A high ranking, a tough schedule and an expanded stadium are the benefits and challenges facing Coach Bob Stoops of the Oklahoma Sooners.
At age 55, in his 18th season at OU, Stoops may be catching his second wind after a season when his team won the Big 12 Championship and was one game away from playing for the national title.
At the recent Big 12 media days in Dallas, Stoops was asked when he might retire.
“You know, that’s something you would ask a guy that’s maybe 65, but I’m only 55,” Stoops said. “So I don’t see myself anytime soon, that being the question that I need to answer.
“I would like to think I’m in really good health. I take care of myself. I can’t wait for this season, much like I couldn’t 17 years ago for my first one as a head coach. It’s exciting. You have a new team every year, and I can’t wait for it. So hopefully I’m going another ten years or so. I don’t think I will be one of those guys, God bless him, like Coach (Bill) Snyder (who is 75), I’m not going that long, but I sure can go to retirement age.”
Stoops won a national title by beating Florida State in his second year. He has taken OU to the title game three other times and lost.
“All those years are all so different,” Stoops said. “A few of them were in the BCS era, just last year in the Final Four. But in the end they’re a little bit different. I can’t say no, there is any one piece. Just that overall I’ve talked to Coach (Barry) Switzer at length; we had a good talk one day. Back at a certain time, in your last game of the year, you might play the 10th or 12th best team in the country. Say we’re in the Orange Bowl. That’s where we always went when everyone went to a Bowl.
“Nowadays that’s not happening. You’re going to play the next best football team, debated who is best, but in the end you’re playing a very good football team, and whether it be by injury or whatever, if you’re not at your best you’re going to have a hard time winning that game.
“So, in the end, I don’t reflect back much on it. I look forward and try and continue to improve, be a more powerful team is what I’m constantly preaching.”
Stoops has been more successful against arch-rival Texas than all his predecessors but last year’s loss to a 5-7 Texas team was a bitter pill to swallow.
“In this last game they ran the football better than us,” Stoops said. “They were more physical than us. We didn’t execute well enough on either side of the ball. We had more missed tackles in that game than any other game, maybe up to the Clemson game. As well as I didn’t feel we executed very well offensively as well. We didn’t throw it very well and couldn’t run it. So in the end that’s where it was a year ago.”
Quarterback Baker Mayfield transferred to Oklahoma from Texas Tech two years ago and had to sit out a year. Mayfield, a walk-on at Tech, would have lost a year of eligibility because Texas Tech wouldn’t release him. But that rule was changed this summer during Big 12 meetings.
“Hats off to Kliff (Kingsbury) and Kirby Hocutt, their athletic director,” Stoops said of the decision to give Mayfield two more years at OU. “And ultimately it’s the right thing to do. Obviously I’m going to say that. I get it helps or is a positive advantage for Baker Mayfield, but let’s look beyond one guy. It’s the right thing to do. That’s the bottom line. Pleased that it worked out that way not only for Baker, but any guy moving forward if a guy can leave one program and go somewhere else, he’s not on scholarship and get on the field and play, then that’s what he should do. I don’t see it being a problem whatsoever.”
Trevor Knight graduated with one year of eligibility left and transferred to Texas A&M (where he was named the starter at quarterback) after he lost his job to Mayfield last season. Kyler Murray, a top recruit a year ago, has transferred to OU from Texas A&M and like, Mayfield, will have to sit out a year.
“Kyler has been nothing but positive,” Stoops said. “He’s been a positive member of your team in the way he’s worked all through the winter and spring. Brings positive energy every day. I’ve seen nothing but positive from Kyler.”
True freshman Austin Kendall will be the backup to Mayfield because Murray is ineligible and Cody Thomas quit football to concentrate on baseball.
“Having (Kendall) here all winter and spring was a big boost because he’s in this situation,” Stoops said. “He did a great job through the spring, really pleased with him. Really smart in his decision making, avoided the bad plays, you know, for a guy that’s just out of high school. Talented arm. I feel good about him. He’s only going to keep improving and getting better.”
Oklahoma, with running backs Samaje Perine and Joe Mixon, may have the best running tandem in the nation and arguably the best in the Stoops era at OU.
