How Bob Stoops’ departure will shake up the Big 12
It’s not every year a Hall of Fame-caliber coach retires in June, so it makes sense people are still asking about the ramifications of Bob Stoops’ sudden retirement a week later.
Especially since my last Mailbag went up about three hours before he announced it.
The Red River Rivalry just got a little more exciting. What are your thoughts on that rivalry now that both teams have young new coaches? Also, does this compare to any other time with huge rivalries breaking in coaches the same year?
— Matt, Bossier City, LA
It’s kind of similar to when Mack Brown (1998) and Bob Stoops (1999) started at those schools a year apart. Mind you, Brown was an established head coach already from his time at North Carolina, while then 38-year-old Stoops more closely fit the Riley mold of a hot coordinator-turned head coach.
By 2000, the pair had both restored their respective programs to national relevance and touched off a decade-long high point for the rivalry. For 12 straight seasons, one or both went into the game ranked as a Top 10 team. That’s incredible.
I have no idea whether Riley and Tom Herman will touch off a similar stretch, but I do know this: The future of the Big 12 will depend heavily on both of these guys succeeding.
As I wrote last week (less than 24 hours before Stoops’ retirement), the conference is in better shape financially than most people realize, but its on-field reputation has taken a deserved hit. Texas’ extended mediocrity is arguably the biggest contributor. The Big 12 desperately needs Herman to get the ‘Horns back to being a national contender.
And now, it just as badly needs Riley to keep Oklahoma among the nation’s elite. Not much will change for the conference if one rises up just as the other declines. And commissioner Bob Bowlsby probably doesn’t even want to think about the prospect of both bluebloods going in the tank simultaneously. The conference doesn’t have enough other big brands to maintain a level of respect comparable to the other Power 5 conferences.
Whose first season as head coach will Lincoln Riley’s most resemble: Jimbo Fisher at Florida State, Luke Fickell at Ohio State, or John L. Smith at Arkansas?
— John, Fort Worth, TX
None of those entered particularly similar scenarios. Fisher was already on staff but took over a program mired in mediocrity. Fickell was an interim coach abruptly thrust into the spotlight amidst a program-rocking scandal. Smith … well, that was essentially the coach of Weber State filling in (disastrously, it would turn out) at an SEC school for a few months.
Last week I wrote about how difficult it will be for Riley to measure up to his absurdly successful predecessor, but that’s over the long-term. In the short-term, maybe the closer example is Larry Coker, who was unexpectedly promoted to lead a ready-made national championship squad in 2001. Or Barry Alvarez’s hand-picked Wisconsin successor, Bret Bielema, going 12-1 in his debut 2006 season.
Baker Mayfield-led Oklahoma will be very good this season. Whether the Sooners can win another Big 12 title and/or reach the playoff will depend in large part on how quickly Riley adjusts to life in the big office.
Hi Stewart: Since you acknowledge that Mike Gundy is “perennially underrated,” what does Bob Stoops’ retirement mean for Oklahoma State’s chances to win the conference this year?
— James, Gilroy, CA
At least Oklahoma State doesn’t believe The Mullet to be underrated — the school announced Tuesday he’s getting a raise to $4.2 million a year.
But yes, for exactly the reason I said earlier — Riley will be learning on the job this fall — there’s a window of opportunity there for 12-year head coach Gundy. He’s got the makings of a great team, led by QB Mason Rudolph and WR James Washington. The offense should be able to score in bunches. The Cowboys have rarely been a defensive juggernaut under Gundy, but that hasn’t stopped them from winning 10 games in three of the past four years.
But Oklahoma with Riley as its offensive coordinator has certainly had its rival’s number the past couple of seasons. In both 2015 and ’16, Oklahoma State went into Bedlam with a chance to win the Big 12 title. The Sooners won 58-23 and 38-20.
But a couple of changes may play into the Cowboys’ hands this season. For one thing, the game is earlier, Nov. 4, in Stillwater. And even if they lose, there’s a chance the two could meet again in the new Big 12 championship game a month later.
Or maybe Kansas State will just win the thing instead.
