Recruiting services like Scout have only been ranking classes for about 15 years now, but a look at their very first rankings — in 2002 — is instructive. They have the Texas Longhorns taking the top spot, and the Sooners coming in right on their heels at No. 2. Oklahoma had six five-star recruits in that class.
Oklahoma was on top of the recruiting world. While the Longhorns fell out of the top 10 in 2003, OU picked up the No. 3 Scout class. In 2004 they were No. 7; in 2005 they were No. 5. Only a handful of teams — maybe USC, maybe Florida — were recruiting as consistently well as the Sooners.
Things are very different these days, of course. Alabama is a virtual lock for each season’s top recruiting class, and while some major recruiters are the same (like LSU and Florida State), other schools have seen a big change in fortune (like Clemson or Texas).
Since 2010, it’s been more or less expected that Bob Stoops would recruit a good-but-not-great class to Norman, coach them up and make a run at the Big 12 title. He hadn’t been running with the big dogs for the best players for several years, and a combination of factors — like the diminished Big 12, the dominant SEC and Oklahoma’s relative isolation — were all working against him.
While Stoops didn’t land any of the nation’s very best players in #SoonerSquad17, he did find a new way into the top 10. Led by talented recruiters like Kerry Cooks and Dennis Simmons, Oklahoma has reconnected with a new generation too young to remember the last time OU won it all.
It’s hard for a coach to rediscover his mojo like that. Stoops’s rise to the pinnacle of college football was famously lightning-fast. He took over a 5-6 team, turned them into a 7-5 team and then into an undefeated national champion. The talent was almost there, but it really started pouring in after the championship.
The recruiting decline of the 2010s was attributable to a lot of factors and much-discussed among Oklahoma fans. Perhaps Josh Heupel’s offense was no longer on the cutting edge of the sport, and maybe he wasn’t its best salesman. Maybe the diminution of the Big 12 conference before 2012 made the whole thing a less attractive destination. Maybe Mack Brown’s coaching twilight and Charlie Strong’s stagnation made the OU-Texas rivalry lose its appeal.
In any case, Stoops obviously through a coaching staff shakeup would alleviate the problem. Early returns say he’s made some inspired hires so far.
The 2015 offseason was, of course, the one with the biggest turmoil and changeover in Stoops’s famously consistent tenure. He had a hard-earned reputation for loyalty and patience with his staff, maybe to a fault, but decided to shake up both sides of the ball that year. In Lincoln Riley, Cooks and Simmons, Stoops is finally reaping the rewards of his gamble.
It seems to me that Stoops is determined to win another title before he leaves Norman. Few see him as the kind of coach who will pace the sideline until he physically can’t any more — not like Paterno or Snyder.
No, most agree that Stoops sees the next few seasons as his last best chance at elusive title number two. It took him years, maybe a few more than it should have, but he finally surrounded himself with the next-generation recruiters he needs — Mike Stoops notwithstanding — to win in the here and now.
When it comes to recruiting, most coaches either got it or they don’t. Urban Meyer can do it anywhere. Jim Harbaugh gets it. Jimbo Fisher gets it. And boy, does Nick Saban ever know how to get a kid to Tuscaloosa.
Bob Stoops had it, then he lost it, then he got it back again. That’s pretty impressive. Recruits are only a part of the battle — all those amazing classes didn’t translate to titles last decade. But the next time Oklahoma lines up in a Playoff semifinal, they can feel confident they won’t be overmatched. That’s a great first step.