“It’s fair to say, yes, absolutely,” Stoops said. “These guys are such all-around players. They’re amazing when you watch the coach’s version of the end zone copy, the holes they pick and the patience they have. Then you notice the obvious is the strength and power and they rarely get caught.
“They’re unusually fast for that size. So they have it all. They got great hands. They’re really well-rounded guys that way and complement each other, I think, really well. So, yeah, that would be — I’m trying to think of some of the other tandems, I don’t know that I’ve had two of that quality.”
Mixon, a five star recruit, got in trouble even before he played a game at OU. He was involved in an assault of a young woman and as a result, he was suspended from all football activities for a year. He came back last season and will be a sophomore this year.
“Joe Mixon was punished,” Stoops said. “We’ve already been through all of this. He’s met high standards. Continues to have to meet high standards to remain a part of the football team, but he has done so all along.
“So everybody has different measures of what’s enough punishment and what is not. In the end, we felt, myself along with our administration, that this was the right punishment and he’s met all the conditions we put in front of him and he was removed for a full season.”
Wide receiver Sterling Shepard was drafted in the second round by the New York Giants and will be difficult to replace.
“Well, for one, I don’t know that you ever replace (him),” Stoops said. “Sterling was a dynamic, big-play guy for us. Couple of things. I do believe Dede Westbrook and how he’s performed in the spring and what he’s capable of that he can create more big plays in that type of way this year. And Mark Andrews was a guy that everybody was clamoring to get on the field a year ago, who was a different style than Sterling, but was highly effective when he was on the field. He is a guy who will have a bigger role now, and I believe there are more guys in the room this year prepared to play at the receiver position than there were a year ago.
“So I feel like overall we will be able to absorb the absence of Sterling with better play for more guys. Hopefully that’s how it will work.”
Stoops wanted restoration of the Big 12 championship game and got it for next season. How will that work?
“I have somewhat of an opinion,” Stoops said. “I don’t feel like — I don’t want to express it. This is how I want it. In the end, heck, I don’t want to say I don’t really care, but in the end, you know, whatever is best for the fans and for us, as you space out the year and who you are playing when and where, you know, whatever is best for the viewership and the fans I will be all for.”
Stoops is not sure how that game will be set up.
“I think for the right reasons it’s the right thing to do,” he said. “It’s been talked a lot about, primarily the 13th data point and primarily also everybody gets an extra $3 million. That’s significant. In the end, let’s go play. However they set it up, we will be ready to work with it.
“I’ve been sorta back and forth talking through it that we should just take the top two teams and play again, but then that would have created a scenario like last year where we are playing Oklahoma State immediately after just playing them.
“So then you say better off to go to divisions and then you may not be playing the top two teams, you may be playing a team that in one division that may have more losses than the two in another division. So I’ve been back and forth on that. Obviously I don’t know how to set it up.”
If the Big 12 has only 10 teams without two divisions, one system could have the top two teams play for the title. If that were in effect last season, first-place OU would have played second place Oklahoma State two weekends in a row.
Oklahoma opens at Houston and then two weeks later, hosts Ohio State. That may be the most difficult nonconference schedule in the nation.
Oklahoma has not been shy about scheduling tough opponents.
“I can’t speak for the rest of the country,” Stoops said. “It’s always been our view. Joe Castiglione and I set up the schedule and Joe has always conferred with me on it on who we want to play and I’ve always accepted whatever has come across. We’re not only playing Ohio State these two years, and Houston with it to start the season, but then in the previous six we had series with Tennessee, Notre Dame and Florida State.
“We’ve always just believed if you’re going to be a top-tier program and one of the better teams in the country playing ‘like’ teams, challenges yourself. It’s what college football fans all around the country want to see. I know it’s what our fans want to see, as long as you win.”
And with the current playoff system, playing a tough nonconference schedule is a big plus.
“I believe it made a difference a year ago, us getting in the playoff and getting into the Final Four – the fact that we went to Tennessee and won,” Stoops said. “Had we had a lesser opponent and if it was someone no one cared about, we may not have. Who knows? In the end, and I think through the BCS era, I was asked earlier about some of the other games we were in. In those years we played tough out-of-conference games to give ourselves a chance. Say you were the one team tied with two or three other teams with one loss, if you played the tougher out-of-season schedule, then usually you got the nod. So maybe that’s how other teams are now looking at it.”