On His Own Terms

John Rohde
By John Rohde
Special to SoonerSports.com

Five days have passed since Oklahoma football coach Bob Stoops announced his sudden retirement at age 56. Even those closest to him were stunned when Stoops shared the news last Wednesday.

Sooners associate head coach/defensive coordinator Mike Stoops is 15 months younger than his older brother. They grew up in a close-knit family in Youngstown, Ohio, were teammates throughout their playing days in school, coached alongside each other as assistants at Kansas State and Mike spent 10 seasons at OU as an assistant under big brother.

A bit of shock lingers even for Mike.

"It still feels a little strange, but it's all good and time for a new beginning," Mike said Sunday evening. "When you really think about it, why not (retire)? Bob's not about money. He's not about records or anything like that. He's just about doing his job and being happy."

"We were outside and Bob says, 'Matty, I'm not going to coach anymore.'"
– Assistant AD Matt McMillen

The day after his announcement, Bob Stoops and longtime friend Matt McMillen headed to a Florida beach. McMillen is OU's assistant athletics director for football operations and arrived alongside Stoops in 1999. They've been friends since 1989 working at K-State. McMillen was having dinner at Stoops' home last Tuesday night when he got blindsided.

"We were outside and Bob says, 'Matty, I'm not going to coach anymore,'" McMillen explained. "I don't think I said a word for 20-25 minutes. He started laughing at me. It was like somebody hit me on the head with a sledgehammer, or an anvil fell on my head, or something. I didn't know what to say. It was crazy."

Early in the morning on the day of the announcement, Stoops called assistant head coach Cale Gundy into his office. Gundy, who serves as director of recruiting and coaches inside receivers, has been with the OU football program for 23-plus seasons. He played quarterback for the Sooners (1990-93), served one year as a student assistant and returned to OU when Stoops became head coach 18 years ago.

"Bob told me what was going on," Gundy said. "It was kind of tough for him to tell me and it was tough for me to hear it. We have been around each other for so long and it's something I'll remember forever."

A mid-afternoon meeting was scheduled last Wednesday to inform OU players of Stoops' retirement. When word leaked, the meeting was bumped up to early afternoon. Before meeting alongside his teammates, however, senior quarterback and Heisman Trophy finalist Baker Mayfield was summoned into a meeting with Stoops and new head coach Lincoln Riley.

“By then, everybody kind of knew what was happening,” Mayfield said. “I was shocked at first, just hearing it come out of Coach Stoops' mouth. I also was taken aback that he respected me enough to call me in there and tell me in person before meeting with the team.”

Former Sooners coach Barry Switzer said Stoops gave him a tour of the new facilities three days before the announcement and Stoops never hinted of his pending retirement. The day after the announcement, Stoops telephoned Switzer.

"Bob said, 'The timing was right,'" Switzer said. "And I said, 'Well, you're the only one who keeps that watch. No one else keeps that watch except you. It's your clock and you set the time. I'm all for it. I can understand.'"

Defensive tackle Tommie Harris was a two-time, first-team All-American with the Sooners in 2002-03, won the 2003 Vince Lombardi Award, declared for the 2004 NFL Draft after his junior season and was selected 14th overall in the first round by the Chicago Bears.

"I was shocked," Harris said of Stoops retiring, "but then at the same time, I was more excited for him. It showed his courage to leave at the top of your game. He can do whatever he wants with his time now."

When asked to pick their favorite trait about Stoops, the aforementioned had to pause to narrow their choices.

"Man, it's hard to pick just one thing," Gundy said. "There are so many things, obviously. One of the things I was always very impressed with was the confidence he had in his coaches, allowing them to coach their players and recruit their players. I was with him for 18 years. Never once did he come in my room and tell me how to coach the running backs, or the inside receivers, or how to recruit. The confidence he had in us to do our jobs, it worked out very well for everyone."

Gundy also spoke of Stoops' wide range of abilities.

"I've been a coach and been around a lot of assistant coaches who have gone on to become head coaches, but this guy here is the best I've ever been around," Gundy said of Stoops. "He has the whole package. He understands it all. He understands the X's and O's, obviously, but he also understands being a leader, being a motivator, building great relationships and trust with his players. He's a great recruiter, but he's somebody who also understands the administration side of it, the compliance side of it. A lot of coaches in this profession just kind of see X's and O's in football. They don't understand all the other stuff. This guy (Stoops) gets that."

Mayfield said what he appreciated most was Stoops' professionalism in every aspect. “He really did care about his players,” Mayfield said. “Somebody who already is that established and has that much going for him doesn't always have to be genuine and make the effort to do everything for his players, but he did. His players respect him for it, and they always will. He put his team first and that's a reason why he retired right now. The program is in great hands.”

