The college football offseason doldrums are officially here. We’d like to spice things up. Over the next several weeks, DieHards will ponder some of the greatest hypotheticals in Big 12 history. You’re always welcome to take this question literally, but what fun is that, really?
During the 22-season history of the Big 12, there has never been as important an on-the-field figure as Bob Stoops.
Before retiring as the Sooners coach last June, Stoops turned the conference into his personal playpen.
Stoops claimed 10 Big 12 titles, a national championship and took Oklahoma to three other national title games. His dominance was as significant as any other figure in Big 12 history.
But people forget how close Stoops came to not taking the Sooners job.
In 1998 after John Blake was fired as Oklahoma’s coach, Stoops had two once-in-a-lifetime job opportunities materialize at the same time.
Stoops was the nation’s hottest assistant coach after three seasons at Florida, where he served as assistant head coach and defensive coordinator for the Gators. He helped lead Florida to the national championship in his first season there.
That notoriety helped make him the leading candidate when Oklahoma and Iowa opened only a day apart after the 1998 season. Many thought the Hawkeyes had the best chance of luring Stoops because of his playing career there.
His coach as a player, Hayden Fry, retired after 20 seasons coaching the Hawkeyes. Because of that association, some thought Stoops would prefer his old school over Oklahoma.
Sources indicate that Stoops was first offered the Oklahoma job. He then interviewed with Iowa and was told the Hawkeyes search committee wanted to interview other candidates, leading him to take the sure job with the Sooners.
Bob Stoops inherits a Sooners mess
Memories fade of how far the Sooners had dropped in the earliest history of the Big 12.
Back then, the Oklahoma program was in shambles after three years with Blake in charge with a 12-22 record.
Blake had the reputation as a great recruiter who struggled with other assets of building a program. Those lowlights only continued the Sooners skid that started when Gary Gibbs took over from Barry Switzer in 1989. The downward spiral continued after the one-season tenure of Howard Schnellenberger.
The Sooners were never ranked during Blake’s tenure and hadn’t been ranked since the middle of the 1995 season when Stoops took over. They hadn’t secured a top-10 finish nationally since losing the Orange Bowl to Miami to finish the 1987 season.
Joe Castiglione had a big job to turn around the Oklahoma program. He aimed high for Stoops.
But what if he had missed?
How it affected Oklahoma
Let’s play a game where Iowa athletic director Bob Bowlsby had been aggressive in his pitch to Stoops. Many speculate that Iowa could have hired him if the Hawkeyes’ search committee offered him the job after his original interview.
Among those mentioned with Stoops at the time included Dennis Franchione, Barry Alvarez, Bob Toledo, Gary Barnett, Tommy Bowden and Fisher DeBerry. All of them were proven coaches. But Stoops brought sizzle to the program as the nation’s top assistant that was undeniable and desperately needed.
Oklahoma loyalists could have bowed to the Sooners’ past by hiring Jim Donnan. He was hot at the time after a strong start at Georgia after three seasons. And he was Switzer’s offensive coordinator.
Or the Sooners could have looked to Switzer himself. His gig with the Dallas Cowboys was up and he was making noises about wanting to return to college coaching.
But there’s little no doubt that whoever the Sooners would have picked instead of Stoops wouldn’t have been as good as “Big Game Bob.”
Whoever took the job was facing a huge challenge. The program’s 10-year decline had been steep. The program hadn’t won a conference championship since 1987.
The Big 12 was situated to sizzle when Bob Stoops took over
It would have been a long turnaround. Texas was just starting to take off with Mack Brown as its new coach. Texas A&M was at its Big 12 apex, claiming the conference championship in 1998. Kansas State challenged for the national title that season before losing in double-overtime to the Aggies in the Big 12 Championship Game. And Nebraska hadn’t started falling after Frank Solich took over from Tom Osborne in 1997.
The Sooners had gone 61-50-3 during the combined tenures of his three predecessors. Whoever took the job would be the Sooners’ fourth head coach in a six-season period. Earlier in the 1998 season when Castiglione returned to Missouri, where he previously worked five seasons as athletic director, fans mocked him with a sign that read “Joe, you left us for this?”
And there was nothing that really indicated a quick turnaround anytime soon.
If Stoops didn’t start his magic, it’s hard to believe the transformation of Owen Field into Gaylord Family Stadium would have taken place.
A return to the national elite then looked like a long climb.
How it affected the Big 12
In a weird way, it might have been good for the Big 12 in at least one sense if Stoops didn’t hook up with the Sooners.
The forces of big money eventually might have broken the league apart. But if Texas A&M, Nebraska, Colorado and Missouri had been regular contenders for a Big 12 championship, it would have made for some satisfaction.
The Big 12 would have been more balanced. And those forces might have kept the league together a little longer, although Texas was always situated to be the league’s “500-pound gorilla.”
And it ultimately diminishes the league’s national prestige without Stoops regularly challenging for the national championship.
Oklahoma claimed the national championship in his second season in 2000, largely playing with Blake’s former recruits and transfer quarterback Josh Heupel. He later made title game appearances in the 2002, 2003 and 2008 seasons. During its history, Big 12 teams have made only two other national title trips — Texas’ 2005 national championship and the Longhorns’ loss in 2009 to Alabama in the Colt McCoy injury game.
Ultimately, Stoops’ presence greatly enhanced the Big 12. His hiring of Mike Leach into the league was instrumental in developing the league’s reputation as a wide-open offensive playground. Six of the conference’s 10 programs run a version of the Air Raid. It provides the conference a panache that sets it apart.
Bob Stoops became one of the most storied figures in college football history by returning Oklahoma to glory. He built on the rich football legacy of Oklahoma that was started by Hall of Fame members such as Bennie Owen, Bud Wilkinson and Switzer.
Stoops passed all of them in career victories at the school.
He’ll be honored for his work this weekend when a statue will be unveiled on campus.
There never was any doubt that Stoops merited this honor. The statue arrived in Norman before he even retired.
— Nate Feken (@TheGreat_Nate) November 2, 2015
His career will be savored Saturday at the Sooners’ spring game. His many victories and his memorable rejuvenation of the program back among the nation’s elite will be honored.
And with his protégé Lincoln Riley in place, it’s hard to see Oklahoma’s domination of the Big 12 ending anytime soon.
But it’s interesting to ponder what might have happened if Stoops had gone somewhere else to start his coaching career.