College Football

Bob Stoops rebuilt the Oklahoma Sooners into a national power

May 10

By RJ Young
FOX Sports College Football Writer

After a coaching life lived in full, Bob Stoops is relaxed.

Following an incredible two-decade run at the University of Oklahoma, he coached the Dallas Renegades in the XFL before the league shuttered at the start of the pandemic last spring.

Now, he’s beginning a new chapter of his life as an analyst on FOX’s Big Noon Kickoff. He’ll be joining Rob Stone, Matt Leinart, Reggie Bush and Brady Quinn on Saturdays from 10 A.M.-Noon (ET) in just a few months’ time.

It's a change from the man who … accepted his only Division I offer to Iowa; who as a Hawkeye safety once hit Purdue running back Mike Harris so hard he broke Harris' jaw; who grinded out five years as a grad assistant at Iowa before getting his first full-time assistant coaching job at Kent State; who helped Bill Snyder turn Kansas State from one of the worst programs in the history of the sport into a tough-as-hell Big 12 menace capable of thumping OU; who, ultimately, flipped OU back to being a college football power.

But it took such a man, who, even as a boy, was as hard as any mill worker coming out of Youngstown, Ohio. 

"I was feisty," he wrote in his autobiography, "No Excuses." "You weren’t going to intimidate me. You hit me with a two-by-four, I’ll go find a crowbar and hit you back. It was the Youngstown way."

That’s the way his teams played. His defenses were going to put eight in the box, play bump-and-run on the outside with just a single-high safety for cover.

In just his second season as Oklahoma's head coach, Bob Stoops led the Sooners to their seventh national championship. Brian Bahr/ALLSPORT

You weren’t going to run on Stoops’ defense unless you were willing to part with your teeth.

And Lord help you if you chose to put the ball in the air. You wideouts were liable to come down clutching their chest after a linebacker put his helmet in it while a defensive back ran the other way with the interception.

Stoops was so Midwestern tough the only time he took his famed visor off his head for a ball-cap was when it rained. He even called the cap his "rain gear."

But after 10 Big 12 titles and a national championship in Norman, he knew he needed to walk away. 

He’d known this day would come since the day his father, Ron Stoops Sr., collapsed from a heart attack while coaching defense at Cardinal Mooney High School in Youngstown at 54.

Oklahoma coaching legend Bob Stoops joins RJ Young on the No. 1 Ranked Show to chat about joining the Big Noon Kickoff crew, his time in the XFL, and his life after football.

"That event had changed my life," Stoops said. "It changed our family’s life. It certainly had an impact on how long I wanted to coach."

Later in life Stoops learned he’d been diagnosed with a form of heart disease. But he has never experienced an immediate life-threatening emergency due to his heart.

Still, he sticks to a healthy diet. He watches his calcium score and cholesterol level. He noticed how his body reacted to the stresses of his job.

He needed to relax. He earned the time to relax. That is what he hoped for when he stepped down as head coach at Oklahoma almost four years ago (June 7, 2017), though he made the decision more than six months before that day.

On Dec. 2, 2016, he walked into his bedroom in Norman after a 7 a.m. practice and found his wife, Carol, sitting before her vanity applying makeup. 

The stress of coaching weighed heavily on Stoops. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

He’d walked into that bedroom hundreds of times after an early-morning practice, showered, changed clothes. He’d spend some time with his family before returning to campus to continue the work of maintaining the standard of excellence he’d willed OU back to when he first took the job in December 1998.

Before Stoops, OU had endured half-a-decade without a winning season. Before Stoops, the Sooners dropped their season-opener to Northwestern, 24-0, dropped a game to Kansas the same year, 20-17, and got beat, 69-7, by Nebraska in 1997.

Before Stoops, OU hadn't won more than nine games in a season since 1993 and ranked no higher than No. 17 in the AP poll. My friend Steve, who is about 15 years my senior, said all of that doesn’t begin to get at how bad OU was following the Barry Switzer era.

"RJ, we sucked," he said. "We sucked so badly that Nebraska pitied us. Think about that."

I do. I have. 

Nebraska has its own problems in the present, but in the past — particularly the mid-'90s — the Huskers were an amazing football program.

I’m just young enough to have missed the truth of the '90s for OU, and I was just old enough to truly bask in the glory that the Bob Stoops’ era wrought. 

I’m 33 now. I have not seen a losing season at OU since I was 12, and the Sooners have been in the hunt for a national title nearly every year since 2000.

That was due to Stoops. For 18 years, his teams ran roughshod over the Big 12.

He set the school record for wins as head coach with 190. His teams lost just 48 times.

