For a long time Joe Washington stayed away and watched the sad,
steady decline of Oklahoma football. He once wore silver shoes
and ran from the wishbone like prairie dust carried on an angry
wind. He was Sooners football in the flesh, a blur that was often
chased but rarely caught. In Washington's last two college years,
1974 and '75, Oklahoma won the national championship. Those teams
were part of a crimson dynasty that lasted from Hall of Fame
coach Bud Wilkinson's first title, in '50, until Barry Switzer's
departure from the sidelines in '88. In those 38 years the
Sooners won six national championships, more than any other team
during that span, and took their place among the bastions of
Then the dynasty fell swiftly into decay. Switzer left in a hail
of NCAA sanctions--14 scholarships lost over a two-year period,
among other penalties--and accusations that the Sooners had turned
Norman into Dodge City. Switzer's successors, Gary Gibbs (1989 to
'94), Howard Schnellenberger ('95) and John Blake ('96 to '98),
ran the program downhill. Oklahoma bottomed out with 33 losses in
57 games from '94 through the '98 season. "When I left Oklahoma,
I thought the strength of the program was etched in stone," says
Washington, who played 10 years in the NFL with San Diego,
Baltimore, Washington and Atlanta and now lives in Baltimore. "I
found out that if you have a chisel, you can chip away at
greatness. A lot of people have had chisels."
Last fall Washington, who couldn't recall the last time he'd been
in Norman, accepted the invitation of first-year coach Bob Stoops
to visit the campus on Oct. 23 and address the Sooners before
that day's game with Texas A & M. Washington had been watching
from afar and noticed that Oklahoma had won its first three games
and then lost to Notre Dame 34-30 and Texas 38-28 after blowing
big leads. During telecasts of those two games, he'd seen
enthusiasm among Oklahoma players for the first time in a decade.
He'd heard that Stoops had made contact with Switzer and other
Sooners legends, such as 1971 All-America quarterback Jack
Mildren. This Oklahoma team was worth checking out, Washington
reasoned. "I came away with a great feeling of promise," he says.
"Stoops knows what he's doing."
What Stoops had done was make the Sooners not just respectable
but dangerous, one of the most surprising teams of the season.
Inspired by Washington's pregame talk, they bounced back from
their consecutive losses with a stunning 51-6 pasting of then No.
10 Texas A&M. It was the Aggies' worst defeat in 98 years.
Oklahoma went on to finish the season 7-4 (5-3 in the Big 12
South) before losing to Mississippi 27-25 on Dec. 31 in the
Independence Bowl in Shreveport, La. It was Oklahoma's first
winning season since 1993 and first bowl appearance since '94.
"There's no doubt that Oklahoma will be very good, very soon,"
says Texas coach Mack Brown, who has undertaken a similar
rebuilding project in Austin. Switzer predicts a parallel rise
for the two schools and a restoration of their torrid rivalry on
the field and in recruiting. "Oklahoma and Texas will dominate
the Big 12 South," Switzer says. "Bobby Stoops has gotten
everything pointed upward in Norman. You watch the guy work, and
it's obvious he's got a plan."
No lie there. No surprise, either. Stoops developed a reputation
as one of the best defensive minds in college football while
helping Kansas State rise from running joke to national power. He
was co-defensive coordinator and secondary coach for the Wildcats
from 1989 to '95 and then spent three seasons as Steve Spurrier's
defensive coordinator at Florida, where he helped the Gators win
the '96 national championship. He was sure to become some
school's no-brainer hire as head coach. "He's a competitive guy,
hates losing and demands perfection," says Spurrier, who could
have been describing himself. "Bobby made our defense
outstanding. There was no doubt he'd get a chance to be a head
Surprisingly, given Oklahoma's fast rise, the defensive genius's
defense was only mediocre at best, yielding 344.4 yards per game,
39th best in the nation. The defense did improve as the season
went on. On Nov. 13 the Sooners held Iowa State's Darren Davis,
who came in averaging 140 rushing yards per game, to just 53
yards on 17 carries. In a season-ending, 44-7 win over Oklahoma
State, Oklahoma held the Cowboys to 83 yards on the ground,
barely half their season average.
In the meantime Stoops shook the blue-collar Big 12 to the tips
of its steel-toed boots with a wide-open offense and gambling
special teams play. He hired offensive coordinator Mike Leach
from Kentucky, where Leach had helped orchestrate coach Hal
Mumme's spread passing game, and told him to install that same
Star Wars attack. Never mind that putting in a complex passing
offense at Oklahoma is like the Backstreet Boys putting out a rap
CD. "Simple reason," says Stoops when asked to explain this move.
"In the three years I was at Florida, the one offense we could
never stop was Kentucky's, even though it didn't have nearly the
talent we did, except at quarterback [Tim Couch]. That, plus I
figured nobody in the Big 12 was used to seeing this style." It
worked so well that in early December, Texas Tech hired Leach as
its new coach, replacing Spike Dykes, who had resigned.
