There were cookies and brownies and a synthetic podium setup within the club level inside Oklahoma’s Memorial Stadium.
A full media contingent gathered well before the 5:30 p.m. scheduled press conference got started. University of Oklahoma dignitaries were plentiful, too. Players, coaches, new coach Lincoln Riley, faculty and even president David Boren were all there for a conference that doubled as the retirement for Bob Stoops and the introduction of Riley.
And as Stoops sat in the middle of dais, dressed in a suit, somber, fidgeting with a bottle of water and and looking on as Boren mini-flibustered before giving way to a monologue from athletics director Joe Castiglione.
Stoops didn’t make eye contact with Boren or Castiglione. He forced a smile a few times. He didn’t look comfortable, he looked stoic, shoulders back, eyes forward, chewing on his lip. Eventually, Stoops relented, exhaled. Made a joke or two.
Stoops announced Wednesday that he’s done at OU, and with that he becomes a rarity. Eighteen seasons at Oklahoma, departing without getting fired, being under investigation, and only in the rarest cases from talk show hosts with rogue opinions and quick Twitter fingers, without scrutiny.
“We will always celebrate Bob,” Castiglione said. That’s true, Stoops will go down among the greats at Oklahoma, easily comparable with Barry Switzer and Bud Wilkinson. Yet, Wednesday didn’t feel like the beginning of celebration.
Within the oddest balancing act of honoring Stoops and introducing Riley was a confluence of celebration and funeral. Press conferences don’t work this way. Wednesday was odd.
Stoops tried to make jokes during his fairwell address and Castiglione was successful in battling back tears. They talked about old times and wins of years past. Castiglione and Boren talked about character and doing the right thing. Both spoke before Riley stood behind the podium as the next football coach at Oklahoma, posing for pictures with his wife and baby before he, himself broke down, pausing and apologizing for his emotion. Press conferences with the introduction of a new football coach don’t work like this.
Riley offered up a “Boomer Sooner,” but it was more heavy-hearted than hearty. Kind of hard to celebrate when the guy next to you, behind the microphone is leaving.
“I feel prepared,” Riley said. “I do. I cannot wait to get started.”
The Oklahoma football program is in an excellent spot. It’s coming off a BCS Sugar Bowl win, will start the 2017 season ranked in the top five in the country. The Sooners return experience and a possible Heisman winner at quarterback. New additions have been made to the stadium. The incoming recruiting class is said to be exceptional.
Yet, Wednesday was a baffling start to all of that. Hard to know how to feel moving forward when the past is celebrated in a surprise retirement. Stoops said he was content. “I feel more grateful and appreciative and blessed that I got this opportunity. I’m happy about it more than I am that I am sad that this day is here. It went fast.”
“I knew for me personally this was the right time,” Stoops said. “I’m not sad. “It’s time. It’s OK.”
The video board inside an empty stadium showed the message, ‘Thanks, Bob.’ Boren added more, “Thank you Bob Stoops for being the person you are. We owe you a debt of gratitude. Exceptionally well done.
And then Castiglione, “We will always celebrate Bob,” he said.
For a celebration, Wednesday seemed somber. For an inauguration, Wednesday was understated.
This wasn’t 1999 when Boren introduced Bob Stoops to a large crowd in the late fall of 1998 on the North Oval of campus, just down the street from the stadium. That was a party. A look to the future.
Just like 18 years ago, Boren once again introduced the new football coach. This wasn’t a party, though.
This was the combination of sadness and celebration. A look back and forward. A combination press conference where both Stoops and Riley were told, “Congratulations.”
How are we supposed to feel now?