Bob Stoops is the star of “Survivor: Oklahoma”

It’s deja vu at Oklahoma, in a beautiful and redemptive way.


It has been a recurring theme for most of the past five years: A number of college football’s more entrenched and credentialed coaches were running up against the reality that their programs were getting stale, or at the very least, losing the momentum they once possessed.

Mark Richt hasn’t won an SEC title in 10 years at Georgia. This season, he was essentially eliminated from the SEC East race before the clock officially struck midnight on the month of October, beaten by a first-year coach at a program with a mediocre (but not terrible) backup quarterback. Richt’s starting quarterback has struggled, as the Georgia program — though avoiding collapse — has certainly fallen short of reasonable expectations for most of the past eight seasons, the 2011 and 2012 seasons being the exceptions.

Frank Beamer, ruler of the ACC from 2004 through 2010 and king of the Coastal division in 2011 as well, couldn’t sustain the machine-cranked consistency he had so admirably forged for nearly two whole decades in Blacksburg, after a slow start in the late 1980s and very early 1990s. Loyalty to assistant coaches — making sure they received competitive salaries — is one of Beamer’s best virtues as a person, but offensive coordinator Scot Loeffler was plainly not the answer for Virginia Tech in recent years. Auburn fans could have told you as much.

Beamer will step away from coaching at the end of the season, having done more than anyone thought possible in Blacksburg. Yet, after so much success, he arrived at a point where the success he sustained for a very long time could not replenish itself. He ran out of magic.

The third Hall of Fame-worthy coach who has plainly struggled over the past half-decade entered this season facing a familiar mixture of hope and doubt, but on the second Saturday of October, located on the grounds where the State Fair of Texas is held, he was in no mood to throw a party.


The scene was familiar, the plot line was all too recognizable, and the numbing pain came rushing back to the surface of memory: A not-very-good and painfully limited Texas team, one largely bereft of high-end offensive talent and deficient in ways which unmasked the decline of the Longhorn program, embarrassed Oklahoma in the Cotton Bowl stadium.

What happened in 2013 repeated itself in 2015. Most of the players — like the Texas head coach — were different, but the larger reality was the same. Texas, with an offense that just wasn’t very good, played the game with far more passion and vigor than Oklahoma did. The Sooners might have hated the Longhorns in their heads, but their level of effort didn’t manifest a similar level of fight. Texas punched OU in the mouth in 2013, and with that memory firmly in mind, you might have thought that the Sooners would be ready two years later, in another odd-year matchup with the Longhorns donning the burnt orange jerseys in the Red River Rivalry.

Oklahoma was anything but ready to play that contest, which is barely more than a month ago.

It feels more like a year ago at this point… but that’s part of the picture, you see: Bob Stoops has once again enabled a humiliating loss to Texas to become both an aberrational event and a positive turning point for his team.


It’s quite striking: Not only were Baylor and TCU supposed to be the heavyweights in the Big 12 this year (and to be fair to them, they might have been if the injury bug had not savaged them; to be fair to Baylor, it still has a reasonable chance at the title if it can win in Stillwater this Saturday against Oklahoma State), but after Oklahoma’s loss to Texas, it was plainly foolish to think that the Sooners were going to be in the position they currently inhabit.

Reasonable minds would acknowledge that if OU losing to a painfully limited Texas offense one time was cause for alarm, losing a second time in three years — in very similar fashion — represented reason for even more distress. The Sooners, on that day against Charlie Strong’s one-play offense (a quarterback sweep), were tissue-soft. It’s been the central deficiency of the Sooners the past several years, with personnel that could not impose their strength on opposing offensive lines.

Oklahoma had lost the nastiness which characterized the program at its best. This is why the king of the Big 12 in the first decade of the new century, continuing through 2010 (similar to Virginia Tech in the ACC), had ceased to lift Big 12 trophies. The school which had taken over as the Big 12’s behemoth is the school which stood in the Sooners’ way this past Saturday in Waco.