Watching the Sooners carve up the conference through the air was
a hoot. Quarterback Josh Heupel, a transfer from Snow Junior
College in Ephraim, Utah, passed for 3,460 yards and 30
touchdowns, broke 13 school passing records and was named Big 12
Offensive Newcomer of the Year while attempting an average of
45.5 throws a game. Oklahoma's explosion led to much harrumphing
around the conference. Before the Oct. 30 game at Colorado,
Buffaloes coach Gary Barnett belittled the Sooners' offense by
suggesting that all that was needed to shut it down was "a good
defense." Even after his Aggies gave up 51 points to Oklahoma,
Texas A&M coach R.C. Slocum said that "high winds" could stop the
Sooners--a previously unexplored meteorological theory. The truth
is that the spread offense took Florida to one national title and
Miami to two; with talent, it's no gimmick.
To jazz things up further, Stoops had the Sooners run three fake
field goals and two fake punts (yield: one TD, two first downs),
which is more than some teams run in a decade. Stoops did all of
this with a perfectly straight face while dispensing platitudes
such as, "We haven't done anything yet." Clearly the joke was on
Oklahoma's opponents, and the Sooners loved it. "I wish I had
some more years of eligibility, because things are going to get
better around here in a hurry," said senior safety Rodney Rideau.
Less visibly, Stoops undertook a conventional restructuring of
the Oklahoma program. One of his first hires was Florida strength
and conditioning coach Jerry Schmidt, who had also worked at
Nebraska and Notre Dame. When Schmidt arrived in January 1999,
many Sooners players couldn't finish his warmups without puking.
Now they're passably fit. Recruiting is chugging toward old
Oklahoma standards, with 23 high school recruits and five junior
college transfers signed as of last weekend. The signing class
was ranked 19th in the nation by Super Prep magazine. Memorial
Stadium, which seats 79,777, was sold out for the entire home
schedule last season for the first time since 1987.
Meanwhile the keepers of the flame watch Stoops work and draw
closer. "I'll tell you what," says Washington. "I've got a real
good feeling about rebuilding the Oklahoma legacy."
Stoops would know about carrying on traditions. His father, Ron,
was a beloved teacher and coach who for 30 years before his
death, in 1988, was defensive coordinator at Cardinal Mooney High
in Youngstown, Ohio. Ron and his wife, Dee Dee, raised six
children--four of them boys--in a small, three-bedroom Cape Cod
house on the south side of Youngstown. From the time they could
walk, the boys, and many of their friends, followed Ron to his
practices and even to the baseball and softball games he played
almost until he died. "Mr. Stoops was our hero," says Ray (Boom
Boom) Mancini, the former world lightweight boxing champion who
grew up with the Stoops boys.
With Ron setting the defenses and coach Don Bucci calling the
plays, Cardinal Mooney won four state titles, the last in 1987.
All four Stoops boys--Ron Jr., Bob, Mike and Mark--played for their
father and worked tirelessly for his approval. "The Mooney
program was tough, and my father was tough," says Mike. "He'd
kick you in the ass if you weren't doing what you were supposed
to do." However, he would never go postal on some pimply kid;
instead he would grind his teeth and bite his lower lip into
He was stricken on the sideline. Just as a ferocious game between
Mooney and Boardman (Ohio) High, where Ron Jr. was an assistant
coach, was going into overtime on the night of Oct. 7, 1988, Ron
Sr. became so ill that he sat on a bench far from the field.
There had been some warning signs: He'd felt nauseated all day
and hadn't eaten a slice of birthday cake at a school party that
afternoon, even though he loved sweets. "We figured it was just
big-game butterflies," says Dee Dee. Ron was only 54, with the
wiry body of a teenager, and just that summer had played pickup
basketball with his sons at Bob's wedding in Iowa. School
officials fetched Ron Jr. from the press box to sit with his
father while an ambulance was called. He died en route to the
hospital, the victim of heart disease that he never knew he had.
The sons have honored the father's life by walking in his
footprints. All four are defensive football coaches. There's Ron
Jr., 42, who, following his dad's example, has remained at the
high school level, as the defensive coordinator of Boardman's
highly respected program. There's Bob, 39, at Oklahoma, whose
roots are purely in defense. There's Mike, 37, who worked with
Bob at Kansas State from 1992 to '95 and is now his co-defensive
coordinator in Norman, their offices next to each other. Mark,
32, was the defensive secondary coach at Wyoming (under former
Kansas State assistant Dana Dimel) and might have joined the
Sooners, too, except that the brothers agreed that three
Stoopses would have stretched the limits of Oklahoma's nepotism
policy. In January he moved to the University of Houston as the
"Those boys were destined to be football coaches," says former
Iowa assistant coach Bill Brashier, who coached Bob, Mike and
Mark with the Hawkeyes, "and they were destined probably from the
time they could walk, even if they didn't realize it." They
didn't, but they do now. "Dad never pushed us to play or to
coach, but we loved being around him, doing the things that he
did, so why wouldn't we follow him?" says Ron Jr.
The sons' paths were not wholly similar. Ron Jr. didn't play
football while attending Youngstown State and never thought
seriously about coaching at the college level. He's one of the
army of devoted high school soldiers, teaching history--as his
father did--to 10th-, 11th- and 12th-graders and coaching not only
football but also just about every other sport Boardman offers.
