The Big 12's future now rests in the hands of its two newest, brightest coaches
Bob Stoops' successor, Lincoln Riley, and Texas' Tom Herman will usher in a new era of the Big 12
To say that Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops was the face of the Big 12 isn't that far off. If you take into consideration that the Big 12 began fielding teams in 1996, and that Stoops took over the Sooners in 1999, the conference's history and Stoops' history in Norman have more or less been intertwined.
And, good lord, Stoops dominated during his time in the Big 12.
Stoops was 190-48 at Oklahoma. He was the program's all-time winningest coach, and the Sooners have had their share of all-time great coaches. He won 10 Big 12 titles, a national championship and coached in three more.
He lost nine home games in 18 years. Nine.
Oklahoma's ceiling lowered some in recent years. While Big 12 titles and 10-win seasons were the norm, Stoops' Sooners struggled to rekindle the magic of the 2000s in which playing for national championships was common. Oklahoma appeared in the 2015-16 College Football Playoff, but were boat raced by Clemson in the second half of the Orange Bowl in the semifinal.
"Big Game Bob" had his shortcomings, but Stoops is one of college football's all-time great coaches.
That illustrious career came to an end Wednesday and now the Big 12's future as a conference capable of competing for national championships is more uncertain than it's ever been. The Big 12's blue-blood programs, Oklahoma and Texas, are now in the respective hands of two first-year coaches: Lincoln Riley, Stoops' successor, and Longhorns coach Tom Herman. Riley is the youngest coach in the FBS at 33. Herman is 42. The last time two first-year coaches led Oklahoma and Texas in the same season? 70 years ago.
Stoops may have been past his prime, but he was an established coach who put together teams capable of competing at the highest level. You knew what you were getting with him. Now that he's gone, there's an understandable narrative that the Big 12 could falter nationally without its most successful coach.
Losing Stoops doesn't make the Big 12 better, per se, but it doesn't have to be doom and gloom, either. Let's examine.
Start with the obvious. Oklahoma and Texas are the only two remaining Big 12 members to have won a national championship in the conference's life span. Given the recruiting demands it takes to compete for a national title -- the rule of thumb is that programs need to recruit at a top-10 level to achieve that goal -- they're the only two members realistically capable of winning one again. There's a separate topic worth discussing about Texas -- the Big 12's primary recruiting ground -- being successfully mined by the rest of college football. That's a newer battle even the Sooners and Longhorns are learning to cope with.
There are other great coaches in the Big 12 besides Stoops, of course. Kansas State is what it is today because of Bill Snyder. Mike Gundy has done an underrated job at Oklahoma State. Gary Patterson built a sustainable power at TCU. All three are stalwarts. None of them will win a national title where they are right now. Snyder may not be around college football much longer as it is.
A new era ushered in by Riley and Herman will determine whether the Big 12 can get back to the top of college football or stumble through another rebuild. We just don't know what it will be yet. However, there are reasons for optimism regarding the former.
Let's start with Herman. This is Texas' guy. He was Texas' guy when Charlie Strong was still technically Texas' guy. He's been the up-and-coming coaching commodity in the sport over the last few years. He played a big part in orchestrating a rare revolving-door quarterback success story as Ohio State's offensive coordinator in 2014, the year the Buckeyes won the College Football Playoff national title. He already showed he could win big games as a first-time head coach at Houston by beating Florida State, Oklahoma and Louisville (twice) as part of a 22-4 record. He's absolutely crushing it on the recruiting trail with the Longhorns currently-ranked the No. 3 recruiting class (so far) for 2018 and have signed five top-50, in-state recruits, including 5-star safety BJ Foster. If nothing else, Herman's upward trajectory is right on schedule.
Then there's Riley. He's an unknown, to be sure, as this is his first head coaching gig. However: you wouldn't believe it at 33, but Riley has been an assistant coach for 15 years already. He's coached under Stoops, Ruffin McNeill at East Carolina and current Washington State coach Mike Leach. An assistant can do a lot worse than that trio.
Moreover, Stoops trusts Riley. The importance of that cannot be overstated. The signs were there, but because no one anticipated Stoops' retirement, we never bothered to look. Riley was being groomed for this moment, whenever it came. This was the guy Stoops brought in to replace Josh Heupel and Jay Norvell, who, despite their faults as play-callers and developers, Stoops, a fiercely loyal coach, struggled to let go.
It was a decision that could pay off in the long run. In the two years Riley has called plays for the Sooners, their offense has finished in the top five nationally in points per game. Riley had opportunities to be a head coach elsewhere, and yet he signed a new three-year extension with Oklahoma in May. Oklahoma is one of the premier college football jobs. The Sooners could have interviewed a lot of candidates. Instead, they stayed loyal with Riley.
The timing of Stoops' retirement is interesting to say the least, but if Stoops and Oklahoma believe in Riley, the exact date the proverbial baton is handed off probably matters less.
There's plenty of uncertainty regarding the future of the Big 12's two bell cow programs, and with good reason. But there's also plenty of excitement. Losing a staple like Stoops is never easy, but it can also be an appropriate time to move on. Those things can co-exist. If Riley and Herman make good on what others believe of them, the top of the Big 12 will be as exciting as ever. And this is the conference that branded exciting football.
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