Most sports talk shows across Oklahoma sounded about the same a year ago.
The airwaves were filled with impatient, disappointed fans venting about how Oklahoma’s Bob Stoops and Oklahoma State’s Mike Gundy had overstayed their welcomes as their teams struggled and finished far short of the lofty standards. After years of being in national championship conversations, Oklahoma finished 8-5. Oklahoma State barely qualified for a bowl game and was 7-6, while Baylor and TCU got the headlines.
Stoops and Gundy insisted that things would be fine, and for now, they are vindicated.
They have positioned their teams to make a run for a berth in the College Football Playoff. If No. 4 Oklahoma State beats Baylor and No. 7 Oklahoma beats TCU on Saturday, the rival coaches would meet the following week for the Big 12 title and possibly much more.
Now in his 17th year, Stoops has a 177-45 record and has played for the national championship four times, but the only title was a long time ago, back in 2000. He is used to the annual chatter about whether it’s time for him to go.
"Bob is judged largely by the legacy that he created," Oklahoma athletic director Joe Castiglione said. "We have one of the most recognized and proud traditions in college sports, but when Bob arrived, our football success was a bit of a memory. With a much more balanced playing field emerging in terms of scholarship distribution and state-of-the-art facilities, some may have wondered how long it would take to rebuild the program to a level reminiscent of the glory days. As you look back now over his 17 years, they’re truly remarkable."
Gundy has built high expectations in Stillwater, too. He has compiled a 94-44 record in 11 seasons and will lead the program to its 10th straight bowl game this year. He also has risen from the fallout from a series of articles written by Sports Illustrated in 2013 that alleged various levels of misconduct within the program over years. The school came out of the NCAA investigation virtually unscathed.
"I think he has done a wonderful job of ignoring the noise and focusing on the things that are under his control," Oklahoma State athletic director Mike Holder said. "He constantly talks about playing one play at a time, giving great effort and playing for the man next to you. This team is unselfish, and that is a reflection of the leadership."
Oklahoma State got its fans excited last season by giving defending national champion Florida State a battle before losing 37-31. The Cowboys won five straight and moved into the Top 25 before enduring a five-game losing skid, with each loss by at least 21 points.
Oklahoma State quarterback Mason Rudolph said Gundy shouldn’t have been blamed for the struggles last year.
"We weren’t playing good," Rudolph said. "We weren’t winning games, so you’re going to try to direct some of that blame toward Gundy. That’s not fair, but that’s how the world works."
Then, a funny thing happened. Oklahoma State upset Oklahoma a year ago to become bowl eligible, then beat Washington in the Cactus Bowl. Suddenly, there was a positive vibe heading into the offseason.
Gundy named Rudolph the starting quarterback heading into the season over J.W. Walsh, who had recovered from a season-ending foot injury. Gundy has used Walsh in the red zone and has managed use of the two well. Rudolph has passed for more than 3,000 yards, while Walsh has 10 rushing and 10 passing touchdowns and has helped Oklahoma State become one of the nation’s most efficient red zone teams.
"He hasn’t changed a whole lot," Rudolph said of Gundy. "He’s the same coach he was a year ago. He’s got a team that loves each other and that plays hard."
Oklahoma’s players say Stoops remains one of the nation’s best coaches, and he still knows how to get the best out of his players.
"He does a great job of hitting the points that we need to know, that we need to settle down and play our game," senior receiver Sterling Shepard said. "As long as we’re focused on what we’re doing, everything will be all right. Coach Stoops does a great job of just doing his job."
Stoops, as usual, fueled expectations with on-field success. Oklahoma beat Alabama in the Sugar Bowl after the 2013 season and opened last season with a No. 4 preseason ranking and national championship aspirations. A close loss to TCU, a mistake-riddled loss at home to Kansas State and a blowout loss at home to Baylor squashed their hopes of playing in a major bowl game. It all fell apart in a 40-6 loss to Clemson in the Russell Athletic Bowl.
Stoops realized change was needed, so he hired offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley from East Carolina to bring back the Air Raid offense. Baker Mayfield, a walk-on transfer from Texas Tech, won the quarterback battle with Trevor Knight and now has emerged as a Heisman candidate.
Now, things are back to normal in Norman, which is exactly what Castiglione expected. He understands why the fans were tough on Stoops, though.
"If we are going to embrace the energy which develops when success occurs, we also have to understand the range of emotions we experience when we aren’t successful," he said. "It has always been that way, and it’s that kind of passion we would rather have vs. the alternative — apathy."