Hey Stewart: In a world of “what have you done for me lately,” do you feel it is refreshing or surprising that Iowa’s Kirk Ferentz is now the longest-tenured FBS head coach? Honestly, how many people outside of the Midwest even know who he is?
— Jared, Columbus, OH
It’s not surprising. With Ferentz’s infamously unbreakable contract, he was destined to outlast not just Bob Stoops but Bob Stoops’ kids.
In all seriousness, though, as much fun as I’ve had at Iowa fans’ expense over the past several years and all the crow I had to eat over that now-regrettable Worst Coaches List, I do think that kind of longevity is refreshing. I’m the same guy that often chides fans for unrealistic expectations. Iowa has completely realistic expectations — win seven or eight games a year, rise up once every six or seven years and go to a BCS bowl — and Ferentz delivers on them.
A lot of schools go chasing big names or outsized personalities with little to no regard for “fit.” Ferentz and Iowa go together in much the same way as David Shaw at Stanford, Pat Fitzgerald at Northwestern or Chris Petersen at Washington. Ferentz may not be flashy, but he embodies the Iowa brand just as much if not more so than Nick Saban does Alabama’s or Urban Meyer does Ohio State’s.
But you know what’s craziest about Ferentz outlasting Stoops? The Iowa coaching search following the 1998 season came down to … Ferentz and former Hawkeyes defensive back Stoops. And if Iowa had offered the latter, he may well have retired as a Hawkeye last week.
Who’s your pick to win the College World Series?
— Greg, Geismar, LA
(Googles “College World Series bracket” to see who’s in it.)
LSU, of course!
Stewart, I’m modestly optimistic for my Miami Hurricanes this year. Last year was the first signs of progress I’ve seen in a decade. Can you recall a team that finished the prior season with a fairly decent record (9-4) and then made it to the national championship the next season with brand new starting quarterback? The defense is in place, the skill players and O-line are there. QB is the major question mark.
— Tim, Fleming Island, FL
Plenty of first-year starting quarterbacks have won national championships, but that’s a very specific ask in terms of the record. One that comes pretty close: Auburn jumping from 8-5 to 14-0 with new starting quarterback Cam Newton. Miami’s archrival, Florida State, went from a 12-2 ACC champion with EJ Manuel to 14-0 national champ in Jameis Winston’s first season.
So Tim: How confident are you that Miami’s current group of quarterback contenders includes a future Heisman winner and No. 1 pick? And if that guy exists, why hasn’t he won the job already?
I admire your optimism, and I do believe the ‘Canes are headed in the right direction under Mark Richt. But I’m continually bewildered by certain Miami fans’ assumptions that the program is always right around the corner from contending for national championships again. Wouldn’t a more reasonable goal for 2017 be that elusive ACC Coastal Division title that the program has yet to win in its 12 years since joining the conference?
The ‘Canes played very well down the stretch last season, winning five straight after dropping four straight at midseason. A much-improved defense was a big part of that, but so was departed QB Brad Kaaya. All eyes will be on incoming freshman N’Kosi Perry, a four-star dual threat guy that many are counting on to beat out junior Malik Rosier and sophomore Evan Shirreffs.
If Perry is indeed that good and the defense as strong as projected, I could see Miami taking another step forward this fall.
I absolutely cannot see the ‘Canes playing for the national championship.
Stewart: Prior to Dabo last January, you had to go back to Texas’ Mack Brown in 2005 to find a national championship coach that didn’t win one within his first four years at that school. It took Dabo nine seasons. Do you think this will lead to schools being more patient with head coaches?
— Bret, Tallahassee, FL
No, I do not.
Dabo’s long, slow build at Clemson has been a joy to watch, but there were so many pieces to the process that will be hard for another school to replicate.
First of all, while Clemson had won a national championship in its recent past (1981), it was not a place that necessarily expected and demanded them. After all the starts and stops of the Tommy Bowden era, it was emboldening for Clemson just to win 10 games and a conference championship in Dabo’s third full season in 2011.
Second of all, Swinney was able to navigate Clemson’s limited resources at the time (compared to the Alabamas and Ohio States of the world) thanks in large part to his lack of ego. One of the most important moments in that program’s rise was him forsaking a big raise after that breakthrough season in order to retain offensive coordinator Chad Morris and hire then-Oklahoma defensive coordinator Brent Venables. It’s hard to build and maintain a great staff, but Dabo did it.
