Bob Stoops writes in his book “No Excuses” that firing Josh Heupel after Oklahoma’s 2014 season “killed me.” He also writes, at the end of the same paragraph: “He was a great player and a legend at Oklahoma. It is his place, and I hope he looks at it that way.”
So we know how Stoops feels about one of the most painful acts of his 18-season tenure as OU head coach, dismissing an offensive coordinator who 15 years previously had been Stoops’ first Sooners quarterback, and the only quarterback to present Stoops a national championship.
But how does Heupel feel? Stoops hopes Heupel has found peace after such a tumultuous time, but has he?
Yes, in a way, he has.
Despite dropping a 34-31 game at Tulsa last Friday night, Heupel sounded happy and hopeful in his second season as Central Florida head coach. He should be both, given his 19-4 overall record at the American Athletic Conference program.
“Absolutely love it. Really do,” Heupel said in a corner of Chapman Stadium. “Fantastic leadership. Great kids inside the program. It’s a great place to live. It’s a unique university in just how young it is (UCF turned 50 last year) and how fast it’s growing. That’s on the school side of it, the academic side of it, but also the athletic department.”
Having been around Stoops and Joe Castiglione so many years, Heupel knows the value of a devoted athletic director. He has that in Danny White. He has an administration he likens to Stoops’ at OU.
“Dynamic. Aggressive. Going to fight tooth and nail, believe in what you’re trying to do. Is going to go out there and sell it,” Heupel said. “Does a great job fund-raising. For a young program, all those things are critical.”
Heupel is so cheery of his UCF position that it helps him confront his devastating exit from OU.
“Sometimes God moves you into the right situation,” he said. “He let me get out of Norman, you know what I mean? There was a reason, and being in Orlando is it, man.”
Asked if it has taken until now to come to such grips, Heupel said: “I don’t know. As soon as something happens, I kind of go live in the moment. Kind of submerge myself in it and go.”
Heupel did submerge himself in being Utah State’s offensive coordinator in 2015, the year after Stoops dismissed him, and Missouri’s in 2016 and ’17. He did well at both stops, he just didn’t make his mark.
A coach must make his mark at one job to forget about losing his way at another. So of course it is easier for Heupel to come to grips now.
It is easier, but it is not a completed task.
Heupel said Friday night he has not spoken with Stoops since his 5-year-old departure.
Asked if he would like to do so, Heupel replied: “I don’t think twice about it. Some day our paths will cross again.”
At a 2000 Sooners reunion perhaps.
Stoops’ national champs turn 20 next year. Heupel has his own team to coach, but maybe if the parties worked it out he could return and swap stories with Quentin Griffin, Antwone Savage, even Mike Leach one weekend.
“Man, I cannot love my time — coaching, too — but like my playing time, with my brothers, there in Norman (any more),” Heupel said. “Are you kidding me? I owe them a great deal. They’ve helped my career, not just while I was playing, but here, too. Cherish all those guys.”
Is that a ‘yes?’ You’d like to come back then?
“I love those guys,” Heupel answered.
In a moment he was back in the locker room with his UCF guys. He’d be on a plane out of Oklahoma in another hour or so.
On my car ride home that night, I thought about those “brothers,” how so many of them spoke admiringly of their starting quarterback when I interviewed them for my Tulsa World series on OU’s 1999 season.
Savage and Josh Norman, two of Heupel’s favorite receivers then, both brought up the first meeting before the Sooners’ magic-dusted ’00 season.
“‘Heup’ was in tears,” Norman said, “talking about looking over the schedule and not seeing anybody we couldn’t beat.”
“It was in our old Red Room,” Savage said. “One of the things Josh kept saying was, ‘You gotta expect to win. You gotta expect to win,’”
“That was really the tone-setter for our season,” Norman said. “Shoot, man. Like, we’re the only ones who can stop us.”
He was a great player and a legend at Oklahoma. It is his place, and I hope he looks it at that way.
I believe he does. Maybe if we all see Heupel toasting Red October with Stoops at that reunion, we’ll know he does.
But yeah, five years and a second success story later, I believe he does.