There's a First Time for Everything

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John Rohde
By John Rohde
Special to SoonerSports.com
AUGUST 31, 2017

Bob Stoops said he felt prepared going into his first game as Oklahoma's head football coach in September 1999, but he still had some anxiety.

“I was always anxious before games,” Stoops admitted. “Not so much nervous, but it's hard to pace yourself. You just want to get out there and play the game. You want it to begin. It was kind of always that way. You get up in the morning and it's hard to pace yourself so you're not worn out by the time the game gets here.”

Meanwhile, Barry Switzer was his usual confident self before his debut as the Sooners' head coach 44 years ago, even though media had picked his team to finish fourth in the 1973 Big Eight Conference preseason poll behind Nebraska, Colorado and Missouri. Switzer didn't see it that way and made his point with a simple roll call inside the OU locker room after practice.

“I told our guys, ‘Whoever is going to be Big Eight champion is going to be the second-best team in this league because we're going to kick their (tails),'” Switzer recalled. “Hey, I want to know something. Lee Roy Selmon, are you in here? Dewey Selmon, you here? Rod Shoate? Jimbo Elrod? Randy Hughes? I started calling out all these names and they all said, ‘Yeah, coach. I'm here.' I said, ‘OK, just checking. I read where we weren't going to be worth a damn. Heck, (previous coach) Chuck Fairbanks is the only one who's left.' They all died laughing.”

Lincoln Riley's first game as the Sooners' head coach arrives Saturday when OU hosts UTEP at 2:30 at Gaylord Family – Oklahoma Memorial Stadium.

"Lincoln knows what to do. He's ready for it."
– Bob Stoops

The most impactful ingredient for any new head coach is what he inherits. In this regard, Stoops' transition at OU was vastly different than what transpired with Switzer and Riley.

Already on staff, Switzer and Riley simply had to change offices when they became the head man. Switzer was the Sooners' assistant head coach/offensive coordinator under Fairbanks, who left for the NFL's New England Patriots. Riley was offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach before moving into Stoops' freshly completed office that was part of the $160-million renovation project in the south end zone.

“You realize the magnitude of the job the second they say. ‘It's you,'” Stoops said of the day he was tabbed by OU athletic director Joe Castiglione. “I realized I had to get to work immediately.”

Wife Carol Stoops returned to Florida after her husband's introductory news conference while Stoops remained in Norman with no change of clothes. He quickly gathered a new wardrobe at Harold's. When it came to recruiting, Stoops already knew of Tuttle High School standout quarterback Jason White, who became his first visit. Stoops didn't return home to Gainesville until Christmas break when the recruiting period went dead.

“Those first few weeks were like a blur to me between recruiting, hiring a staff, yada yada, yada,” Stoops explained.

A far more pressing issue for Stoops was inheriting a downtrodden team coming off the worst four-year span in school history. One of college football's premier programs had gone a combined 17-27-1 (.389) with no bowl appearances the previous four seasons under Howard Schnellenberger (5-5-1) and John Blake (12-22-0). A massive overhaul was required.

“The biggest adjustment for me was the amount of decisions,” Stoops said. “It was a hundred decisions a day. Sometimes it felt like a decision a minute. ‘How are we going to do this; how are we going to do that; how are we getting to the game; where are we going to stay; what's the schedule for game day; where are we practicing; how do we take the field; how do we stretch; when do we hold meetings?' What I couldn't believe was how many decisions need to be made in a day.”

At the other end of the spectrum, Switzer took over a program that had gone 22-2 the previous two seasons and had finished No. 2 each year in the Associated Press polls.

“My situation was totally different than Bob because I was inheriting a great football team,” said Switzer, who doubled his salary from $12,000 to $24,000 when he became head coach. “I had been with these players, had coached these players. I was so ingrained, so attuned with everyone. I knew we were going to kick the hell out of everybody. I knew we were good. I was never concerned. Bob and I were two different scenarios completely. Lincoln steps into a better situation than Bob did. Lincoln and I both stepped into great situations.”

Not only were Switzer, Stoops and Riley hired as first-time head coaches, each was young at the time.

  • Stoops was 37 years, 83 days old when he was introduced on Dec. 1, 1998. His first game was a 49-0 victory at home against Indiana State on Sept. 11, 1999.
  • Switzer was 35 years, 116 days old when he replaced Fairbanks on Jan. 29, 1973. His first game was a 42-14 victory at Baylor on Sept. 15, 1973.
  • Riley was 33 years, 275 days old when he was appointed as Stoops' successor on June 7, 2017. Saturday's debut comes three days before Riley's 34th birthday.

