Joe Castiglione holds his phone over the plate of deviled eggs covered with chunks of bacon to make them just a little bit more devilish. “I have to send this to J-Lo,” Oklahoma’s athletic director says, flashing a wicked grin. He knows J-Lo will be jealous.
J-Lo is Arkansas athletic director and former Castiglione co-worker Jeff Long. On this September Saturday, Long’s Razorbacks have an 11 a.m. central kickoff against Texas A&M in Arlington, Texas. Castiglione is two hours south at Megg’s Cafe in Temple, Texas. The Sooners will play at Baylor in the late afternoon, which means Castiglione and his crew will have ample time to digest the deviled eggs and the pancakes, grits and pastrami hash that will come later.
Castiglione calls this breakfast The Tradition, and it takes place before every Oklahoma road game. It’s typically at a diner. Round stools and Airstream trailer walls work best for the photos Castiglione will invariably text to his hungry friends, but Castiglione is more interested in the cuisine than the decor. That’s why he brought his senior staff and some longtime friends to this more upscale spot in a suburban shopping center. It’s also why he texted Long. Those early kickoffs interfere with The Tradition, and he knows how lame breakfast can be when someone who doesn’t care as much as he does plans the menu. Before the cheese grits and the banana pancakes arrive, Castiglione’s phone chirps with a message. It’s from Long, who has sent a photo of a few granola bars and bananas atop a table in the bowels of AT&T Stadium. Under the photo is a crying emoji.
Castiglione and friends will take part in The Tradition this Saturday morning to prepare for the Sooners’ Bedlam showdown—and College Football Playoff elimination matchup—against Oklahoma State in Stillwater.The location will remain secret until after Saturday’s breakfast, but The Tradition won’t be observed in enemy territory. The cheese fries at Stillwater landmark Eskimo Joe’s are legendary, but they aren’t suitable for breakfast. (Also, Eskimo Joe’s doesn’t open until 11 a.m.)
Castiglione started The Tradition back when he worked at Iowa in the mid-90s. He continued it after he arrived at Oklahoma in 1998 and—a few months later—hired a hot defensive coordinator named Bob Stoops to run the football program. These days, a group of about 15 will settle in for breakfast near the site of a road game. Sometimes, the guys already know what to expect. Other times, they roll the dice. “There are times we'll have some reconnaissance,” Castiglione says. “We'll send someone in. But there will be times when we have no idea.”
Earlier this season, the crew didn’t know what to expect from Tommy’s Diner in Columbus, Ohio. They got a fabulous-but-not-fancy breakfast that prepared them to watch the Sooners whip Ohio State that night. Two weeks ago In Manhattan, Kan., the crew got a coveted table at The Chef. Some feasted on hash covered with eggs, while others ordered Bananas Foster pancakes. Those pancakes probably weren’t sitting well late that afternoon when the Wildcats tied the score at 35 with 2:25 remaining, but having Baker Mayfield at quarterback tends to aid in digestion. Oklahoma pulled out a 42–35 win when Rodney Anderson scored on a 22-yard run with seven seconds remaining.
One of Castiglione’s favorites in recent years is the diner at the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge in Nutter Fort, W.Va. When The Tradition blew through the Mountaineer State last year, a sign reminded diners that the video lottery machines are now in the back. A banner on the wall outside advertised “ALL-YOU-CAN-EAT SOUP, BEANS AND CORNBREAD.” (All-you-can-eat beans are dangerous when dining with business associates, so Castiglione had eggs, sausage and pancakes.) That night in Morgantown, the Sooners rolled to a 56–28 win at West Virginia that kept them on track to win the Big 12 title.
Larry Naifeh, Oklahoma’s executive associate athletic director, is partial to the Ankeny Cafe in Ankeny, Iowa. The Sooners had come to face Iowa State in a Thursday night game. The evening before, the Chicago Cubs—whose Triple-A affiliate is in nearby Des Moines—had won the World Series. Everyone was decked out in Cubs gear and celebrating with the exception of one diner who kept giving the hairy eyeball to the party wearing crimson and cream. The man approached Naifeh, who has worked at Oklahoma since 1986. “You hired Bob Stoops before he could come back to Iowa,” the man said. Indeed, Castiglione had hired Iowa alumnus Stoops days before the Hawkeyes hired Kirk Ferentz, who thanks to Stoops’s retirement in July is now the longest tenured head coach in the FBS. Naifeh pointed at Castiglione and said “Well, that’s the guy who did it.” The man remained disgusted. “Oh, I know who he is.”
The following season, Stoops’s name would come up again as the The Tradition continued at Megg’s. Kenny Mossman, Oklahoma’s senior associate athletic director for external operations, had found a YouTube clip of Isaac Stoops—one of Bob’s twin sons—making a beautiful one-handed touchdown catch for Norman North High the previous night. "I'm going to send Bob a text and say 'Well, not everybody in the family got DB hands.’"
That night, Baylor’s offense would push Oklahoma’s defense to the brink. The Sooners would survive with a 49–41 win, but defensive woes that emerged in Waco would rear their heads again two weeks later in a 38-31 home loss to Iowa State. That prompted a question. Does losing the game get a restaurant eliminated from The Tradition?
No way, Castiglione says. The crew must keep its priorities in order. "We do cross places off the list because of the quality of our food,” he says. “But we've never lost a game because of our pre-game meal.”