Tramel: Mike Stoops made a 'career-saving' decision to work for Nick Saban after OU football tenure ended
Mike Stoops sounds the same.
Same as he did when pounding the coaching-booth table for Kansas State and when being the brash alter ego of brother Bob during the OU renaissance and when defiantly defending the defensive stumbles in his second Sooner stint.
Except there’s a new halt in his voice. A conciliatory tone. An admission that he needed a coaching makeover.
Who would have thought. Mike Stoops with a crisis of confidence.
“You know you can coach, but you question yourself or your schemes or whatever,” Stoops said the other night from Boca Raton, Florida, where the temperatures are warm and so, finally, is his career again. “So you do lose some confidence in what you’re doing. Be crazy to say you didn’t.”
Twenty-eight months ago, Lincoln Riley fired his defensive coordinator. An unfathomable fall from grace for Stoops, one of the giants of 21st-century Sooner football.
Stoops, coordinating for his brother, fashioned a defense that produced a game for the ages as OU beat Florida State 13-2 in the Orange Bowl to win the 2000 national championship. Stoops was a made man. Until he wasn’t.
A 48-45 loss to Texas in October 2018 was the final straw, and Riley made a change the next day.
Soon enough, Stoops entered Nick Saban’s rehab. Extreme Makeover: coaching edition. Stoops spent two years as an Alabama analyst and now is defensive coordinator at Florida Atlantic of Conference USA.
FAU is not a bad gig. Better to coordinate there than coach linebackers at Texas, a job Stoops thought he was getting a few weeks ago before new Longhorn coach Steve Sarkisian reneged on an offer.
“Maybe did me a favor in the end,” Stoops said.
Linebacker coaches get little credit and, early in a coaching regime, can get lots of blame. At Florida Atlantic, Stoops can implement his 30 years of experience with his new Saban knowledge and build something that could restore his good defensive name.
“It’s ascending,” Stoops said of the FAU program, begun by Howard Schnellenberger a quarter century ago and lifted to impressive heights by Lane Kiffin, who from 2017-19 went 26-13 and coached the Owls to two Conference USA championships. “Lane really gave it life. Gave it some much needed spark. I think he ignited something.”
Boca Raton and C-USA are a long way from OU and the Big 12. But you’ve got to restart somewhere. And Stoops is ready to restart after graduating from Saban’s do-over club, which also includes the likes of Butch Jones, Mike Locksley, Charlie Strong, Sarkisian and Kiffin.
Stoops talks glowingly of his two Tuscaloosa seasons analyzing game film and giving the Bama coaching staff a running start on gameplans.
“A career-saving decision,” Stoops calls it. “Smart to step back to go forward. Helps you in a lot of ways. How you think. How you process things. Why you coach. What you’re coaching.
“Very enlightening. Very beneficial in every way. Physically, mentally, you just pick up a lot.”
We all think of Mike Stoops as a coach who had all the answers or thought he did. But no. The Alabama Stoops was a different Stoops. He carried around notebooks and filled them with observations about Saban’s program. So many notebooks he drew laughter from fellow Crimson Tide staffers.
Stoops was amazed at how everyone in Tuscaloosa fell in line with Saban’s way in every phase.
“It’s not robotic,” Stoops said. “It’s not that way. People have feelings and emotions. But it’s very precise in what we do, and the scheduling, in how it’s done.”
Even in the pandemic season, Saban burrowed the Tide to a 13-0 season and a fifth national title in 12 seasons.
Stoops said the recharging was exactly what he needed.
“There’s ways to make things better,” Stoops said. “He teaches you ways to do things better … lot of people don’t want to spend the time to do it. Just a lot that goes into a gameplan. Puts a lot on the players and coaches into it.
“He likes to stimulate people’s minds and keep you working. You can become complacent and lazy if you don’t. He’s always pushing to get better. Puts a lot on players and coaches. Sometimes it’s a lot for players to deal with. But that’s what he believes in.”
