NORMAN — He may never admit it, but we are seeing a side of Bob Stoops he’s never shown before.
We’re seeing a more laid back, more matured Stoops.
The University of Oklahoma’s winningest football coach certainly seems to be more relaxed, more engaging and more personable than he was in his younger days — and not just with the media.
Those qualities came across Saturday at OU’s annual preseason Media Day interviews, but they also have been seen in other areas over the last couple years.
“I don’t know,” said defensive coordinator and middle Stoops brother Mike Stoops. “He seems much happier.”
That’s an appropriate description for Bob Stoops circa 2016.
“He’s very proud of where he is at OU, his legacy,” said pro wrestling hall of famer and longtime Stoops confidant Jim “J.R.” Ross. “Listen, there’s something to be said for a coach’s son to become the longest-tenured head coach in all of Division I college football. It’s such a volatile profession and such a fickle world. To be in the saddle that long, I’d say it’s quite an accomplishment.”
Yes, Stoops is more patient with questions and more thoughtful with answers. But it goes infinitely deeper than just his demeanor in press conferences.
“He seems much happier.”
— Mike Stoops
Fact is, Stoops — one month away from turning 56 — has reached a number of personal and professional milestones that give him a broader perspective on things, in coaching and in life.
Mike Stoops told the Tulsa World’s Guerin Emig last week he thinks his big brother has “reinvented himself and reinvented the program.”
Bob Stoops surpassed The King himself, Barry Switzer, atop the program’s list of career victories (179 now to Switzer’s 157). He’s won nearly half of the Big 12 Conference’s 20 championships. But Stoops’ current state of mind goes beyond even those remarkable achievements.
For most of his first 15 seasons, Stoops was swimming upstream in recruiting because of OU’s lagging facilities. Then, Headington Hall was built, and his players’ housing was suddenly on par with college football’s elite.
Now, Stoops lords in a brand new palace, or will when the $370 million Memorial Stadium renovation is complete next offseason.
“Something happened along the way,” Ross said, “whether it’s the stadium, his numbers, his home record (96-8, best in the nation and each one a sellout), I don’t know for sure. But it seems like he’s happier than he’s ever been with where the program is. I think he’s just really more comfortable now than he’s ever been.”
Stoops now looks around at his kingdom and realizes that whenever he does call it a career, the kingdom is better now because of his stewardship than it was when he got there.
“Look at those new facilities. Guess who’s watch that happened on?” Ross said. “Not that his fingerprints wouldn’t be on everything already, but now, going forward, for time immemorial, it will have happened in Bob Stoops’ football program.
“It’s the stadium that Bob built, in my view.”
Kenny Mossman came to OU in 2001 as sports information director. Now he’s senior associate athletic director for external operations. Mossman has been around Stoops constantly at times over the years, and he said while Stoops may present a softer side in public, he’s remained consistent with those in his inner circle.
“It seems like he’s happier than he’s ever been with where the program is. I think he’s just really more comfortable now than he’s ever been.”
— Jim “J.R.” Ross
“He’s gotten more accomplishments under his belt,” Mossman said. “I think his legacy is secure. I think those things probably let him be just a little more comfortable, a little less guarded.”
One example is during the season, Stoops comes into the interview room on Wednesdays for a final briefing with beat writers after practice. Those used to be terse interactions, necessary but largely unpleasant for everyone in the room.
Last year, however, Stoops would come in, take a load off and engage the group. One time he even offered some 5-hour energy shots. Said it might help. Everyone had a good laugh.
He’s always been that way with his friends. But being that way with sportswriters is a sign of the new Stoops.
“He’s funny,” Ross said. “Great sense of humor. And sometimes people don’t see that. But I guess he’s been taught you can’t trust everybody, and I can understand that.”
Another sure sign: Stoops was asked at Big 12 media days how much longer he thinks he’ll coach. Rather than the standard answer of “we’ll see; you never know what the future holds,” Stoops said that’s a question for someone who’s 65, not 55, and that he expects he’ll coach into retirement age, maybe another 10 years.
No doubt his relationship with president David Boren and athletic director Joe Castiglione have put Stoops in this place as much as anything. They’ve been college football’s longest-tenured trio for 6-7 years now, but now going into their 18th year together, the comfort level among them is at an all-time high.
Back in 2010, when it seemed OU was bound for the Pac-12, Stoops, Castiglione and Boren stood shoulder to shoulder, resolute to strengthen the Big 12. When the stadium renovation was revealed at a regents meeting in Ardmore, Stoops, Castiglione and Boren joined again to express their pride. And when the Joe Mixon video was made available for OU brass to view, Stoops, Castiglione and Boren walked into and out of the district attorney’s office together.
Talk about secure.
And personally, Stoops has reached a new phase.
His children, practically newborns when he arrived in Norman, are now almost grown. Mackie is a sophomore at OU. Drake and Isaac are high school juniors.
“When you get to that point,” Ross said, “it’s a different perception we all have on life.”
More proof: Stoops tweets.
Less than two years after largely admonishing social media as a waste of time, Stoops is now active on Twitter. He’ll not break usage records any time soon, but he tweeted 25 times in the offseason months of June and July. Most of those were promotional or about the Sooners’ softball national title, but he also offered his thoughts on Muhammad Ali, Pat Summitt, the Orlando massacre and the passing of Oklahoma State basketball player Tyrek Coger.
