Late last week I was leaving work when one of the more surprising stories broke in recent college football memory. Seemingly out of nowhere Oklahoma head coach Bob Stoops was retiring. Like many, I was stunned.
Stoops was a pretty interesting cat on the scene, neither ultra hateable or likeable. He was perfectly vanilla. For 99% of his tenure in Norman he operated completely out of the orbit of Notre Dame but for that 1% he was a person of keen interest. No matter your opinion on him the fact is one of the game’s greats is hanging ’em up.
18 Years of Greatness
Prior to his retirement Stoops was tied for the longest tenured coach in the country. Having him step away so suddenly is surprising in part because he still looks and feels pretty young. This man has aged quite well. Looking back at his pictures from being the defensive coordinator at Florida and he looks amazingly the same today.
On the other hand, 18 years is a really long time. Stoops faced Bob Davie during the former’s first season and has been at Norman for basically Notre Dame’s entire ‘wandering in the wilderness’ era. Davie, O’Leary, Willingham, Weis, Kelly–he was in a crimson polo and white visor for it all.
Stoops’ exploits are well known and impressive. On a program vs. program basis his Sooners had the best Power 5 winning percentage in the country across his entire tenure–only Boise State was better overall among all teams.
He won at least 10+ games in 14 of 18 seasons, and at least 11 wins in 12 seasons. In 10 of those seasons there were 2 or fewer losses. He never had even mediocre-to-average back-to-back seasons. Stoops won the Big 12 on 10 different occasions and retires as the greatest coach in the conference’s 20+ year history.
His home record at Gaylord-Family Oklahoma Memorial Stadium will be one of Stoops’ lasting legacies. He won 101 games in Norman to just 9 losses. In comparison, Notre Dame has 38 home losses since 1999.
Big Game Bob
Like any coach who lasted almost two decades at a school Stoops had his warts. He earned the BGB moniker very early in his career over a 36-4 span from 2000-02 that included 3 straight bowl wins and a National Title. He’d then lose 5 out of his next 6 bowl games (all 5 defeats in major bowl games), including the blowout in the ’04 Orange Bowl to USC and the ’06 Fiesta Bowl that effectively put Boise State on the map, as his nickname turn into more of a term of mockery than endearment.
There’d be some definite highlights–like the 2014 Sugar Bowl smack down of Alabama–over the last two-thirds of Stoops’ career but he did leave Sooner fans perpetually wanting more and was talked about being axed probably a little too much than deserved.
For his legacy, his problem will always be that he peaked a little too early. Going into the 2005 season, Urban Meyer was just getting started at Florida and Nick Saban likewise in the NFL. Both of these behemoths have arguably moved into the top 5 of college coaches in history and done so largely based off what they’ve achieved since 2005. Stoops had Oklahoma mostly playing at a very, very high level over that time period but never in the stratosphere as Saban or Meyer.
In the big picture there’s nothing wrong with being the 3rd (or maybe 4th) best coach of his era but I do wonder how much Stoops’ name will get washed out over the decades due to the presence of these other legends.
Stoops was way too powerful and in his prime to leave Oklahoma when Davie and Willingham were replaced in South Bend. When it came time for Charlie Weis to be fired though Stoops was coming off an 8-4 season and rumors of a change of scenery circulated through the media.
It was a wild time as Twitter and the power and influence of social media were just beginning to grow and it’s a great reminder on how short and condensed coaching searches can be while feeling like they’re taking months. On Monday, November 30, 2009 the Irish announced the firing of Weis and that same day some very vague reports made the rounds of Stoops going to Notre Dame.
That same day, Stoops publicly denied the rumors and did so again on the 1st. On Wednesday, December 2nd a poster on the Irish Sports Daily message board created a frenzy with intimate details of Stoops contract and upcoming press conference at Notre Dame. Stoops would release his third and last denial on December 5th but it was that 3-day period into the weekend that saw the height of the rumors before slowly dying out.
Five days later Notre Dame announced Brian Kelly as the new Irish head coach.
Were things ever serious between Notre Dame and Bob Stoops? With hindsight, we are able to see that there were never any credible sources claiming any credible details of negotiations. All of the media still covering the team today were suspiciously absent during these rumor-filled handful of days. Sometimes that’s because programs and athletic personnel work well in secrecy. At most, Swarbrick may have made Stoops his first choice but the Sooners coach was pretty clear he wasn’t coming from the get-go.
Seven years later the evidence via Bob Stoops actions while remaining at Oklahoma suggest he never seriously considered coming to Notre Dame.
