Bob Stoops showed up for Big 12 media days looking as always, tanned, refreshed and dapper, outfitted in a dark suit and blue tie.
It was all a mask.
The Oklahoma football coach is burdened by smoldering anger from his team’s fan base, skepticism among the media about the direction of his program after an uncharacteristic 8-5 season and the lingering notion that maybe his days in Norman could be numbered, as improbable as that sounds.
Stoops can mention the Sooners’ resounding upset of Alabama in the Sugar Bowl two seasons ago all he wants. And OU can point to the $165 million stadium renovation with new club suites, locker room and a bowled-in south end that will extend capacity to 86,000, though a shovel hasn’t met ground yet.
Stoops mentions a survey that showed Oklahoma ranked in the top five for most NFL draft picks and told me,”And we’re not that good of coaches, remember? So we must be getting pretty good players.”
He’s working in a what-have-you-done-last week business. A coach doesn’t replace nearly half his staff, including the offensive coordinator, unless he’s putting out fires. The Boomers have tired of brother Mike’s sideline rants, which is why he’ll probably be coaching from press boxes this fall.
Stoops’ situation is not unlike those that surface at all the prominent stops in college football. Bobby Bowden stayed too long. Joe Paterno stayed way too long. So did Barry Alvarez. Oh, wait, he’s not really the head coach anymore. Frank Beamer’s in danger of sticking around too long, too.
Head coaches have overstayed their welcome when the fans want to know why their head coach isn’t the second coming of Nick Saban, the media grow weary of the same stories and excuses, and an overriding sense of complacency sets in among the players and assistant coaches.
In some ways, it’s not absurd to suggest that Bob Stoops is the new Mack Brown.
A victim of his own success. A long drought since the last national championship. Recurring issues at quarterback. Off-the-field issues. Leaky defenses.
Stoops won too big too early. He captured a national championship in his second season and has fallen short since. Brown didn’t win it all until Year Eight and, like Stoops, came close in 2008 and 2009 before a four-year tailspin.
Stoops is quick to remind that his program has produced 10 or more wins in 12 of the past 14 seasons. “That doesn’t dissipate in a year,” he said.
And now run-ins with the law, especially those involving the crime du jour of domestic violence, serve to only heighten the scrutiny of his program. It suggests a program trying to win at all costs.
Much as Brown had to weather a number of storms away from the stadium, ranging from the DUIs of Sergio Kindle, Henry Melton and Lamarr Houston to the positive drug tests of four players two nights before the Cotton Bowl to Cedric Benson’s and others’ run-ins with the law, Stoops has had his own share of problems.
His discipline has grown lax. The same coach who once booted starting quarterback Rhett Bomar off the team for working a scam job at a car dealership has gone soft. It’s a pretty clear signal when he tries to bring aboard troubled Missouri wide receiver exile Dorial Green-Beckham and refuses to dismiss running back Joe Mixon, who accepted a plea deal after police said he punched a woman, or linebacker Frank Shannon, who was suspended by the university last season after being accused of sexual assault.
The first question to Stoops in Dallas was prefaced with a review of all the blunders the Oklahoma football coach had suffered through of late.
The second was even more direct. Why hadn’t he distanced himself from Mixon, who some now consider the Ray Rice of college football? Stoops said Mixon has been punished internally and that such violence will not be tolerated, but clearly it is.
Because an ugly video of Mixon’s punch hasn’t gone public, Stoops has been able to elude much heat. But if one surfaces and the Sooners don’t improve on last year’s record, it’s conceivable that the indignation could grow to such proportions that Stoops might not survive.
Asked if the heat angers or motivates him, Stoops told me,”I’m already motivated. There’s no sense in getting angry. That’s the nature of the world. It’s part of the job.”
He’s still the best coach in the Big 12, Bill Snyder’s giant legacy notwithstanding. A résumé with eight league titles in 16 years can’t be overlooked. He still has the confidence of his boss, and athletic director Joe Castiglione knows there’s little chance he can find someone better than Stoops, although another relatively bad season would invite more naysayers and generate talk of finding the next Bob Stoops. And maybe OU could pluck another promising, young defensive coordinator from a major program, such as Alabama’s Kirby Smart, and rebuild quickly.
Maybe if the Sooners stumble, they don’t get consistent quarterback play and their defense gets big-played to death again, Castiglione would pull the trigger, but that’s highly doubtful. OU would probably have to slip to 5-7 – like another coach we know did – and have more off-field transgressions before Castiglione would pink-slip his franchise coach. It might take forcing Stoops’ hand and insisting he let go his brother Mike, who runs the defense, knowing Bob would probably step down himself first.
As he said last week,”I’m the one who set the (high) standard. And I don’t like it, either.”
It doesn’t matter if he likes it. He just has to fix it.
Contact Kirk Bohls at 512-445-3772.