Mark might have gone the same way, too. Like Bob and Mike, he
started in the secondary at Iowa during the Hayden Fry era and
worked as a graduate assistant on Fry's staff after his
eligibility ran out. Then, seeking stability, he took a job as
athletic director for Nordonia Hills School District in
Macedonia, Ohio. That lasted 3 1/2 years. "I missed college
football, simple as that," says Mark. He went to the University
of South Florida as an assistant coach for two years and then to
Wyoming, and now Houston.
They all grind their teeth, bite their lower lips, get checked
regularly for heart disease and rely on the defense that their
dad designed back in the 1960s, a zone-blitzing, run-stopping,
corners-on-an-island jailbreak scheme that terrorizes weak
offenses and challenges strong ones. Why defense? Maybe it was
because the Cardinal Mooney High offense was so bland that it
reduced the Stoops boys to grunting, glamourless tight ends,
while the defense enabled them to earn All-State honors as flyboy
defensive backs. "Offense is cerebral and patient," says Mike.
"Defense is emotional and aggressive. That's the way my father
was, and that's the way we are. I think that's why we're all
drawn to defense."
None of them has taken it as far as Bob, who has his father's
dedication and his own ambition. "He was always the most
competitive of the Stoops boys," says Bucci. Mike and Mark were
better athletes than Bob, but Bob had that fearlessness that
stamps overachievers and turns many of them into coaches. "Even
when we were kids," says Mancini, "Bobby had no regard for his
body. He would throw himself at a ball, even on the pavement."
In high school Bob was a 5'11", 160-pound safety who specialized
in blowing up tight ends who outweighed him by 50 pounds. At
Iowa he started for four years and twice was named All-Big Ten
despite getting knocked cold at least half a dozen times and
playing his last 2 1/2 seasons with a partially torn ACL in his
left knee that was never repaired. He never allowed the coaching
staff to time him in the 40. "I didn't want to know, and they
didn't want to know," he says. Brashier, who coached Stoops for
his entire college career, says, "He was tough as a boot, one of
the toughest we've ever had. Didn't matter how fast he could
run." While Mike would get NFL tryouts three years later, Bob
never considered pro football. "I knew I had used up everything
my body had to offer," he says. "It was time for something else."
That something else was coaching. He worked at Iowa and Kent
State before landing at Kansas State. There he helped install an
attacking defense that was the cornerstone of the Wildcats'
remarkable ascent. "We had one defense that we nicknamed 'punt
return,' because that's what it looked like, only one guy back,"
says Thomas Randolph of the Indianapolis Colts, who played
position cornerback at K-State from 1990 to '93. "I got to the
NFL, and coaches started talking about zone blitzes. I told guys
up there that we were zone blitzing back at Kansas State, we just
didn't call it that."
Oklahoma wasn't the first school that attempted to hire Stoops as
a head coach (Minnesota and Iowa tried unsuccessfully), but it
was the one that presented the best opportunity. Stoops has
borrowed from the styles of both his head coaching mentors,
although not in equal proportion. From Kansas State coach Bill
Snyder, a legendary workaholic who would rather coach than eat,
he learned discipline and preparation. Yet he worships Spurrier,
who can leave a loss at the office. "At Florida the football
program was a family," says Bob's wife, Carol. "I'm glad Bob was
able to experience that before he became a head coach."
Spurrier made Stoops a head-coach-in-training, giving him his
own postgame press conferences and staying away from defensive
meetings. He also taught Stoops that there's no crime in taking
the time to jog at lunchtime and go home to eat dinner with your
family. After a recent midafternoon run, Stoops stood sweating
outside Memorial Stadium. "Coach Spurrier is as competitive as
anybody, but when it's over, it's over," said Stoops. "He's
going to live his life, and football is part of it but not all
There's an epilogue to Stoops's association with Kansas State.
Stoops says Snyder was angry that Stoops got not only his brother
Mike but also defensive assistants Mark Mangino and Brent
Venables to join him at Oklahoma, essentially cleaning out the
K-State defensive staff (and their hard-won recruiting contacts).
Neither Bob nor Mike has talked to Snyder since. "I don't know if
anybody ever leaves Coach Snyder on good terms," says Mike. "He
simply doesn't accept that you would leave. But then again,
there's no having a personal relationship with him even when
Bob isn't looking back. "The fact is I gave everything I had to
Kansas State when I was there," he says. "Now I'm obligated to do
the same thing for Oklahoma. Period."
Oklahomans understand. Last fall, after eating dinner in a
downtown Norman restaurant, Stoops walked into the twilight and a
car screeched to a halt in front of him. The driver bounced
excitedly from his seat and grabbed Stoops's hand, pumping
furiously. "Just want you to know you're doing a great job and
we're all glad you're a Sooner," the man said, eyes wide and full
of hope. Stoops can relate. Back when he played in high school he
wore silver shoes, just like his hero, Joe Washington.
A HEAD COACH," SAYS SPURRIER.
WHO GREW UP WITH THE STOOPS BOYS.
AND GAMBLING SPECIAL TEAMS PLAY.
JR. "WHY WOULDN'T WE FOLLOW HIM?"