Tuesday marks the one-year anniversary of Mike Stoops’ dismissal as Oklahoma’s defensive coordinator.
While the official announcement came 48 hours after the Sooners’ 48-45 loss to Texas in the Cotton Bowl, there were several rumors flying around on the Sunday after the game.
It was an unforgettable weekend for those covering the Oklahoma beat.
The OU-Texas game itself was fascinating with how much the game shifted in the fourth quarter. The Sooners were down 45-24 before being led on a remarkable comeback by Heisman Trophy winner Kyler Murray, who led three touchdown drives to tie it.
But when the Sooners needed one defensive stop, it couldn’t keep the Horns off the scoreboard. It would be the last drive of Stoops’ OU career as coordinator as Cameron Dicker hit a 40-yard field goal with nine seconds remaining.
After OU-Texas games, the losing team goes first in press conferences. While Tom Herman and players were smiling in an air-conditioned room after the win, Stoops met with about 30 reporters on the concourse on a hot afternoon.
“It’s all frustrating. It hurts. But it is what it is. You’ve gotta keep moving forward and we’ll figure it out, figure out what to do,” Stoops told the group. “I’m extremely disappointed in my inability to get this team to play at a higher level. It takes everybody pulling the same way. Certainly I take a lot of that responsibility, that’s for sure.”
During the drive back with the Tulsa World crew, we talked about the possibility of Stoops’ departure from the team. Would it come at the end of the season? Or could it happen immediately?
My thought was the end of the season, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it happened that weekend.
On Sunday, the Atlanta Hawks and Trae Young were facing the Oklahoma City Thunder in an exhibition game at the BOK Center. I was at the arena when the rumor mill started churning.
A quick side note. I’m forever thankful for open locker rooms in the NBA before games. I met with Young before the game and wrote a story by halftime.
By then, I joined colleague Guerin Emig in getting with sources for a feel for what was going on. Could it happen immediately?
Soon, James Hale of KREF radio in Norman broke the news and Guerin confirmed it with a source. Stoops was out after totaling 12 years through two stints as OU’s defensive coordinator.
In Bob Stoops’ book “No Excuses. The Making of a Head Coach” the former Oklahoma coach wrote about that day.
“The professional side of me understood that the defense hadn’t been what it needed to be, and there were arguments to be made for a change. The personal side of me felt for my brother. He had faced a lot of criticism, and I knew it had to be difficult for him,” Stoops wrote in his autobiography.
“I told Lincoln that if he thought making a change would move the team forward, then he should do it. He asked me, ‘If I go that direction, do you understand?’
“With a heavy heart, I said I would.”
I asked Riley at Big 12 Media Days about that conversation.
“I definitely appreciate being able to talk to (Bob Stoops). As you can imagine it wasn’t the easiest subject,” Riley told me. “But Bob and Mike and all of the entire Stoops family, they are professionals. They get it. They get the business. The one person whose advice I’d lean on the most was obviously more than just another person in this deal.
“It was tough but it was good to have Bob's honest opinion on it just be able to talk to him through kind of what I was thinking.”
On Sunday night, I drove to Norman for what was expected to be a busy Monday.
Linebacker Caleb Kelly had a scheduled event at a Purcell elementary school. He would be a guest speaker after being named to the Allstate AFCA Good Works team.
Kelly was still absorbing the news when I was joined by Ryan Aber (The Oklahoman), Nate Feken (KFOR-TV), Jason Kersey (The Athletic) and Tyler Palmateer (Norman Transcript) in interviewing him.
“You all know that’s my guy. I love him so much,” said Kelly, who added he wouldn’t be at OU if not for Mike Stoops. “That’s really the best thing I can say. I love him so much. That’s really one of my favorite coaches that I’ve ever had.”
An official news release was sent out by OU a few hours later.
Riley normally has a noon news conference on Mondays, but since there was no game that week, it was canceled (which is common). The coach would be available for interviews after Monday’s practice, but no players.
Meanwhile, Mike Stoops issued a statement via social media: “My family and I continue to hold the University of Oklahoma football players, coaching staff, administrative staff and the entire Sooner Nation in the highest regard. We wish nothing but continued success for the program.”
Riley met the media at the Everest Indoor Training Center. The gaggle was one of the largest I’ve seen while covering OU.
Riley described an emotional team meeting when the news was broke.
“Lot of those guys loved Mike, were recruited by Mike,” Riley said. “And everybody in that room felt ownership in this. It damn sure ain’t all Mike’s fault. It’s my fault, it’s every coach in that room’s fault, it’s every player in that room’s fault.
“We all own it.”
Ruffin McNeill would be named interim defensive coordinator three months before Alex Grinch was hired to take over the Oklahoma defense.
Riley used one word – “spark” – multiple times when talking about the transition on the defensive staff.
What did that mean?
“it just takes so much to go right and everything’s got to be on point to play well. Especially in this league defensively,” Riley said. “If you’re not playing with your hair on fire, every assignment good, tackling well, this or that, people are going to expose you in a heartbeat. The margins are thin.
“And so at the end of the day we needed a little bit of a jolt. We needed a new voice. That’s why we did it.”