In the world of college football, when it’s gone, it’s usually gone.
The examples of a legendary coach regaining his fastball are few and far between. Once a program starts decaying under his watch, it often takes a regime change to get it back on track.
Oklahoma definitely had the look of a program on the decline during a drought from 2011 to 2014. OU failed to win an outright conference title during that four-year stretch and suffered a string of humiliating defeats to former punching bags like Baylor, Oklahoma State and Texas A&M. Hope for the future was waning with every blue-chip recruit who passed on the Crimson and Cream.
The Sooners bumbled through a loss to arch rival Texas in early October, and they showed all the hallmarks in that game of the overhyped OU teams that had raised and subsequently dashed so many hopes in the past. In the aftermath, I felt more certain than ever that in his 17th season as OU’s head coach, Bob Stoops had passed that point of no return.
And as Stoops has done so many times in his career, he made critics like me look foolish. The Sooners went on a dominating run in the second half of the season through one of the toughest leagues in the country. Last Saturday’s blowout Bedlam win over Oklahoma State clinched OU’s ninth Big 12 title under Stoops and made the team a mortal lock for this year’s College Football Playoff.
Now, all the talk about Stoops growing stale in Norman has quieted down.
How did he pull it off? You could point to any number of specific changes that altered the program’s course this year, but the fact of the matter is that Stoops planted the seeds for a turnaround well before the 2015 squad took a snap.
There was the hire of Lincoln Riley as offensive coordinator, a move designed to take OU back to the Air Raid. Stoops also replaced longtime assistant Jay Norvell with Dennis Simmons as receivers coach in the offseason. Both moves came as part of an overhaul that also saw Bill Bedenbaugh and Jay Boulware join the offensive staff in 2013.
OU’s resurrection stands out just as much for the moves that Stoops didn’t make. His brother Mike Stoops became Public Enemy No. 1 around Norman following a 2014 season in which the Sooner D was repeatedly torched. Naturally, charges of nepotism arose when Mike returned in the offseason and other assistants lost their jobs. (Retaining linebackers coach Tim Kish, one of Mike’s lieutenants from Arizona, drew the ire of fans, too.)
Twelve games later, though, Bob’s faith in his brother’s defensive acumen has been rewarded. OU ranks 13th overall this year in Defensive S&P+, a measure of efficiency, up from 21st in ‘14. Notably, the Sooners’ Defensive Passing S&P+ climbed from 32nd nationally to 5th this season.
I don’t know if there’s a formula to be extrapolated from Stoops' blueprint. A gem of a quarterback transfer and some fortunate breaks definitely played a role in it. Yet, it is fair to say that without Stoops’ confidence in his vision for the program and his ability to execute on it, his team would likely be preparing for another pre-New Year’s Day bowl game.
Recently, we’ve seen lauded coaches such as Mack Brown, Mark Richt and Frank Beamer fall victim to the seemingly inescapable erosion that occurs when a coach stays in one place for too long. The endings can be ugly. OU’s familiar with that - see: Switzer, Barry.
Stoops somehow managed to shake off the inertia that felled his peers, and no matter what happens this postseason, he has all but assured that he will be leaving OU on his terms.
No one gives out trophies for that, but it might be the most remarkable achievement in a Hall of Fame career.