As a kid, Bob Stoops used to live for Friday nights and Cardinal Mooney games. His dad, Ron Stoops Sr., was the defensive coordinator at the Catholic school on the South Side of Youngstown, Ohio, and it was there, watching the Cardinals, watching his dad's handiwork, that that old coaching axiom sunk in.
Defense wins championships.
There's never been a flashy thing about Bob Stoops. He's what you'd expect out of a guy from Youngstown, who went to Iowa and settled at Oklahoma, rebuffing all those NFL coaching offers.
He keeps it simple. He says little and promises less – other than effort. He believes in fundamentals and open-field tackles and hard work and toughness. There is a right way and wrong way to do everything, and if you have to ask which way Stoops favors then you don't know the man.
It is how he, as an assistant, won the reputation as college football's best defensive mind, how he secured the storied Sooners post despite no head coaching experience and how he rewarded that faith with a national championship in 2000, just his second year on the job.
OU beat Florida State that year in the Orange Bowl by the blue-collar score of 13-2.
A coach's son learns early you'll take a win by any score. A defensive coordinator's son from hardscrabble Ohio learns that doing it by not allowing a point on defense is just that much sweeter.
"Big Game Bob," they started calling Stoops. He was 40, on top of his profession and the only question was whether he'd stay at Oklahoma and win a bunch of BCS titles or head to the NFL to be Bill Belichick.
Eight years later he's still in Norman and still winning games, 11 in each of the past two seasons. His Sooners are 9-1 and ranked No. 5 nationally heading into Saturday's mega matchup against 10-0, second-ranked Texas Tech.
In a lot of ways nothing's changed. In a lot of ways everything has.
"Big Game Bob" is used as a mocking term these days. Stoops' Sooners have lost too many of them in recent years to scare anyone.
It started when Southern California humiliated them in the title game after the 2004 season, 55-19. It continued in 2005 when the Sooners stumbled to 8-4 and began a trend of frustrating losses to archrival Texas, a team they once owned. Boise State got them 43-42 in the Fiesta Bowl after the 2006 season and then West Virginia did it again, 48-28 in 2008.
This season, the Sooners entered the Texas game top-ranked and left with a 45-35 loss despite leading throughout.
As surprising as all the losses have been, as confusing as OU's ability to look dominant in regular games and be dominated in major ones, it's what's causing the problem that is most stunning.
Oklahoma's Defense. Bob Stoops' Defense.
The very thing that made him great has fallen apart against the spread offense.
From 2000-04 OU was never ranked worse than seventh in scoring defense. This season they are 57th.
During that five-year stretch of dominance, there were eight games the Sooners' defense didn't allow a point and seven more when it yielded just a field goal. In its past five games this season, OU opponents have scored at least 28 points each game.
And now here looms the vaunted Tech offense – Graham Harrell, Michael Crabtree, et al.
In an unexpected juxtaposition, Stoops is relying on offense. His star quarterback, Sam Bradford, throws it all over the field to the tune of a national-best 51.4 points a game. In its last three, OU has averaged 62 points a game, making that old Barry Switzer boast about "hanging half a hundred" on an opponent sound quaint.
While times and philosophies change and big scores are nothing new in the spread 'em out and ring 'em up Big 12, has a coach ever seen such a sudden switch? Has the single thing that always delivered, the thing that was his core essence, turned into such a weakness?
Stoops sees it differently. He isn't much for going negative though. In a game where the Vegas over/under is a whopping 76 (perhaps a record for a top-five matchup), he praises both defenses.
"You can go through all the statistics or whatever you want and decide for yourself, " he said. "But, in the end, I think they're both pretty good."
Don't kid yourself. Stoops would take "pretty good" Saturday night. It's not about shutouts anymore at Oklahoma, it's just about getting a few stops, getting Bradford a few more chances than Harrell.
It's about avoiding a game like Texas, where Bradford threw five touchdowns and OU lost by 10 anyway. It's possible the Stoops of 2001 wouldn't have believed such a scenario possible.
It won't be easy. Injuries have depleted the pass rush and the secondary, which already has been getting torched for weeks.
Sooner fans aren't necessarily angry, but they are restless. It'd be a shame to waste all that talent on offense. It'd be a disappointment to let a season with so much potential slip away, to Tech of all people. Stoops is still popular, but the memories of 2000 fade a little each year.
These were the games Oklahoma used to win. These were the games that cemented Stoops' legend. Maybe they are still.
Only this time it'll be with the son a defensive coordinator, the one-time defensive savant, looking to survive a shootout, looking to win a championship with offense of all things.
- Bob Stoops
- defensive coordinator