NORMAN, Okla. -- Pete Carroll's shout-out -- such as it was -- is more than six years old now. Bob Stoops still loves telling the story.
"One of the best compliments I ever got," Oklahoma's coach said.
It was at one of those grip-and-grin luncheons before the BCS title game in the 2005 Orange Bowl. USC was in the middle of a dynasty. Oklahoma was more than familiar with the label. Two equals had resurrected winning traditions in different ways.
"I'm looking at your guys," Stoops remembers Carroll as saying, "Where do you get [them]? I don't care what you say, you're still in Oklahoma. I've got Hollywood to recruit to."
There has always been that about Oklahoma. It is a state of only 3.5 million people. And, in an age where such things count, only 1.2 million television households. It isn't the only football power in a rural state. Far from it. But something had always sustained the program, whether it had been Bud Wilkinson's monopoly, Barry Switzer's swagger or Stoops' renewal.
|Stoops will make a reported $4.875 million this season, making him one of the highest-paid coaches in the country. (US Presswire)|
If you have the time to see it, you too can pull off I-35 for a few minutes. It's not too near the fast food joints, hotels and the infamous Big Red Motors that once employed the equally infamous OU quarterback Rhett Bomar. The dream-home opulence suggests permanence. The owner suggests otherwise.
"People think I'm going to stay because of a house," Stoops said heading into his 13th season. "Everybody can sell a house. Coaches sell houses every year whether they're fired or moving. It's an attractive piece of property ... [but] the last thing I’m going to do is tie myself to a house."
There likely will be gasps all throughout Oklahoma over those statements. Stoops' name continues to come up for virtually every big job that opens up. When Charlie Weis left Notre Dame in late 2009, the school had to put out three different press releases to get the point across. Stoops wasn't interested. When Urban Meyer left Florida (again) in December, OU's sports information department didn't bother. They considered it redundant.
Stoops wasn't interested (again).
What ties the 50-year-old coach to Norman, then, is not a house. It's being at home. It's the job itself. It's a good one. He wins. Nobody messes with him. Upper management hasn't changed in his 12 seasons. The AD who hired him in one of the most brilliant coaching finds ever, Joe Castiglione, is still entrenched. Stoops has the same president, David Boren.
"Though we've had success here I don't ever act like I have to throw my weight around," the coach said. "Whatever we do, I check with my bosses."
All of it suggests lifer status for a man half a century old, and a dozen years into the job of a lifetime. The son of a coach from Ohio, who played at Iowa, then cut his coaching teeth at Kansas State and Florida, has become the greatest coach on the Great Plains. Unless the bottom falls out, which -- unlike Texas in 2010 -- hasn't happened yet, there really isn't any reason to look around.
With Texas trying to dig out from under that 5-7 season and Nebraska headed to the Big Ten, there is suddenly an opening big enough to drive a Sooner Schooner through. Oklahoma is set to dominate, at least the Big 12, for years to come. What's left of the Big 12 North now has to play the Sooners every year instead of two out of every four. The nagging hurdle of Stoops having to prove himself in a conference championship game is gone, too.
Maybe that's why there were a lot of smiles around the football offices in late February. Sloppy, goofy smiles. One poll or another is most likely going to have Oklahoma as a preseason No. 1. Not a huge deal here but the staff seems to sense it.
"That's how we are," the coach said. "You'd see it [smiles] every year. We're not smiling because we're preseason whatever."
The happy faces have to signal something. OU hasn't been a preseason No. 1 in the major polls since 2003, yet leads the nation with 20 weekly appearances in the BCS at No. 1. It has started each season since 2001 ranked in the top 10 but has never followed up that 2000 national title under Stoops. "Big Game Bob" went from a term of endearment to one of derision. Every school should have such problems. The coach broke a personal five-game BCS bowl losing streak by beating Connecticut in the Fiesta Bowl.
Going into 2011, there is another Heisman-quality quarterback. Landry Jones has thrown a combined 64 touchdowns the past two seasons. Two of the team's best players ignored the NFL to come back -- receiver Ryan Broyles and linebacker Travis Lewis. There are 17 starters returning from the sixth Stoops team to win at least 12 games.
A year ago Stoops welcomed what he says is his best freshman class ever. The coach couldn't contain himself, calling the 29 first-year players into a room at the end of two-a-days. The message: I've never seen this many players ready to play.
"That talk was before the season," Stoops said. "Look what they did after."
Safety Tony Jefferson was Big 12 Co-Defensive Freshman of the Year as well as a freshman All-American. Kenny Stills caught 61 passes. Fullback Trey Millard joined his two teammates in becoming a regular starter.
Only one other active Division I-A coach (Ohio State's Jim Tressel) has won more often than Stoops. Of the 14 guys ahead of him all-time in winning percentage, only eight have stayed at one school as a head coach. Two of them are named Wilkinson and Switzer. That's proof there may be no better college job in America -- at least for a guy with a national championship and seven conference titles in those 12 seasons.
"There's a bunch of guys in the NFL that probably would like to have this job. People don't realize this is one of those destination jobs," said Stoops, who constantly hears the negative recruiters in his head.
"It isn't on a coast? It isn't in some major metroplex?"
It is that alternate Hollywood. I-35 is glitzy here because it runs south all the way through Texas. For years that recruiting mother road has transported generation after generation of Texans -- future Sooners -- to Norman. Texas talent is what has sustained Oklahoma. No surprise except that three coaches tried and failed post-Switzer. Seven of Stoops' 24 All-Americans claimed by the school are from Texas. When the 2010 season began, half the 22 starters were from the Lone Star State. There is no Oklahoma success without Texas talent.
Who needs Hollywood when you've got Adrian Peterson, pride of Palestine, Texas?
Scores of programs thrive in rural states -- Alabama, Nebraska etc. But at a time when mighty OU was becoming a steppingstone gig, Stoops added that permanence. The school spent nine years sifting through Gary Gibbs, Howard Schnellenberger and John Blake. Oklahoma's football fortunes have been nothing but gold since that 2000 championship season.
"He made this a destination job," Castiglione said of his coach.
The AD won't say if his Notre Dame counterpart Jack Swarbrick called to get permission to talk to his coach 14 months ago. Over the years, Castiglione says he has gotten formal calls "eight to 10 [times], maybe." It doesn't matter, really. There are ways to make contact with a coach without calling his boss. The key is to stay ahead of that clandestine contact.
"I've always said if an institution just starts thinking about expressing their interest in [their] coach when the threat is there, it's too late," Castiglione said.
The fact that Stoops is well-compensated has been dissected to death. He'll make a reported $4.875 million this season. That's top five in the country. That should get you peace of mind, Sooner Heads. You're getting your money's worth. That's NFL-level jack for a guy who could leave for the pros tomorrow. Consider it a misstep missed. Two guys named Spurrier and Saban took that NFL shot. It is a small but important sample size, considering their current wealth and happiness at their rebound jobs.
They're not anywhere near Hollywood either.