Blair Kerkhoff

Blair Kerkhoff: Oklahoma’s Bob Stoops retires as Big 12’s greatest coach

Bob Stoops spoke at a news conference Wednesday to announce his retirement as Oklahoma’s head football coach after 18 seasons.
Bob Stoops spoke at a news conference Wednesday to announce his retirement as Oklahoma’s head football coach after 18 seasons. The Associated Press

After the 1998 football season, if Oklahoma hadn’t hit rock bottom the program had a good view.

A fifth straight non-winning season was in the books and athletic director Joe Castiglione, only on the job for a few months, had seen enough.

After nearly two decades in Missouri’s athletic department, Castiglione knew what dominant OU football looked like, and he set about the restoration project and took a chance with his first major hire.

John Blake was fired and one of the hottest names in the coaching profession at the time, Florida defensive coordinator Bob Stoops, got the job as a highly recommended but inexperienced candidate.

With the stunning announcement of Stoops’ retirement Wednesday, the evaluation is final. This was one of the greatest hires in college football history.

With his statement, Stoops deflected any thought his decision was health-related. He’s 56 and has lived two years longer than his father, a high school football coach who died of a heart attack on the way to the hospital on the night he coached a game.

“My health was not a deciding factor in this decision, and I’ve had no incidents that would prevent me from coaching,” Stoops said. “I feel the timing is perfect to hand over the reins.”

He was an overachieving defensive back at Iowa and a go-getter assistant for the Hawkeyes and Kent State before landing on Bill Snyder’s inaugural staff at Kansas State. His reputation as a great defensive mind and motivator took shape in Manhattan, where Stoops was part of the Wildcats’ epic turnaround.

A year after surrendering 62 points to Nebraska in the national championship game, Florida hired Stoops, and with an improved defense won the national title the next season. Castiglione paid close attention throughout.

Perhaps time will reveal the retirement story in greater depth. For now, we’re left to consider the future of a program that is in the hands of 33-year-old Lincoln Riley, who inherits a team that likely will be favored to win a third straight Big 12 championship.

The timing spares OU staff upheaval. Spring football passed, summer workouts approach. If Stoops wanted to avoid chaos and ensure a smooth power transition he couldn’t have picked a better time. The team will have several weeks to grow accustomed to the change.

Returning starting quarterback Baker Mayfield took to his Twitter account to thank Stoops and express gratitude. Stoops himself used his final tweet as a coach to congratulate the Sooners’ softball team that won the NCAA championship on Tuesday night. OU, it seems, is in harmony.

The last few seasons haven’t been the easiest for Oklahoma. The Sooners were Big 12 champions in 2015 and 2016. They reached the College Football Playoff the first year and were outmanned in the second half by Clemson.

Losses to Houston and Ohio State prevented a return trip to the playoffs last season, which also carried off-field drama with legal problems of players, especially running back Joe Mixon. He punched a woman in the face in 2014 and video was revealed after the 2016 regular season.

But Stoops’ Oklahoma tenure is largely remembered for championship celebrations, the 2000 BCS National Championship, the 10 Big 12 titles. Four of those conference championships were captured at Arrowhead Stadium. The final record: 190-48, leaving Stoops atop the program’s career victory list.

More than any other coach, Stoops defined the Big 12. Others have prominently shaped the league’s history — Kansas State’s Bill Snyder and Texas’ Mack Brown in football, Kansas’ Bill Self in basketball — but none had a greater influence than Stoops as the most successful coach in the highest-profile sport.

The perception of the Big 12 was never stronger than in the 2000s, when the Red River Shootout between the Sooners and Texas often matched top-10 programs. Stoops and Brown restored the rivalry to national prominence. Six times during 2000-09 Oklahoma or Texas played in the BCS National Championship Game.

It’s up to Riley to continue the standard set by Stoops. It will be no small task.

Blair Kerkhoff: 816-234-4730, @BlairKerkhoff

Related stories from Kansas City Star