Most of all, Stoops tweets any time the Sooners get a new verbal commitment. And the recruits love it.
“He’s a lot more engaged,” Ross said. “Sometimes social media makes us all a little more engaged. But what I think is great is he’s very aware of how to reach his target demographic. He’s like any other good marketer. A great coach has to be a great recruiter, and a great recruiter has to find players.”
Maybe it’s just a kinder, gentler Stoops. Maybe he’s simply mellowed as he progresses through his sixth decade.
When I asked Stoops almost two years ago about having outlived his father — Ron Stoops died of a heart attack at 54 — he became deeply introspective about his own mortality. That kind of thinking tends to soften any man.
“That could be,” Mossman said. “I think for a lot of his career here, he felt like he had a lot to prove, and I think that came from a lot of different directions. Some of it’s probably internal, some of it is what it means to coach at Oklahoma. I think there’s a lot of pressure on that.”
Saying he’s simply mellowed with age doesn’t quite characterize this new Stoops.
“I know he really struggled with that because he gets really close to his coaches in more than a professional sense.”
— Kenny Mossman
Young Bob might have seemed more gruff in the public eye, but Young Bob never fired an assistant coach. The new Stoops has now fired six aides since 2011: Willie Martinez, James Patton, Bruce Kittle, Jackie Shipp, Jay Norvell and Josh Heupel. Among that group is his college roommate, an original OU hire, another college teammate and pal, and his national championship quarterback.
Nothing mellow about that.
But time has given Stoops a perspective he didn’t have before, an appreciation for the seriousness of his role as the Oklahoma head coach. As much as he loves those guys, Stoops embraced the realization that there are others who can do their job better than they could.
“That was really hard for him,” Mossman said. “I think someday, if he comes completely clean on it, he’ll say that was the hardest part of his tenure at Oklahoma. I know he really struggled with that because he gets really close to his coaches in more than a professional sense.”
And yet, the painful changes were necessary. The staff is more energetic in recruiting, and that has produced a 2017 class that so far ranks fourth nationally behind Alabama, Ohio State and LSU, according to Rivals.com. There’s more work to do in this class, and who knows how the final rankings will shake out, but the Sooners haven’t landed a Rivals top-five class since 2005. In fact, only twice in the previous 11 classes has Oklahoma ranked inside the top 10 (seventh in 2010, sixth in 2008).
“The buzz they’re creating in recruiting is a reflection of the head coach,” Ross said. “As a CEO, he did a hell of a job hiring people. Nobody wanted to see anybody leave.
“I think he’s embraced this program so fervently, he realized it was something he had to do.”
“How loyal he is to people, firing somebody … that’s just not part of our DNA,” Mike Stoops said last week. “That’s not who he is. Making changes and changes involving people he cared about, that’s the hardest thing. But that’s what leaders have to do, make tough decisions.
“I think now he’s moved past that, as hard as it was. I think he had to do what was right in his eyes. The people he has to own up to … it was right for our program.”
Those weren’t the only changes Stoops made to the staff. Last year, he shuffled his brother from safeties to outside linebacker, and shifted Cale Gundy from running backs to inside receivers. Then he moved them both off the volatile sidelines and upstairs to the serene coaches box on game days.
It’s no coincidence the Sooners became just the second team in the history of the Big 12 to lead the league in rush defense, pass defense, total defense and scoring defense. Mike Stoops probably became a better coach from upstairs, and his players probably grew from it, too.
“He’s not too egocentric that he won’t make changes,” Ross said. “He took two guys that are married to the program and put them in press box. I can tell you, as someone who has a sideline pass, it’s a lot different with them not there. I’m not saying it’s better or worse, but it’s different. Because they’re both alpha males. And listen, both of those guys seem happier with that change.”
Said Mossman, “I think he looks around the staffroom now and he feels very comfortable that he doesn’t have to carry as big a load as he used to.”
And of course, Stoops had elective surgery during the 2015 offseason to fix a degenerative hip joint. Players last year said it was apparent how much better he felt, and Stoops reiterated during media days last month that he didn’t realize how much pain he was actually in until he had become pain-free.
“I can tell you from having a variety of ailments in my life, getting pain free is an amazing blessing,” Ross said. “You look at everyday life a little differently if you don’t have to deal with pain. Pain management is a hell of a thing to deal with. He’s feeling better in that regard. He’s not in constant pain.”
Mike Stoops said last week Bob now has his second wind. Maybe it’s the new hip. Maybe it’s the new coaching staff. Maybe it’s the new family situation.
Or maybe it’s just a new outlook on life.
“To me,” Mossman said, “I just feel that maybe he feels like he has scaled a lot of the mountain and he feels like he’s more comfortable in his skin.”
“I think he’s just happy,” Mike Stoops said Saturday, “with the direction of our players and, I think, the direction of what we’re doing, our staff. All those things.”
Being Bob Stoops means being OU football’s chief executive officer as well as its caretaker. Stoops knows he must be the man who shapes the future of the program, setting its policy and securing its legacy. At the same time, he knows he must also be the man who figuratively keeps the property looking good.
And for the first time, it seems, he’s finally comfortable with all of it.