Bob Stoops didn’t win the Big 12 in 2013, and he didn’t beat Art Briles. That said, the Sooners were able to overcome a loss to Texas by making the Sugar Bowl and then pulverizing Nick Saban’s Alabama squad. The 2013 Sooners were not a work of art — their quarterback situation was one unending juggling act through 12 games — but they survived.

Could Stoops somehow pull off yet another revival after a crushing Cotton Bowl experience against Bevo’s Boys? Sure enough, he found the answer against Baylor, and even though the absence of Seth Russell certainly played a role in the outcome (surely even the most rabid OU partisan could acknowledge that point), Oklahoma made it plain that this game was primarily the result of the Sooners rediscovering their fastball:

Their front seven — to paraphrase San Anotnio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich — gave Stoops (and the Bears) “some nasty.”


It was quite striking to see: Baylor’s first drives in each half were country strolls, easy jogs to the end zone with OU defenders barely breathing on the Bears. Yet, after each of those breezy touchdown drives, the Sooners immediately adjusted, in mind and body. Baylor scored just 20 points the rest of the evening, with some of those points being set up by short fields and Oklahoma’s mistakes on offense. There’s an argument to be made that Briles didn’t trust Jarrett Stidham to the extent he needed to, but there’s no argument that Oklahoma’s front seven stood tall against Baylor’s running game, thereby foiling Briles’s central strategy and making Stidham beat them. The freshman was hardly terrible, thrust into the national spotlight, but he was “freshman” enough to give the Sooners a chance.

Oklahoma’s flinty resilience on defense — instructively, a complete 180 from the Charmin-soft disgrace against the Bears a year ago in Norman — turned opportunity into success. Bayker Mayfield’s persistence and Sterling Shepard’s dynamism on offense made sure that the defense’s work stood up against Baylor.


For a second time in the past three seasons, Stoops has managed to overcome a loss to Texas. His team now has everything — a Big 12 title and a playoff spot — on the table. Just one win in these last two games will likely give Oklahoma a New Year’s Six bowl for the second time in three seasons (the game was a BCS game in 2013).

It ought to give one pause about a very special coaching career.


There is no denying it: #CollegeFootballTwitter — not in error, either — has constantly documented the decline of “Big Game Bob” over the years. Getting thrashed by Notre Dame in the fourth quarter in 2012; losing on a missed 19-yard field goal to Kansas State last year and then getting bombed by Baylor a few weeks later; the twin losses to greatly diminished Texas teams; the absence of Big 12 titles which had once been so commonplace in Norman — these and other truths marked the stale period for Bob Stoops after 12 years (1999 through 2010) in which he left very little on the table and established himself as one of the great coaches in the sport’s history.

Yet, whereas Mark Richt and Frank Beamer have failed to return to the limelight, Stoops has Oklahoma headed for a showcase bowl at worst, and a playoff spot at best, if he can win two games inside state borders over the next fortnight.

Bob Stoops is a survivor in this business. He has fended off the idea that his time was up. More precisely, he has survived not just in a context of being “barely good enough to justify continuation of his tenure” at OU; he has survived at the highest reaches of the sport.

He and Oklahoma can reach for the highest prize of all over the next two weeks.


Few thought Stoops would reach the 2014 Sugar Bowl after the 2013 Texas loss, but Stoops proved the doubters wrong.

Few thought Stoops would have the slightest chance to play for all the Tostitos after another loss to Bevo in 2015, but here we are.

Mark Richt’s career needs one more really big season in order to be seen in a transformed way at Georgia. Frank Beamer’s iconic career is a luminous one, but the great man in Blacksburg did run out of magic.

Bob Stoops? The Rasputin of the Big 12, he keeps finding ways to make himself — and Oklahoma — relevant at the highest levels of competition. A decorated career, someway and somehow, has absorbed a Texas stumble and an eight-hour transportation delay before the Kansas State game to arrive on schedule.

Oklahoma, improbably but geninely, is where it ought to be… thanks to a man who was given the chance to rescue his program.

It’s a very good thing “Survivor: Oklahoma” was renewed before sweeps month. Bob Stoops has shown us why… again.

About Matt Zemek

Editor, @TrojansWire | CFB writer since 2001 |