By Bob Hertzel
Times West Virginian
One can only imagine what it was like for Bob Stoops the December day in 1998 when he hit the jackpot and became the 21st head coach in the storied history of football at Oklahoma.
There he was, coaching at the place where Bud Wilkinson, Barry Switzer and Chuck Fairbanks had coached.
If Dana Holgorsen came into a situation at West Virginia University where he would be compared to a Hall of Fame coach in Don Nehlen, to another successful coach in Rich Rodriguez and, even going back, to where Bobby Bowden got his start, Stoops had bitten off more.
He, like Holgorsen, whom he meets as a head coach for the first time at Milan Puskar Stadium in a 7 p.m. game Saturday, would have their records held up and compared to the ghosts of the past, which in a way demands great success in the present and the future.
What goes through a coach’s head when he knows he will be compared to Wilkinson, who came to Oklahoma in 1947 and went 7-2-1 in his first season, tying for the Big Six championship, then went 10-1, 11-0, 10-1 the next three seasons, winning the Sugar Bowl two of three times and a national championship in 1950.
If that weren’t enough, from 1954 through 1958 he put together consecutive seasons of 10-0, 11-0, 10-0 while winning two national titles, “slipping” to 10-1 in 1957 and 1958. That’s 51-2 over five years.
Wilkinson left in 1963, and the program slipped a bit before Fairbanks was brought in and coached six years, from 1967 through 1972, winning three Big Eight titles and three Sugar Bowls before leaving when Oklahoma was hit with NCAA probation.
The man they chose was Switzer, a coaching legend who won 10 or more games in seven of his first eight seasons and who finished his term at Oklahoma with three consecutive 11-win seasons sandwiched between a pair of nine-win seasons.
It is quite a football legacy that Stoops inherited as a longtime defensive assistant without any head coaching experience.
“I embraced (the legacy built by his coaching predecessors),” he said during Monday’s Big 12 coaches’ conference call.
When he took over, it wasn’t the old Oklahoma, though. The school had fallen on tough times.
“This was a beat-down, downtrodden program, believe it or not, when we got here in ’99. There had been no winning season in five years. They were getting beat up. Some of the scores were horrific. Nebraska and Texas A&M had scores up in the 70s against us, and the facilities were poor initially.”
Indeed, Nebraska had beaten the Sooners, 69-7, in Norman in 1997 and they had lost to Texas A&M at home, 51-7.
From 1994 through 1998 Oklahoma went 6-6, 5-5, 3-8, 4-8, 5-6 when Stoops was brought in, and he turned things around completely.
“The first thing we did was embrace the tradition,” Stoops said. “I’m supposed to coach the way they did, and you are supposed to play like the All-Americans who were here then. We didn’t hide from it. The common theme around here was that they couldn’t play like that. We kept impressing on the players that they were supposed to play like in the past.”
That he didn’t run from the challenge or run around it can be found in the fact that he was out of the Bill Snyder school of football, the Kansas State coach who beat him this year and is in line to play for the national title.
Snyder took over at K-State in 1989 for a 1-10 season and one of the first assistant coaches he hired was a kid who had spent five years under Hayden Fry as a graduate and volunteer assistant at Iowa — Stoops.
Stoops stayed with Snyder at Kansas State for five years as it became a team that would win 10 games, moving on to Florida as co-defensive coordinator. He spent three years under Steve Spurrier at Florida before Oklahoma offered him the head coaching job.
He was ready.
“Fortunately, we did not talk about a three or four-year plan. We had seniors and juniors, and we intended to win right away. We told the team that we intended to be in a bowl game our first year,” Stoops recalled.
Just as he embraced the challenge, so did his team.
“They embraced us. We related to them,” Stoops said. “Instead of bucking the change, we got things going pretty fast.”
Indeed, the first year the Sooners qualified for their bowl, and they have not missed one since.
Oh, by the way, in his second year he won the national championship, which is a stark contrast to what has happened here at WVU under Holgorsen following a fine first season as head coach.
Now, in the future, when young coaches come in, they will be compared with Wilkinson, Fairbanks, Switzer and Stoops, who has an .803 winning percentage heading into the WVU game. It is as written in his biography on the Oklahoma website:
“To be among the best at Oklahoma is to be among the best in college football,” it reads.
Email Bob Hertzel at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @bhertzel.