Bob Stoops started with a joke.
“Boy, it’s been…this looks familiar. It’s been a while. How come I’m the only one that hasn’t aged? But, anyway, really is good to see you again,” Stoops said.
Seeing Stoops positioned with a microphone in front of him and the interlocking OU logo behind him, it did feel a little bit like deja vu. And it was Stoops’ calming influence and voice that stole the show.
Of course, everyone in attendance understood that Stoops was back at Oklahoma as the interim head coach for OU’s bowl game for all the wrong reasons. Suddenly, here was Stoops, left to help clean up the mess that his hand-picked successor Lincoln Riley left behind after he bolted Sunday for USC.
Stoops’ message was clear. The program is about more than just one man. It’s always been bigger than that.
“There’s not one guy, one person in the history of this program that’s bigger than the program. Coach Switzer, myself or Lincoln Riley. And what I told the players is they are the program. Players throughout these decades, they are OU football. Not us as a coach. I’m getting in the Hall of Fame because of them. The players, the coaches around them, all of that, but those players are the ones who are OU football and they’ll stick together. They stick together. They’ll continue to be OU football, championship football, the way we’re used to playing it,” Stoops said.
He was quick to point out that it’s also in much better shape than when OU athletic director Joe Castiglione convinced Stoops to come and resurrect the program all those many years ago.
“Listen, talking to our fan base out there, I’m talking to our recruits out there, I’m talking to our players’ parents out there. I’ve had multiple meetings already with players. Going out recruiting tonight. The message to all of you is listen, when I arrived here in December 1, 1998, there was something to be concerned about. A lot to be concerned about. Four straight years without a winning record. No bowl games. Two years later, we were 13-0 and won the national championship. This place is in a hell of a lot better shape than it was in December 1, 1998,” Stoops said.
Stoops cited Oklahoma’s perennial status as a contender, its facilities and its university leadership as reasons why OU will find the right next head coach.
“This job is going to attract the very best in the coaching world and they’re already lined up and calling. Calling Joe, hitting people the way they do. This is a real job. This is a great job. A great university with great leadership. All of you fans, and again player parents, everyone. Just understand, give it a little bit of time and you’re going to see this is just a little bump in the road,” Stoops said.
As Stoops mentioned, he and the rest of the remnants of Oklahoma’s staff would be out recruiting with Early Signing Day approaching swiftly on Dec. 15. What pitch would he have to sell to recruits?
“Well, it’s an easy sell. You sell the university. You sell the leadership here that’s in front of you. You sell the history of success. Not just in the last 23 years. Decades of success. It’s going to continue to happen. We’ve got great leadership, great facilities, a great university to recruit to academically. All of it together, it’s still here. This job, with all of the pluses of it, is going to attract a top, great coach. And Joe will find the right, great coach. They’re out there and this is an attractive job. Give it time and I think everybody will be pleased with it,” Stoops said.
In the meantime, Stoops is excited to coach the few players that committed to him while he was still the head coach for the first time.
“Some of them have committed to me, so, yeah. That’s what a few of them have said. The guy that I’ve committed to, I get to go win a game with, so hopefully it will work out that way. I’m looking forward to it. Very much so,” Stoops said.
One of the reasons he felt the calling to come back in the interim was because several of the assistant coaches remaining were guys that he recruited and that played for him like Calvin Thibodeaux and DeMarco Murray.
“Well, absolutely, because of my love for the program first, but I also do personally care about all of those guys. I care about the players. I want to hopefully for them to be able to finish out here in the very best way they can. It’s already a great year at 10-2. Hopefully it’ll be 11-2. And then, yeah, personally those assistant coaches I’ve stayed close with. Recruited all of them. They all played for me. They all care so much about this university. It was nothing to think about for me. I mean, I knew…I said, if I can help with what’s best for the program, then I’m in and I’ll do the best I can. Those guys, they’re all loyal and care about the university in a big way,” Stoops said.
Stoops didn’t want to engage in the conversations he and Riley have had over the past few days.
“I’m not much on talking about my feelings or thoughts publicly about any of that. You know, disappointed? Sure. The rest of it, that will be between Lincoln and I personally as it should be. I’m not much on making that kind of stuff public. My initial reaction is what’s best for the program immediately recruiting and the players. Should say first and foremost the players on our team right now. Reassuring them that they are OU football. Sticking together, they can very well be a championship program next year and that we will attract the very best in the coaching profession and the same thing is projected out recruiting,” Stoops said.
Though he didn’t say it publicly, it would be understandable if Stoops felt at least some form of betrayal by Riley’s departure. After all, it was Stoops that brought him to Oklahoma and set him up for the success he’s enjoyed thus far.
Still, the focus was on the players that are still here at Oklahoma.
“Well, they were of course blindsided and so they were in shock yesterday. Definitely. I was in the meeting. They were very respectful of coach Riley as he addressed them. Some even clapped for him as he left, but in shock. But then after Joe addressed them and I had an opportunity to address them, again to understand they are OU football. This one guy didn’t all of a sudden create OU football,” Stoops said.
Stoops said one of the first things he mentioned while addressing the team was his decision to step down five years ago.
“I referenced when I stepped away five years ago that a lot of them weren’t in there, some were, but that, when I had stepped away, it was like we were at a funeral. I was like guys this is my choice. It’s okay. You guys are what win. I haven’t made a play in how long. It’s okay. And they all started laughing and gave me a standing ovation. And I said the same thing, it’s Lincoln’s choice to leave. It’s okay. You’re the ones that are going to make all the plays or not make the plays. You guys win and lose. You’re OU football. He isn’t. I’m not. Any other coach that comes here isn’t. OU football’s been here a long time and it isn’t going anywhere else. It’s going to be here and it’s going to be at the top of college football and it’s going to continue that way,” Stoops said.
Stoops said he would be happy to offer any kind of voice Castiglione might need in his coaching search but he also made it clear that it’s Castiglione’s decision alone.
“Joe’s the picker. I’m not. Joe’s the boss. Joe’s the picker. He and Mr. Joe Harroz. The two of them and I’m sure our board. I’m not getting into friends. That doesn’t matter. I’ve got a lot of friends. A lot of friends I’d never hire, so that doesn’t have anything to do with it. It’s who fits here the best, who brings the most and fits the best and as Joe said wants it the most. This is a great job and he’s going to have his share of candidates. If he wants to run some by me, you know, obviously I’ve got feelings or, you know, I know maybe some things that other people don’t know about guys that you might stay away from this guy or this guy I think you can’t go wrong with. So, I might have some basic comments like that that I can contribute with, but Joe will be the one like always that’s deciding,” Stoops said.
Stoops didn’t have to do this. He chose to step in as the interim head coach because of his love for the University of Oklahoma. His legend was already cemented in Norman, but Stoops made sure there’s at least one final chapter to add to it.
“And I look forward to, you know, doing everything that I can here in these next few weeks to help it continue to succeed the way that it has,” Stoops said.