Those around the Oklahoma program, both the media members who cover the Sooners and those in the athletic department, detect that OU coach Bob Stoops has more zip in his doo dah these days.
“He seems much happier,” says his brother Mike, the team’s defensive coordinator.
“He’s got his juice back,” says junior quarterback Baker Mayfield. (It says here that any coach with Mayfield as his quarterback would be feeling juicy.)
For outsiders, there’s reason to ask if Stoops has climbed out of his rut. Oklahoma is coming off another Big 12 championship and a spot in the College Football Playoff. While OU got drilled in the semifinals by Clemson, the selection restored some pride to the Big 12, which got shut out in year one of the CFP.
The term “rut” is relative. Sure, the Sooners were a clumsy 8-5 in 2014. In four seasons from 2011 through 2014 OU failed to win a Big 12 title while going a combined 39-13. Some “rut.” Nevertheless, that four-year term was below the Sooner standard.
At last month’s Big 12 Media Days, the 55-year-old Stoops was asked about his coaching future and said he could see himself coaching for another 10 years. That was a rare statement for someone who typically would sidestep that sort of speculative topic.
“I’d like to be, but you don’t know that. Leadership can change. All of a sudden, you don’t jive with whoever your leaders are. Who knows?”
Here are several reasons why Stoops is in his happy place and his program is thriving.
- Stoops mentioned leadership. He has been fortunate to work in a rare situation. Joe Castiglione, the athletic director who hired Stoops, remains on the job. President David Boren has been in place since 1994. Few coaches have enjoyed that sort of upper-management stability.
- In early 2015, Stoops underwent hip replacement surgery. He had put it off for three years and gritted his way through the pain. “I was in more pain than I wanted to let on,” he said. “And now I don’t have it. So it makes a big difference. Sort of (like) not having a toothache constantly. You know? Maybe being pain-free has got me subconsciously in a better place. I’m not in constant pain on the field.”
- Recruiting is a constant pain for coaches, but it hurts more when you don’t land the big fishes. The Sooners’ classes in 2013 and 2014 included just 16 four-star and five-star recruits. That’s not enough to compete with the top programs. The 2017 class, on the other hand, is by far the best in the Big 12. It has 19 commitments with 13 of those ranked as four-stars. OU’s class is currently ranked fourth nationally by 247Sports.com.
- Some of that recruiting success can be attributed to new assistants. Stoops had gone 12 seasons without firing an assistant but he dismissed six in three seasons. One of those was offensive coordinator Josh Heupel, the quarterback on the Oklahoma national championship team in 2000. Stoops values loyalty, and the emotional pain of having to fire assistants he liked and respected pained him like his bad hip.
“I think he’s just happy with the direction of our players and staff,” Mike Stoops said. “He feels good about the players and the work ethic of our team. We’ve had very few distractions. I think we’re getting stronger as we go forward, and that’s always a positive.”
With a No. 3 preseason ranking, last season’s success has Oklahoma in the national title picture. While the Sooners have some of their top players returning, replacing go-to receiver Sterling Shepard will be a challenge. The offensive line is in flux, and the defense needs to replace last year’s leaders.
If Stoops was a distance runner, he would be much more comfortable hanging back with the pack than running with the leaders.
Oklahoma has had much better success when it was ranked lower to start the season. The last four times the Sooners began the season in The Associated Press top five, they twice lost three games and twice finished unranked with five losses.
This season, Oklahoma’s hopes of returning to the CFP could be done before the Sooners meet Texas – which has won two of the last three meetings – in the Red River Rivalry. Three of the Sooners’ first four games are at No. 15 Houston, at home against No. 6 Ohio State, and at No. 13 TCU on Oct. 1.
For a school like OU, a 10-2 or 9-3 record and being left out of the CFP is considered falling short of expectations. What some would call a “rut” beckons.
Bob Stoops, his mojo very much intact, has other plans.