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Oklahoma Sooners Football: How Lincoln Riley could end up being Bob Stoops’ greatest protégé

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A product of famous coaches, Bob Stoops has launched many careers.

NCAA Football: Oklahoma at Texas Christian Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

The 1983 Iowa Hawkeyes coaching staff was a rare collection of football minds. There was offensive coordinator Bill Snyder, who seems like he’s been at Kansas State for at least that long but first cut his teeth under Hayden Fry in Iowa City.

Barry Alvarez, the linebackers coach, went on to lead Wisconsin for 15 years and now serves as its AD. O-line coach Kirk Ferentz ended up taking over for Fry when he finally retired in 1998 — he’s now the longest-tenured active head coach in D1 football (if only because Snyder hit the pause button for a few seasons). Even D-line coach Dan McCarney went on to a long career at Iowa State and North Texas.

And then there’s the man of the hour, Bob Stoops, who in 1983 had just graduated from the University of Iowa as a one-time All-Big 10 defensive back and joined the staff as the new volunteer grad assistant. Surrounded by prodigies and mentored by one of college football’s most unique and inimitable personalities, Stoops would in time go on to have the best career of the lot and mentor his own batch of up-and-comers. But first he just had to prove himself well enough to get paid.

In 2015 Stoops told ESPN:

“I think you have to give [Fry] the credit, that he saw in people the leadership and quality of coaches that they were. Because you don't luck out and get that many people all together at one time.”

“You could tell that all of them had that kind of potential. You could see that happening with them.”

“It is amazing to have that many guys of that caliber all together. It's very unusual and doesn't happen much.”

“I believe we learned from Coach Fry the value of putting down roots rather than just being quick to leave and taking any job. When you're in a good situation like that, stay with it and make the most of it.”

Bob must have impressed somebody, because when Snyder finally took the reins at K-State in 1989 he poached Bob away from Kent State and set him on his ten-year trajectory to stardom. In two years Stoops became the co-defensive coordinator. He put down roots, stayed with a good situation, and only left when given the chance to fix Steve Spurrier’s Florida Gators defense.

He did, and the Gators won the 1996 national championship.

Stoops and Spurrier developed a rapport that continues to this day, and Spurrier gave Stoops complete autonomy to handle the UF defense. When Fry finally left the Iowa job after the 1998 season, Florida’s all-star defensive coordinator, as a successful alum, was the first name that entered the discussion. But after interviewing for both the Iowa and OU vacancy, Stoops ultimately took the Oklahoma job and set about rebuilding a proud but humbled program.

Stoops’ first hires were critical. He would need a bright offensive mind to counterbalance his defensive skillset, some talented recruiters to reverse the stagnation of the ‘90s and some edge to go with his fresh-faced good ol’ boy persona.

What he got was Mike Leach. Today, football fans everywhere know Leach as the guy who speaks his mind and does a pretty good job with what he has in college football’s Siberia, Washington State, despite the low ceiling he contends with. But in 1999 Leach was only a two-year veteran of the FBS, having caused a splash with Hal Mumme at Kentucky with a sexy new offense called the Air Raid.

This “basketball on grass” was designed to appeal to the denizens of a hoops-mad state, but it also had the benefit of being extremely effective. Air Raid offenses didn’t require the biggest, baddest players, just lots of buy-in and belief. And even though Mumme’s Wildcats were mediocre at best, Stoops saw Leach as the perfect coordinator to re-energize the OU program.

The new coaches guided Oklahoma to its first winning season since 1993, but Leach didn’t stick around to reap the rewards — he didn’t buy Fry’s logic about waiting. Leach took the Texas Tech job after the season, and Stoops promoted his offensive line coach Mark Mangino.

Mangino may have occupied more sideline space, but he continued Leach’s tradition of high-flying offense and was rewarded with one of the nation’s best units, a Broyles Award and a national championship. Mangino had been another transplant from Bill Snyder’s Kansas State staff and worked with Stoops for several years. Snyder’s tree was growing larger still, but Stoops was beginning an impressive one of his own. After the 2001 season, Mangino became the second straight Stoops offensive coordinator to take a Big 12 job — this one in Lawrence, where he led the Jayhawks until 2009.

