The Program Guy
Updated: Aug 30, 2022
The football coach stood in front of the Oklahoma legislature in April 2022, a nod to football’s significance in this parish. Bob Stoops, the Hall of Fame college coach, who was being recognized by the legislature for his service to the state of Oklahoma and OU football, had a message for the politicians in the room and everyone else listening. At a time of desperate need for University of Oklahoma football, Stoops had returned in an interim capacity to the role he held for 19 years, after outgoing head coach’s Lincoln Riley’s shock departure to USC in December 2021.
“My primary mission when I went back was to remind everyone at the university, players, the community, that Lincoln Riley did not invent OU football,” Stoops told the Oklahoma legislature. “Everyone needed a wake up call because they slipped into thinking that he did. I sure as heck didn’t ever. Bud Wilkinson
started the monster that Coach (Barry) Switzer took on. Brent Venables (new head coach) has got all the experience in the world. I don't need to tell you about his passion and energy. It oozes all over the place and infects everybody."
Amidst the revolution and evolution that college football is undergoing, I’ll examine why having an anchor of stability in a teams’ football program in the form of the right head coach is paramount, using Oklahoma as my guinea pig.
Current state of college football
I’ve written about how college football has undergone an unprecedented level of change since the summer of 2021. Conference realignment has swept the land. It started last summer with the defection of Oklahoma and Texas, the Big 12 blue bloods, to the SEC. This summer it was USC and UCLA’s turn to shock the nation and join the Big Ten. Name Image and Likeness (NIL), the result of a Supreme Court ruling, has ushered in a new era when college players for the first time can make money and land deals.
The transfer portal - where players can readily switch schools - is also in full swing and shaping how teams construct their roster each season. That, allied with last December’s head coach merry-go-round, is enough to make anyone’s head spin. In all of this flux, thankfully some of the old certainties and traditions prevail. Recruit well, invest in a head coach who has the opportunity to stay for a long tenure and you can build a successful program. The process of finding the right head coach is exhausting and methodical. But it is critical for the success of the program and its financial health. The role has a CEO and business component to it, not to mention the extent to which it can shape a school’s brand. Marcus Freeman has taken over at Notre Dame in the last nine months and he has put his cultural stamp all over the program, hoping it will help the school thrive. This is why Bob Stoops was calling for sanity and perspective in Oklahoma. The football program’s sustained period of success and stability across decades derives from finding a head coach that often stays for a decade plus. Bobbyland Lincoln Riley took over from Bob Stoops in 2017, having been his offensive coordinator. Per his address to Oklahoma’s legislature, Riley’s move to USC must have seriously tested their friendship.
Stoops’ protege and successor may have left town but there was no chance that when his alma mater inquired about his availability that Stoops wouldn’t step into the breach. He interrupted his run as analyst for Fox Sports Big Noon Kickoff and twice spurned Oklahoma’s offer to pay for his services. He even paused his hectic schedule as chief evangelist for his Tequila line to come back.
Brent Venables, Oklahoma’s new head coach, was Stoops’ former defensive coordinator. Venables worked on Stoops’ staff from 1999 until 2012, before he moved to Clemson.
Stoop’s legacy at Oklahoma is assured. He’s won the most games in OU history and turned the program into a titan, like celebrated head coaches Bud Wilkinson and Barry Switzer before him. He won a national championship in 2000. Like Wilkinson and Switzer, he has a statue outside the stadium as a salute for his service.
Bob Stoops has many guises. There’s the free spirit who grew up in a blue collar town - Youngstown, Ohio - coaching with his brothers, hugely influenced by his father. There’s the young coach who after crucial stints coaching as part of Hayden Fry’s staff at Iowa, under Bill Snyder at Kansas State and then as finishing school under mentor Steve Spurrier’s legendary 1990s Florida team, where he braced himself for the head coaching gig that would inevitably follow. Stoops is a great raconteur and inspiration to his men. Although, as some of the media who covered him for years at Oklahoma would attest, he came back in 2021 as a more laid back person not burdened by daily toil of the permanent head coaching job. When Stoops was a graduate assistant at Iowa, the Youngstown work ethic took over and he painted the houses of all the coordinators and position coaches. He once found himself on a flight to a game in the early 2000s. Back then, different college football teams took the same aircraft across the country on any given Saturday based on game schedules. Dan McCarney, head coach of Iowa state, was on the flight before Oklahoma got on. Stoops and he had coached at Iowa. When Stoops sat down he was confronted with a note which read; “HEY STOOPSIE! IF YOU'RE FREE THIS SUMMER, CAN YOU COME PAINT MY HOUSE?”
Last season, Stoops came back as interim head coach and guided Oklahoma to the Alamo Bowl. It felt like old times. His son Drake got in on the act by catching a touchdown in the game. The continuity of being able to hand over to his longtime former assistant must sit well with him. Now Venables has the chance to take Stoops’ mantle and be the program guy to lead Oklahoma into the SEC where the competition will be stiffer.
The Sooner Way In an hour of desperate need for its football program, Oklahoma turned to one of its favorite sons and he answered the call. While NIL, the transfer portal and realignment have restructured college football, so much of the blueprint of winning football relies on each school finding its program guy - to provide structure, stability, morale and success that so many schools seem to miss on. Brent Venables was passed the baton by Bob Stoops, the man he coached under for ten years. It doesn’t matter if it's the remaining time in the Big 12 or the future in the SEC: Oklahoma’s course is set as we start the new season this week. The collective shock in Sooner Nation from December 2021 has found the perfect counterpunch as the words to the Oklahoma Legislature from one of college football’s great program guys seem destined to catapult OU forward.