Curiosity might have been Stoops' most prominent emotion entering his first game as head coach. “I was very curious,” Stoops said. “I felt good, but you still have to see it.”

As for the anxiety, Stoops said he felt that every season opener. “I'm always the most anxious in the first game because it's always a new team, but this (1999) was really a new team,” Stoops said. “I had never been on the field with them. You didn't know if practices and scrimmages were going to carry onto the field. You still have to see it happen. There's always new pieces. Anxious to see what are we really going to be like.”

What did Stoops feel most secure about? “It was pretty much the same thing we emphasized over 18 years,” Stoops said. “There's no substitute for it. You have to play hard, play smart and above all else, you've got to be tough and physical. If I've said it once, I've said it a thousand times, ‘It takes no talent to be those three things.' You'll win a helluva lot more than you'll lose if you're those three things. To be honest with you, I started with that and I don't ever remember not emphasizing it.”

Stoops' first team went 7-5, capped with a 27-25 loss to Mississippi on a 39-yard field goal on the final play of the Independence Bowl in what would be his worst record as the Sooners' head coach. Stoops said he didn't have a certain won-loss record in mind prior to his first season at OU. “But I had a bowl game in mind, for sure,” he said. “Can't remember when I hadn't been (in a bowl game) at that point. A bowl game was, for sure, a must in my eyes.”

Stoops retired having advanced to 24 consecutive bowl games as an assistant with Kansas State (1993-95) and Florida (1996-98) and his entire tenure leading the Sooners (1999-2016).

“The whole year, we were learning,” Stoops said of the 1999 season. “We had some games we were ahead, but didn't know how to finish. In the middle part of the year, we really had to emphasize how to handle a lead. These guys hadn't been in the lead a bunch lately. That was another wake-up call for coaches, another point we really had to hammer home and not take it for granted that they understand it. We were up 16 at Notre Dame. Up 17 against Texas. Guys were smiling and giggling and we still had three more quarters to go. Then we started to close games out.”

In Stoops' second season, OU began No. 19 in the preseason poll, had risen to No. 1 by the Oct. 29 poll and captured the school's seventh national crown with a 13-0 season and a 13-2 victory over Florida State in the Orange Bowl. Stoops followed with a combined 47-7 record the next four seasons and reached the national title game two more times.

“It was the coaching that made the difference,” Switzer said of Stoops' immediate impact. “As soon as I saw them play, I knew they had it all in place. I thought, ‘These guys know what they're doing. This is different than what I've seen before.' ”

As impressive as Stoops' start was with the Sooners, Switzer's was even more astonishing.

His first team, picked fourth in that 1973 preseason Big Eight poll, wound up finishing 10-0-1 overall and 7-0 in conference play and dominated preseason conference favorites Nebraska (27-0), Colorado (34-7) and Missouri (31-3).

After his debut victory at Baylor, Switzer then played top-ranked and defending national champion USC to a 7-7 tie at the Los Angeles Coliseum. Switzer went 29-0-1 before suffering his first loss and was 37-1-2 with back-to-back national championships before suffering his second loss.

Again, none of this came as a surprise to Switzer. “You know what you are,” said Switzer, who would win a third national championship in 1985. “Coaches more than anybody know what their team's abilities are, what their talents are, the strengths and weaknesses of their opponent. It comes down to you playing better than they do. If you do, you have a chance to win. Coaches know that better than anybody. I knew going in if somebody was better than we were. Most of the time we were better than they were. After the game, it was time to get on to the next one. Coaches and players approach games totally different than fans.”

With his 157-29-4 overall record, Switzer retains the highest winning percentage (.837) of any OU football coach and now laughs that he and Stoops are “about to be in the stands to do ‘Friday Night Lights' together.” Stoops' twin sons, seniors, and Switzer's grandson, a sophomore, are on the same high school team this season.

When Stoops retired almost three months ago, he left as the program's winningest coach with a 190-48 (.798) overall record, 10 Big 12 Conference championships and 14 10-win seasons. Much like when Switzer took the reins, Riley appears to have inherited a thoroughbred.

When his first game as a head coach approached, did Stoops telephone Switzer or Spurrier for some calming last-minute advice? “Nah,” Stoops said. “At that point, none of those guys can help you. You're ready. I was ready for it. I had been in a lot of big games before that, just like Lincoln has. It doesn't change. Lincoln knows what to do. He's ready for it.”

Saturday's Program

This story will appear in Saturday's game program, which features Coach Riley on the cover. Pick up your copy for $5 at sales stands throughout the stadium.

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