Tramel: Bob Stoops' psychology worked wonders quickly for Sooner football
NORMAN — Bob Stoops came to Norman 22 years ago to coach football, armed with a University of Iowa business degree.
Too bad it wasn’t psychology. OU might have named the psych department after Stoops. Heck, still might not be a bad idea.
Twenty years ago, Stoops’ Sooners won the national championship, with a stunningly quick makeover of OU football, starting with the psyche of the players he inherited and the fans who cheered them on.
“When he got the first look at us that winter, I think it offended him how badly we looked, how soft we were, how out of shape we were,” said tight end Trent Smith, who became a star and finished his career with 156 catches. “Fast forward, I think he realized he had the core of something pretty spectacular.”
Smith reels off the names of those Sooners who had come to Norman and experienced none of the expected glory. Himself. Roy Williams. Frank Romero. Bubba Burcham. Chris Hammons. “The list goes on,” Smith said.
Stoops and staff staged a virtual intervention. Constantly building up and breaking down obviously-talented football players who never had a whiff of success. A roster that was mentally beaten down soon enough needed psychological guidance from the other end, to not have too much swagger. Such was the effect of Stoops’ Restoration Hardware.
A program that hadn’t had so much as a winning season in five years suddenly was playing for and securing championships, not to mention the Golden Hat Trophy that goes with winning the OU-Texas game.
Stoops’ star soared. He was the hottest thing going in college football, at the age of 40. Big Game Bob became his moniker.
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The only problem with the Stoops quick renovation was that he created instant and great expectations. Even in his own mind.
Two decades later, Stoops admits things would have gone easier had he won his lone national title in the middle of his career. Winning in 2000 meant everyone from Ruf-Neks to English professors figured he should win a bunch more. Stoops’ teams made three more national-title games, plus the 2015 national semifinals, but never won another national championship.
“Every time you’re in it, you’re just going to win it,” Stoops said of the attitude. “Even I naively felt that way.”
Florida won the 1996 national title with Stoops as defensive coordinator, then came 2000. It all seemed a breeze.
Stoops recalls Toby Keith’s 2003 Christmas party, a few weeks before OU played LSU in the national championship game. In a chat with Barry Switzer, Stoops was stunned to learn that Switzer three times lost virtual national-championship games.
“You lost three national championships?” Stoops asked incredulously.
Switzer was amused.
“You smart young s---, you think you’re going to win every one of them?” he said.
Stoops found out. No. You don’t win ‘em all. But he won that first one, and what a year it was.
Joe Castiglione, who hired Stoops seven months after becoming OU athletic director and remains on the job, recalls the spring and summer of 2000, when the Sooners were coming off a 7-5 season. Back then, coaches traveled around the state to fan rallies.
“Just a winning season, which we hadn't had for a number of years, got people really excited,” Castiglione said. “And I do remember how people were really excited about the progress.
“From Guymon to Idabel to Miami down to Lawton. We were everywhere. People were excited. They'd maybe get a little too excited about the way the season turned out, you know? I remember many times when Coach Stoops had to remind them, ‘Now, wait a minute, if you think we're going to be defined by a 7-5 season and going to the Independence Bowl, you've got another thing coming. That is not the standard at Oklahoma.'
“I really believe Bob was an extraordinary psychologist. I could talk for a long time about all the different things he would do to get his team ready to play their best, but he was also training the fan base to a standard and what we wanted to accomplish.”
And it all came to a boil in October 2000. After a nondescript 4-0 start, the Sooners beat in succession 11th-ranked Texas 63-14, second-ranked Kansas State 41-31 and No. 1 Nebraska 31-14.
Only the latter game was on Owen Field, which was flooded by OU fans. The celebration was mighty, as Sooner Nation realized it was back in the saddle.
Andre Woolfolk, a star cornerback on the 2000 team, said Stoops did a “masterful job” of instilling the right mindset in the Sooners. “The outside world goes away, and you're only focused on what you're doing.”
As the final seconds clicked down on that OU-Nebraska game, Sooner fans revived a long-dormant tradition of throwing oranges into the field. The Orange Bowl would be the site of the 2000 national title game.
“That was the first time that I even knew where the national championship was held,” Woolfolk said. “They were throwing oranges down there on the field. What in the world is going on? It was absolutely crazy. So I think he did a good job of making sure that each week was special in its own.”
The Sooners went on to beat Florida State 13-2 in that Orange Bowl, but Stoops always looks back on October as the games that launched what became a Big 12 dynasty.
“All our confidence kind of came to fruition in those weeks,” Stoops said. “I think it did for the fans as well. ‘Holy cow, look what we’re doing.’ And the great respect for Nebraska, especially at the time, the way they had been winning. To be able to play that way in that moment, was big.”
Stoops never stopped mentally challenging his players. After beating Kansas State, again, in the Big 12 Championship Game, Stoops had a stark declaration for his team.
“People need to understand the way that Coach Bob instilled in us,” said Williams, a safety who that year was en route to becoming one of the best players in OU history. “It was like, don't look too far ahead. It's one game at a time. Business mentality.
“After the K-State game, he literally was like, ‘you guys are not going to get Big 12 championship rings if we don't win the national championship.’ That’s the damn truth. That’s 1,000 percent fact.”
Williams shakes his head like an old-timer on a front porch, about contemporary trends.
“It's like a frickin’ Oprah giveaway,” Williams said. “You get a ring, you get a ring, you get a ring.”
Not with Stoops in 2000. It’s a title that still resonates. Flags fly forever. And not one time in this century has OU football suffered from a lack of confidence.
“They were sick and tired of getting kicked around,” Stoops said. “And they knew what Oklahoma’s supposed to be. Sick and tired of not living up to our standards around here, and they were determined to do something about it.”
Soon enough, Dr. Stoops had to deal with a superiority complex instead of an inferiority complex. The Sooners won enough over the next decade that “after awhile, some guys feel just because they put on that helmet, they deserve to win,” Stoops said. “Then you fight overconfidence. Are you still doing the right amount of work? Are you still putting in the sweat to deserve to win? Lot of psychology.”
Stoops retired in summer 2017, with more wins than either Bud Wilkinson or Switzer. A statue of Stoops stands just outside the football stadium. It fits in well. But it would stand proud outside the psychology department, too.
Berry Tramel: Berry can be reached at 405-760-8080 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. He can be heard Monday through Friday from 4:40-5:20 p.m. on The Sports Animal radio network, including FM-98.1. You can also view his personality page at oklahoman.com/berrytramel. Support his work and that of other Oklahoman journalists by purchasing a digital subscription today.