the Ritsumeikan Panthers. His program is one of about 400 college teams in Japan and 23 of them are at the top 1-A level. 

In the winter of 1999, Hashizume visited Norman as part of an exchange program between Ritsumeikan and OU where he was also coordinator of the students’ English program. While in Oklahoma, Hashizume asked Stoops if he could learn football with the Sooners. 

"OK," Stoops said, wondering if the visitor would end up getting in the way.

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Starting in July 2000, Hashizume sat in the back of the room for some OU staff meetings, listening intently, taking notes, but didn’t say anything. Then, Stoops’ assistants invited Hashizume to sit in on their position meetings, too. Stoops, his staff and their players got so comfortable with Hashizume, they eventually let him travel with the Sooners on road trips to their away games as OU went on a roll. A team that started the season ranked No. 19 proceeded to beat four top-25 teams, including No. 2 Kansas State on the road and No. 1 Nebraska, en route to a 13-0 national title run.

The idea of Bob Stoops allowing a complete stranger all-access to his program may not mesh with the intense coach’s persona. Watch any Stoops press conference and it doesn’t take long to see that he seldom has much patience for folks asking him about the how and why of his world. If you’re not part of his inner circle, you’re an outsider and you may get Contrarian Bob or Skeptical Bob. But Hashizume got to know the other side of Stoops.

"I just think Bob can read people really quick," says Jerry Schmidt, OU’s strength coach who has been with the coach since Stoops arrived in Norman in 1999 and had previously worked with him at Florida. "He felt very comfortable around [Hashizume]. And Bob’s dad was a high school coach. He has a lot of respect for high school coaches. He knows they don’t make that much money. His big thing is helping coaches."

Stoops recalled, "At first he was over there watching. You’d see the same guy every day. You start talking to him and get to know him. ‘Come eat with us.’ He had become like part of the staff. He wasn’t teaching anybody but he was in our meetings, was around us all the time. We included himI don’t think I knew it was gonna be the whole year. It just kinda happened. To me, it was another country, so it was good to do."

Photo after Oklahoma won the 2000 Big 12 title game to earn a spot in the national championship. Front row, second from left: Isao Hashizume. Back row, center (black shirt): Bob Stoops. Upper right (backwards visor): Mike Stoops. To Bob Stoops’ right (yellow shirt): Steve Spurrier Jr. Upper left (head): Mark Mangino.

Hashizume started to play football in high school when he was 16, because he was intrigued by sports that were different. He went on to play four years at Ritsumeikan and eight years with a club team before starting his coaching career in 1994. When he came to OU, he was 37 — even though he looked about half that.

"I needed ID to buy beer," Hashizume said in an email about his time with the Sooners.

There were some memorable moments as he adjusted to a new culture. Like the time he parked his car behind the direction of the OU goal posts at practice and ended up getting his windshield broken and later was asking the guys if anyone could help him find "a car hospital." Or the time someone stole his laptop out of his car off campus. Hashizume was really depressed about it since he made notes of everything in it, from the Sooners’ schemes to every detail of Schmidt’s development program, right down to the menus they served the players. Hashizume was relieved to learn that his laptop was found in the bushes behind the Subway because once the thieves realized it was all in Japanese, they dumped it.

"It was very tough in the early time (at OU)," said Hashizume. "I didn’t have any position, any role, any title and any space to be. Day by day, everybody with the Sooners took care of me, taught me and accepted me." 

Bob Stoops’ case of bowl medallions, watches and rings.

The Sooners staff did more than just accept him. They essentially adopted Hashizume during his year in Oklahoma. Mangino, then OU’s offensive coordinator, often brought him home with him, so his wife Mary Jane made them big Italian dinners. Hashizume said Mangino was his "dad in Norman." Other coaches brought Hashizume with them out on the town the night after Sooner games. They’d ask questions about Japan and his family.

"He was very quiet," said Mangino. "He never spoke unless spoken to. Always smiling. Very affable personality. You could tell he was absorbing everything. I had a great respect for the guy. When I talked, he put everything in his laptop. He knew our offense as well as we did. He probably could’ve coached our offense if he spoke fluent English."

One week Mangino would call him up to the board and ask him for his favorite pass play against Oklahoma State. Hashizume would draw it up and explain the progressions: "Read here, first. Here, second. Here, third. Throw dig."

Mangino, now the offensive coordinator at Iowa State, gets a laugh out of thinking back to the Sooners’ storybook season and their charming visitor from the Far East.

"He had the run of the place," Mangino said. "Bob really treated him well and he didn’t take anything for granted. We considered him part of our staff. The players would high-five him. Everybody got a big kick out of his name — ‘Ah-SOW!’ And he’d reply, ‘YESSS!’

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"He became one of the guys. I guess he could party hard with the guys, too."

All of the OU coaches fondly remember Hashizume’s affinity for Budweiser, but especially for coaching football.

"He was so impressive in every phase," says Schmidt. "It was like the guy couldn’t get enough. He really studied it. He continued asking me what are you looking for when you’re teaching. And the players loved him being around."

When OU played Florida State in the Orange Bowl for the national title, Hashizume got to observe the game from the Sooners’ coaches box at Pro Player Stadium. Oklahoma won the championship, by defeating the Seminoles, 13-2. Stoops even awarded Hashizume a national championship ring for his time with the Sooners. 

In April 2001, Hashizume returned home to his family back in Japan. Away from the field, getting re-acclimated took some time. When he left Japan for Oklahoma, his first daughter was only six months old. "And when I came back home, she ran away from me with crying," he says. But everything else he brought back to Ritsumeikan that he had gleamed from all his time with the Sooners made a big impact on Japanese football. 

"I learned almost every assignment and technique of the offensive side of the ball as O-coordinator of my team," he said. "Though the biggest thing was the program — the ‘how to’ with lifting; the morning workouts; the coach/player meetings; attend class; training table; the way to treat players; beer with coaches after game; bad words in the press box, and so on. Everything worked for my team. After I brought back Sooners ball, from 2001-20014, we got three national championships, five Collegiate championships and seven conference championships." 

The Ritsumeikan championship ring Hashizume sent Bob Stoops.

After Ritsumeikan made it back-to-back national titles in 2003, Hashizume sent Stoops a national championship ring commemorating the Panthers’ double. That’s one of the rings Stoops proudly displays in the case in his office at OU. 

"The reason why I could stay at OU is because of Bob Stoops’ open mind," Hashizume says. "I appreciate him very much with big respect. He is my teacher and master of coach."

Over the past dozen years, Hashizume has been back to Oklahoma several times, even bringing his players and reconnecting with his Sooner family. He says he watches all the OU games through the internet now. He keeps the national title ring that Stoops gave him in a drawer in his desk with his other championship ring. 

"When I need to remember my original purpose, I always (look) at them."

Bruce Feldman is a senior college football reporter and columnist for FOXSports.com and FOX Sports 1. He is also a New York Times Bestselling author. His new book, The QB: The Making of Modern Quarterbacks, came out in October, 2014. Follow him on Twitter @BruceFeldmanCFB.