Stoops, with his even-keeled public persona, has often thrived when surrounded by red-faced screamers on his staff. While Leach and Mangino handled the offense, Stoops’ brother Mike whipped the defense into shape. Products of the same household and football education under Fry and Snyder, the Stoops brothers developed a defense that, for all its faults now, was formidable in the early years of the Stoops era. So formidable, in fact, that Arizona tried to copy the OU blueprint by hiring Mike away in 2004.

Stoops’ Wildcats were a generally respectable if never spectacular bunch, but eventually that particular branch was chopped off when Mike returned to Oklahoma in 2012.

The Iowa connections kept expanding on the offensive side of the ball when Chuck Long took over the OU offense for Mangino in 2002 — Long had been a CFB Hall of Fame-caliber quarterback on that aforementioned early-80s Hawkeyes team before a good stint in the NFL. Long served alongside Kevin Wilson in a shared coordinator role and took the Oklahoma offense to new heights, and when Long took the San Diego State job in 2006 Kevin Sumlin came on board to help Wilson out.

The timing was great for WilsonSam Bradford happened, making him look like a veritable genius and helping him along to the 2008 Broyles Award. The Air Raid was gone from Norman, but in its place was a lethal pro-style attack with the nation’s most talented skill players that Wilson eventually parlayed into the Indiana head coaching job in 2011. Sumlin, of course, took the Houston job in 2008 and then the Texas A&M gig in 2012, bashing his former boss in that year’s Cotton Bowl with wunderkind Johnny Manziel.

After Mike left for Arizona, Bo Pelini spent a year in Norman before taking the LSU DC job that ultimately lead to the Nebraska head coaching gig. And there were plenty of coaches who went through OU that had long and successful assistant careers in college and the NFL — Brent Venables being the best example, he of the defending national champion Clemson Tigers.

I’m sure Bob would like a do-over on that one.

Even former players are getting in on the action — namely former OU fullback Seth Littrell, who is now the head man at North Texas.

But of all the head coaches Bob has mentored over the years — Nevada’s Jay Norvell being one of the latest examples — where is Stoops’, you know, Stoops? Where is his magnum opus, his piece de resistance, his masterpiece?

Oklahoma Sooners fans are hoping against hope that the answer is Lincoln Riley.

It wouldn’t take much. Stoops’ proteges have, for the most part, been marred by mediocrity in their eventual head-coaching gigs. And none of them were ever tasked with a program of OU’s caliber — Pelini being the notable exception, though his Huskers became the definition of “good enough” until good enough didn’t cut it any more.

Stoops is famous in the college football community for treating his assistants well. They have work-life balance. They see their families. Sure, they work harder and longer than a 19th-century English coal miner, but on the insane Saban-Meyer-Harbaugh scale Stoops’ Oklahoma was a plush gig.

And I think there’s just a certain level of insane you need to be to succeed at a blueblood college football program. Maybe Stoops didn’t attract enough insanity. But when I look at Lincoln Riley, I don’t see insanity there, either. He doesn’t do cheek-kisses or smear his players’ blood on his face. He seems — dare I say it? — a lot like Bob Stoops.

And that might be my favorite thing about Bob. He proved that Saban-level assholery isn’t a prerequisite to big-time winning. He proved that you can be a good guy and a great coach. Sure, he didn’t achieve the highest heights of dynastic dominance, but he was basically three games away from that. He was close enough to prove it completely possible.

Riley, obviously, isn’t Bob’s double in every respect. He’s not afraid of Twitter. He’s the youngest coach in major college football. And, in a sublime poetic twist, he learned his craft under the same offensive mastermind that Stoops brought in to begin his head coaching career.

But the two share an outward grace and humility that’s hard to find these days in major college football. That’s not always a winning formula. But it was for Bob and it could be for Riley, who’s in perfect position to become the biggest name on the large and still-expanding Stoops coaching tree.