When Mayfield transferred to OU after his freshman season as a walk-on at Texas Tech, it was Stoops who stood by his side throughout a convoluted transfer process.“Not only that, Coach Stoops got the president (David Boren) and athletic director (Joe Castiglione) on board,” Mayfield said. “For me, it was just so flattering and humbling. Looking back on it now, Coach Stoops was the face of Oklahoma football and was all that I knew growing up (in Texas). Then I got to play for him his last couple years. It really is flattering I got to do that.”

Harris said what he appreciated most about Stoops was his candor. "His straight-forwardness," Harris said. "He didn't have a lot of fat on him. He was trimmed. He said what he meant and meant what he said. He's a man's man. I appreciate him. He wasn't full of fluff. He treated everybody the same. If you stepped out of line, you were gonna get it. And if you did well, you were gonna get that, too. He was going to let you know, either way."

"He's a man's man. He wasn't full of fluff. He treated everybody the same."
– 2x All-American Tommie Harris

McMillen endorsed Stoops' behavior around fellow staffers. "More than anything, it's just how he treats people," McMillen said. "He couldn't be more gracious to those kids who work with us — student managers, student trainers, equipment managers. He's like that with everybody."

Also high on McMillen's list was Stoops' knack for brevity.

"He made going to work so much fun," McMillen said. "He doesn't have these long meetings. He doesn't unnecessarily grind. He does everything he needs to do and makes sure the staff does, obviously, but he is not a micromanager. He is a great guy to work for — the best. He would encourage people to go home if he thought they were working too many hours. He would walk down the hallway and tell people, 'Go home. Get out of here. You need to go home.' He's just so courteous of everyone's time. He wanted people to have lives. He didn't want the whole football thing to just swallow you up. I think he also thought coaches are going to be better if they're rested, if they've got a clear head."

Playfully asked if he wished he had some of the same traits his older brother had, Mike Stoops chuckled and said, "Probably. His patience. He's calmer. He's been through it a long time and had stability, but he handles things well. He never gets too up or too down. It's a good way to go."

Now Riley, who previously served as Mayfield's offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach, has replaced Stoops.

“It's bittersweet, but Coach Stoops made it very clear this program was not going to slow down or fall off whatsoever,” Mayfield said. “That's why he made this decision, because he knew that. The buzz around the program right now is unbelievable. The offensive players know what Coach Riley does. The defensive guys have seen the way Coach Riley has affected us and the way he coaches. They really respect that.”

A look back at Bob Stoops' illustrious 18-year run in Norman.

It was no secret Stoops would retire someday, perhaps soon. Nor was is it a secret Riley was the heir apparent. The only variable was time.

"I was more surprised that Bob quit than I was that they hired Lincoln Riley," Switzer said. "I figured that was going to be the hire. That's a smart hire. It was the thing to do."

Already viewed as somewhat of a prodigy, the 33-year-old Riley will do his best maintain the excellence that came under Stoops, and Riley has a long list of believers working alongside.

"I think Lincoln is super smart and will glean a lot from the stuff that Bob did and apply it to what he's doing," McMillen said. "Lincoln is not going to try and re-invent the wheel. Like Bob said, 'Try to win one or two more games every year. That's it.' I think he (Riley) really appreciated learning from Bob. We would sit in staff meetings, and I could see him just absorbing what Bob was saying. I could tell early on that he was going to be the heir apparent."

An enthusiastic Gundy said he can hardly contain his excitement about Riley.

"I sent him a text and said I feel like a little kid on Christmas morning," Gundy said. "I'm so excited. What's going to happen next? Let's go open these presents. I know the energy he brings and there's a few little wrinkles he's going to throw in."

OU is the only Division I football program to have four coaches win at least 100 games each.

Bennie Owen coached the Sooners for 22 seasons and finished with a 122-54-16 (.677) record. Bud Wilkinson coached the Sooners for 17 seasons, finished 145-29-4 (.826) and won three national championships. Switzer coached the Sooners for 16 seasons, owned a 157-29-4 (.837) record and also won three national titles. Stoops coached the Sooners for 18 seasons, finished 190-48 (.798) and claimed the 2000 national championship in just his second season as coach. Stoops also captured 10 Big 12 Conference titles and led OU to a school-record 18 consecutive bowl berths.

It didn't take long for Switzer to become a believer in Stoops. "The first time I saw them line up and play (in 1999)," Switzer said. "It was evident right away that these guys were going to do fine."

There are many theories to why Stoops chose now to retire, particularly in early June, which is an odd time of year to make such a significant decision. Perhaps the most insightful answer came from McMillen.

"I'll go to my grave thinking this," McMillen explained, "but I think the biggest thing is Bob knew the 50 or so people who worked under him would be in good shape and wouldn't have to go out and find a job. That was so important to him, to take care of the staff and make sure he left the place in great shape. Give the keys to a guy who can run with it. The place is in great shape. We're moving into a new building (in the south end zone). We've got a great recruiting class. We've got great players. Got a great staff in place. It was like Bob was thinking, 'You know what? This is perfect.'"

"He was able to leave on his terms by doing that. I think he's really at peace with it."