Stoops spent 12 seasons in Norman, sandwiched around 7½ years as Arizona’s head coach. Stoops said the OU and Bama programs are not alike.
“Totally different,” Stoops said. “They’re not even … Lincoln and Bob had their ways of doing things. I don’t want to get into the details of what’s different. There’s a lot of ways to win. The best way to win is to have great players. You need it all.”
But from Kirby Smart at Georgia to Jeremy Pruitt at Tennessee to Locksley at Maryland to many more, coaches hired away from Saban’s staff have tried to emulate his culture and his calendar. Some work, some don’t.
Stoops has mixed feelings about OU. He seems to have no grudge against Riley. Says they remain friends and communicate on occasion, congratulating each other on accomplishments.
But Stoops’ relationship with Sooner fans is more complicated. He is bothered by the prevailing opinion that his defenses were a disaster and the root of all OU football problems.
And Stoops is right. While his last couple of defenses frequently were torched, his second stint as coordinator, 2012-18, also included some high times.
Riley himself, the day after firing Stoops, credited Stoops with giving the OU offense a long runway in 2015, Riley’s first season on campus.
“He was so good to me when I came in here, especially when we stunk on offense the first half of that first year,” Riley said. “I’ll never forget that. He’s a great friend. One of the toughest things I’ve ever had to do.”
In 2015, which began the latest Sooner revival, OU had the Big 12’s best defense. Those Sooners shut out Kansas State and held Tennessee to 17 points in regulation, Texas to 24 points and OSU to 23 points.
That’s winning football in a league in which the quarterbacks included Patrick Mahomes, Baker Mayfield, Mason Rudolph, Trevone Boykin and Seth Russell.
“That was a great era,” Stoops said. “That was some of the best offensive football ever. Wasn’t just bad defenses. Those guys have gone to rip everybody.
“Everything is timing in life. Kind of evolving to the Southeast(ern Conference). Kind of weird. That was an era, we did a lot of innovative things, like dropping eight guys. We put that in, trying to stop Baylor.
“Some really good football. I know people want to kill you defensively. I don’t necessarily think that was fair.”
Then Stoops stopped and took some responsibility.
“There’s things we could have done better, for sure,” he said.
“Was I thrilled the way things ended? No. For a person that put that much of their life into that university, that was hard. But certainly the results weren’t the same.”
Stoops acknowledges what Riley said back in 2018, that sometimes a new voice is needed, that sometimes players stop listening.
But now Stoops is rejuvenated, after two seasons at Alabama.
Stoops is 59. Seems like college football is loaded with whiz-kid offensive coordinators, but more veteran coaches are holding up as defensive coordinators. Iowa State’s Jon Heacock is 60 and came to prominence only lately. OSU’s Jim Knowles is 55 and the same. Sarkisian at Texas just hired Pete Kwiatkowski, 54. Texas Tech hired Keith Patterson, 56. Baylor hired Ron Roberts, 53.
Ohio State’s Kerry Coombs is 59. Florida’s Todd Grantham is 54. Oregon’s Tim DeRuyter is 58. There is time for another act in Mike Stoops’ play.
“You always want to prove yourself,” Stoops said. “If you ever get complacent, you’re going to get run over. I think you have something to prove every year.”
But Stoops turned reflective. Said he might have mellowed. Mellowing under a Saban cocoon is counter-intuitive, but maybe a broader perspective leads to all kinds of self-improvement.
“I think I’ll do it in a different way, if that makes sense,” Stoops said. “I’m sure I’ll be animated. (But) I’ve learned how to be more patient. I learned a lot about that. How to coach … getting your message to your players so they understand.
“Hopefully we can learn some new tricks from my time at Alabama.”
Berry Tramel: Berry can be reached at 405-760-8080 or at email@example.com. He can be heard Monday through Friday from 4:40-5:20 p.m. on The Sports Animal radio network, including FM-98.1. Support his work and that of other Oklahoman journalists by purchasing a digital subscription today.