Bob Stoops is leaving coaching the same way he conducted his business for 18 seasons on the Oklahoma sideline. He made the decision his gut told him to make, when he wanted to make it, and everyone else would have to live with it. And just as he won throughout his career with the Sooners, he won at retiring, too.
The winningest coach (190-48, .798) in the history of one of the most storied programs in college football is leaving on his terms, with his health intact, at 56 years of age. The list of college football icons who leave of their own accord in good health at a relatively young age is so short we need the chain gang to measure it.
Tom Osborne, Ara Parseghian, Bud Wilkinson… and Stoops. But then, Stoops should be used to being in rare company.
Stoops won’t be listed among the greatest coaches in the history of the game. You have to win more than one national championship to get in that conversation. Who among us, after the electrifying start to his Oklahoma career, thought he would win only one ring?
But Stoops is on the next level, and there aren’t many standing with him.
The son of a high school coach from Youngstown, Ohio, never shed the lunch-pail sensibility of that steel town. He remained grounded even as his salary soared above $5 million per year. He just wasn’t all that impressed with himself. He wasn’t all that impressed with anyone or anything that carried itself as better than everyone else.
When the SEC won seven consecutive national championships and its people decided that they had been sent down from on high to lead the sport, Stoops relished taking shots at the league’s “propaganda.” He loved it even more when the No. 10 Sooners, a 17-point underdog, upset No. 3 Alabama, 45-31, in the 2014 Allstate Sugar Bowl.
He lived by old-school rules, the ones he grew up by. When Oklahoma offered him the job after the 1998 season, he would not accept it until he fulfilled his promise to meet with athletic director Bob Bowlsby of Iowa, his alma mater. Stoops flew to Atlanta, met with Bowlsby, and then accepted the Oklahoma job (Bowlsby hired Kirk Ferentz, who remains at Iowa).
Stoops might have grown up in Woody Hayes country, but he liked the speed and excitement of Barry Switzer’s Wishbone offense at Oklahoma. Stoops recalled being the defensive coordinator at Florida in 1997, looking up at the TV and seeing Northwestern manhandle Oklahoma, 24-0, and saying, to head coach Steve Spurrier and some other coaches, “That shouldn’t be happening at Oklahoma.”
“I said the exact words, ‘That’s a sleeping giant right there,'” Stoops told me in 2003.
Stoops took over a program that went 3-8 in 1998 and won seven games his first season (the fewest wins in his 18 seasons). The Sooners won the BCS championship in the 2000 season, finishing with a dominant 13-2 victory over defending national champion Florida State. Stoops took Oklahoma to the BCS championship game in 2003, 2004 and 2008, and to the 2015 College Football Playoff. But the Sooners never made it to the top again.
Oklahoma fans had to be content with 10 Big 12 championships, 14 seasons of double-digit victories, and an 11-7 record in the Red River Rivalry against Texas. Only the morons complained.
As much as loved to beat the Longhorns, or Oklahoma State (14-4), Stoops didn’t like to circle games on the schedule.
“How do you win them all if you’re just worried about this one?” Stoops explained to me in 2011. “Really! Because in my mind, truly, you preach that you have to be invested in every game…. You get to thinking it doesn’t send the totally right message. I truly believe you’re never too high or low. That way you have a chance to play at about the same level. We don’t count on being too jacked up. I just truly believe that only goes so far.”
He infused his teams with a cold-eyed pragmatism. Here’s the job. Here’s what it takes to do it. He never made excuses. When injuries wrecked the 2009 Sooners, and they lost three games by a total of five points, and they had to rally to finish 8-5, Stoops threw the untested freshmen onto the field and coached them up.
“My point to them is, it doesn’t much matter,” Stoops said with a laugh. “It happened. You have to make it not happen.”
The Sooners won 32 games in the next three seasons.
His pragmatism extended throughout his decision-making. Stoops came in to the Big 12 as the defensive genius who helped Steve Spurrier win a ring at Florida in 1996. But he also made the rest of the league adapt to the spread offense, and defense in the Big 12 has never recovered.
He made tough staff decisions, running off offensive coordinator Josh Heupel after the 2014 season. Heupel had been the quarterback on Stoops’ national championship team.
Stoops courted controversy in 2014 by signing wide receiver Dorial Green-Beckham after he had been kicked off the Missouri team. Later that year, Stoops suspended tailback Joe Mixon for a year after Mixon slugged a woman and broke her jaw in a Norman restaurant. Last December, Stoops said that if someone did now what Mixon had done, nothing short of a dismissal would suffice. That was about as much as he ever backed off.
Until Wednesday. Stoops made the decision he wanted to make. He didn’t want to be his generation’s Joe Paterno. Stoops’s father, Ron Sr., died on a high school sideline of a heart attack at age 54. Stoops wants to enjoy his life. He wants to watch his twins, Drake and Isaac, play their senior year of high school football and their college ball, too. He likes to travel and to tee it up. He and his wife Carol just bought a 5,500-square-foot row home on the Gold Coast in downtown Chicago, where they have had a vacation home for more than a decade.
He called Spurrier, his mentor, and gave him the news.
“He didn’t want to go from the sideline to the graveyard,” Spurrier told my colleague Gene Wojciechowski. Bobby’s pretty much able to go out on top. He’s had a wonderful career. He knew when enough was enough.”
His enough was plenty. Anyone concerned that Riley, his successor, is 33 and has no head coaching experience, should note that Wilkinson, Switzer and Stoops all started at Oklahoma in their 30s with no head coaching experience. As omens go, Oklahoma is OK.