He made 10 BCS bowl appearances and won OU’s seventh national title. In an uncertain world, Stoops’ Sooners were going certain to be good, if not awesome, each and every year.

But the cost of that certainty had taken its toll on him. He felt it in 2016 when he knelt beside Carol and told her he was through at OU.

"I don’t think I can do this anymore," Stoops said.

Carol didn’t immediately understand. "You mean the 7 a.m. practices?"

"No. This might be it. I wanted to tell you now."

What’s more? He knew who his successor should be.

Among a coaching tree that counts Mike Leach, Mike Stoops, Brent Venables, Kevin Sumlin, Kevin Wilson and Josh Heupel, Stoops handpicked 34-year-old Lincoln Riley to steward the program.

Of course, exactly one month later, Stoops and the Sooners beat Auburn, 35-19, in the Sugar Bowl. The game was a warning shot to the rest of the sport, really.

Despite winning the 2017 Sugar Bowl and returning quarterback Baker Mayfield, Stoops felt it was time to hand off the team to Lincoln Riley. (Photo by Stephen Lew/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

That Oklahoma team had learned what it was made of, and it was going to be led by a senior quarterback named Baker Mayfield in 2017. The team would be OU’s best chance to win a national title since 2008.

For a moment, Stoops let himself think about staying to coach that team. After all, this is what he lived for — the chance to win national titles.

Though he had two already — one as defensive coordinator at Florida and another in his second year at OU — he had to want one more, right? 

After the way Clemson dispatched OU in the 2015 College Football Playoff? After the way Florida dumped the Sooners on their head in '08? 

After the 55-19 hurting USC put on Oklahoma in 2004?

Carol, most of all, knew what that 2017 team could mean for her husband. She knew getting back the year the Big 12 originally took from Mayfield was huge for her husband, huge for the program.

She knew that 2017 was going to be a great year in Norman, and she made sure to tell her spouse that. 

He countered. "That’s the whole point. I don’t want to ride Baker out. I want Lincoln in a good spot."

RJ Young makes a strong case for why the 2021 season gives Oklahoma coach Lincoln Riley his best chance yet at a national title.

Carol pressed her husband. "Bobby, are you sure? I get it, but as someone who loves you and has watched you go through the pain of some of these years, doing the hard things like letting people go, putting together this staff, changing recruiting, getting things where they are now, you’re just going to hand it over?"

"Yeah."

OU athletic director Joe Castiglione and former university president David Boren tried to talk him out of it. Tried to give Riley the head-coach-in-waiting title.

Stoops took a month to think about it before dismissing the idea altogether. You can’t sort of be the head coach, Stoops reasoned, and he wanted Riley to have every chance to be successful.

"That’s him," Riley said. "That’s what makes that guy special. I’m telling you, 99 percent of the other coaches out there would have hung on for one more year and then maybe done it after that, when the senior quarterback was gone. He’s just not wired like most guys. Most guys won’t retire when they’re 50-something years old and have a job like this."

Stoops did it anyway.

Four years later, Stoops still feels the same now as he did then. He trusted what he’d seen from Riley as his offensive coordinator for three years.

He trusted the man Riley is, and he expected the coach he’d become would form out of that man. He has been vindicated in his belief.

Riley has compiled a 45-8 record in four years, led OU to three CFP appearances and a Cotton Bowl victory since first taking over in June 2017.

"I knew strongly that Lincoln was the right guy in all all the right ways, the ways as a leader," Stoops told me on FOX Sports’ No. 1-Ranked Show. "Then the support around him was strong. Like all of it together could keep it going and improve it. 

RJ Young takes a look at Bob Stoops’ impressive coaching tree and ranks the top five assistants.

"We all try and do our little wrinkles as you should, and times change, rules change. You gotta keep up with them, and he has and does. And knows all I want and hope is he obliterates any records I got. I don't care about all that. I just want to see us continue to win."

Since resigning at OU, Stoops has stayed close with the program. His son, Drake, earned a scholarship in April after beginning his career in Norman as a walk-on wide receiver. 

His other son, Isaac, is a student assistant coach at OU, beginning his career exactly like Riley did at Texas Tech. Stoops himself coached the Sooners for a day during the 2020 season when OU was down coaches due to COVID-19 protocol.

But the best gift he has given the university, the program, since he first gave it back its identity with a national title in 2000 is setting it up to succeed long after he’s gone. 

That measure of humility, selflessness and courage in the sport is one of a kind.

Just like Bob Stoops.

RJ Young is a national college football writer and analyst for FOX Sports. Follow him on Twitter at @RJ_Young. Subscribe to "No. 1 Ranked Show w/ RJ Young" on YouTube and wherever you get your podcasts. He is not on a StepMill.


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