It’s Stoops, Again?
The weird thing about the Stoops-to-Notre Dame rumors is that the Irish have been arguably a distant 4th in line as a potential suitor for the coach over the years behind Florida, Ohio State, and the Cleveland Browns. Since he’s announced his retirement there’s again been a small round of rumors that Stoops will eventually come back to the game, and perhaps land in South Bend.
Why Stoops Works/Fits at Notre Dame
It’s obscenely rare for a coach to make a lateral move from one blue-blood program to another and Notre Dame has certainly never hired a new coach having the type of success at a program like Oklahoma. That just makes Stoops that more desirable!
Additionally, he won a title in his 2nd year in Norman (a year ahead of schedule for Notre Dame tradition!) and for the most part punched well above his weight on the field relative to his recruiting. When you look at developing 3-stars Stoops has always been up there with the best of them.
He’s also Catholic, and although he’s professed no childhood favorite team, his brother Mark has stated he grew up a Notre Dame fan. Bob and his family have been noted for buying property on Chicago’s Gold Coast and there’s only one major college football program in between there and his hometown of Youngstown, Ohio: the University of Notre Dame. Additionally, Stoops mentioned very early in his career at OU that he’d be silly not to at least listen to an offer from Notre Dame and that’s fueled almost two decades of fan interest.
Stoops’ mystique and aura have always felt like a good fit with the Irish. He’s the good looking Midwestern boy in khakis and is a decent guy, so it seems. If he were to come to Notre Dame it’d likely be the hiring to end all hires in South Bend. It’d be a complete referendum on the Irish: No one could complain the school didn’t care about winning, if Stoops succeeded that’s great, if he struggled it would ultimately change the narrative about Notre Dame football, perhaps forever.
For this reason, I think Stoops coming to Notre Dame would be quite awesome.
Why Stoops Doesn’t Work/Fit Well at Notre Dame
There really isn’t anything major connecting Stoops to the Irish. His playing and coaching career have watched him work far away from the influence of Notre Dame, while Youngstown is closer to Penn State, Pitt, Ohio State, and Michigan than it is to South Bend.
I normally don’t care too much about recruiting prowess but on a recent episode of The Audible podcast Bruce Feldman made a good point about Stoops in that he’s extremely laid back and almost too nice to assistants, in stark contrast to someone like Urban Meyer who has an innate drive to grind all aspects of his program. Stoops struggled to recruit top 10 classes at Oklahoma (only did it once over the last 7 cycles) and it’s difficult to envision how he’d improve upon that at Notre Dame.
In general, the long history of success at Notre Dame suggests the head coach has to be enormously committed and controlling of a massive operation (basically, like Urban Meyer) and it’s not easy to see how an aging late 50’s Bob Stoops coming off a one or two-year retirement would react to the fish bowl in South Bend.
I had Stoops No. 2 on The List™ of the best (somewhat) realistic head coaches for Notre Dame but it came with several concerns: He’s relied heavily on JUCO transfers, led a program with extremely lax academic standards for athletes, and has recruited his fair share of very unsavory characters–the recent Joe Mixon fiasco being the most public of those players.
Norman, Oklahoma is in its only little world and one of the nation’s most highly functioning football factories, while coming to South Bend would be a harsh 180-degree turn in nearly every way.
The Future at Oklahoma
The Red River Rivalry has been renewed with an injection of youth. At first glance, this feels like it could be a huge turn of events in favor of Texas. The Horns new coach is older, more experienced as a leader of a program, and of course has the historical recruiting power behind him in Austin. As of right now, the Horns stand 3rd in the Composite rankings while Oklahoma is in a more familiar 19th ranking.
Bob Stoops was 11-7 against Texas which was admirable. Four of those losses came against Texas teams that were a combined 45-5, no shame in that. It’s the other 3 losses to Texas teams that were a combined 22-17, including upset losses in 2013 & 2015, that will always sting.
Perhaps most importantly, Texas had statistically its best decade ever in winning percentage during the Stoops era and yet the Sooners would finish with three times as many conference championships.
The sudden loss of Stoops also could throw the Big 12 wide open. A school like Baylor could regret all of their troubles now given their recent run of success. Other schools like Oklahoma State, West Virginia, or TCU may find an opportunity to win the league over the next couple of years.
This assumes Lincoln Riley struggles with the Sooners, at least early on. That may depend on your definition of struggle but following up someone who won 80% of their games and took the conference more than every other season is not easy.