And perhaps most notably of all, right up until the moment Clemson beat Alabama that night in Tampa, Dabo was seen as the underdog. Normally when a coach comes in and blows up right off the bat, it doesn’t take long for the ensuing backlash to follow. It happened to Stoops, to Jim Tressel, to Saban, to Meyer, to Pete Carroll. You build it, then seemingly have to fight against the rest of the world to maintain it.
But Dabo was never the guy being wooed by the NFL, or ticking off his competitors, or suddenly no longer good enough to win the big one. He remained a guy people were rooting for. Most still are. When you build up that kind of goodwill, it’s a lot easier to withstand the inevitable setbacks along the way.
There’s a whole lot of schools out there that would love to find their own Dabo, but not many with the patience to wait nine years for the big payoff. Most fan bases either grow tired, or the coach grows restless long before then.
I think that Rex Ryan would be a great choice as a college head coach. I think his style works better on Saturdays. What say you?
— Alen, Royersford, PA
I think you may be on to something.
Ryan, now 54, spent roughly two decades as a college assistant before moving to the NFL for good in 1999. In fact, as a Cincinnati Enquirer intern in 1997, I covered the Bearcats’ season-opening win over Tulsa. Afterward, I asked to interview their defensive coordinator. Not until many years later, when Cincinnati SID Ryan Koslen tweeted out that article, did I even remember that coordinator was Rex Ryan.
A more timely piece of Ryan trivia: He was the last Oklahoma defensive coordinator hired by someone other than Bob Stoops. (John Blake in 1998.)
All of this is to say that while Ryan is known today overwhelmingly for his time as head coach of the Jets and Bills, he has no shortage of college football roots. He even recently popped up as ESPN’s color analyst for Florida State’s spring game. (He’ll be moving to NFL games this fall.) His brash personality and penchant for one-liners might actually play pretty well in college, like a defensive-minded Steve Spurrier.
But is Ryan really interested in returning to the grind of recruiting after two decades away? More importantly, would major college ADs see him as a guy who can truly galvanize their program or a celebrity coach who would do little beyond generate P.R.?
My guess is once he gets a taste of broadcasting this fall, he’ll be in no rush to return to any sideline, college or NFL.
Pitt fans are pretty happy with Pat Narduzzi, but what he’s won at Pitt so far hasn’t had much to do with his defense. I’m wondering if fans should be slightly concerned whether the Narduzzi/Mark Dantonio Michigan State defense won’t translate as well long-term against the more prolific ACC offenses of 2017?
— Chris, Pittsburgh, PA
I can tell you one thing: If there’s any concern at all, panicky Michigan State fans would gladly have him back tomorrow.
You’re right that Narduzzi’s two Pitt defenses so far have not been anything special, ranking 76th and 87th nationally in yards per play allowed. But when he and Dantonio really had things rolling in East Lansing, it did not particularly matter what style of offense the opponent played; they shut it down. The Spartans ranked in the top five for three straight seasons from 2011-13. During that time, they faced everything from the Denard Robinson-led Michigan offenses and Urban Meyer’s Ohio State spread to Georgia’s pro-style attack and Stanford’s power running game.
Keep in mind, though, Dantonio and Narduzzi had already been in East Lansing for four years by the time that run began. Narduzzi’s aggressive schemes and play-calling certainly played a big part in that success, but their hallmark more than anything was player development. Guys like Trae Waynes and Darqueze Dennard went from recruiting afterthoughts to first-round draft picks.
But Narduzzi just has not been at Pitt long enough yet to pull off similar feats. I don’t know if we’ll get a full sense of Narduzzi’s ceiling as a head coach until he’s been there for four years. He’s only now entering year three.
Stewart: Did you enjoy “Wonder Woman?”
— Adam, Keesler AFB, Mississippi
I’ve got a 1-year-old. Movie theaters are now just big buildings I see from the highway. I’ll let you know as soon as it comes out on-demand or I see it on a plane.