Alamo Bowl

OU interim head coach Bob Stoops during the Sooners' game against Oregon in the Alamo Bowl, Wednesday, Dec. 29, 2021, at the Alamodome in San Antonio, Texas. (Kyle Phillips / The Trandscript)

His legacy was secure.

We can begin there.

Bob Stoops already had his statue, his program record 190 wins, his place in the College Football Hall of Fame all lined up exactly five weeks ago when he left home to play a round of golf only to take charge of Oklahoma football before returning.

His legacy was secure and underrated all at the same time, because merely being remembered as the “winningest coach in Sooner football history,” words forever attached to his name since nabbing victory No. 158, the one that put him past Barry Switzer, was also to shortchange the breadth of his accomplishments.

Because the height of Stoops’ Sooner success came early, OU claiming the the 2000 national championship his second year on the job, it’s since become a thing to remember he won only the one, despite playing for others in 2003, 2004 and 2008, only to fall to LSU, Southern Cal and Florida in the title game.

For that matter, Stoops 10 conference championships over 18 seasons have been mistakenly devalued in a world that watched Lincoln Riley win four straight.

They’ve been mistakenly devalued because its forgotten how tough the old Big 12 used to be, the Sooners sharing the South division with Oklahoma State, Texas Tech, Texas and Texas A&M (and Baylor, too), while Nebraska, Kansas State and Missouri, even Kansas under Mark Mangino, were heavy hitters in the North.

So many more potential losses dotted the old slates Stoops navigated than Riley faced when he took over, or Switzer ever faced in the old Big Eight, where most seasons came down to three games: an out-of-conference affair with Texas, a league tussle with Nebraska, and whoever OU drew in the Orange Bowl.

So there’s all that.

Not to mention the absolute fact that none of it had to happen.

Bud Wilkinson took over for Jim Tatum, who righted the Sooner ship in one season, going 8-3 in 1946, before moving on to Maryland.

Switzer took over for Chuck Fairbanks, who was lured into the NFL by New England after going 11-1 in 1971 and 1972, finishing second in the polls both seasons, back when media and coaches picked the national champion, not always the same one, and everybody lived with it.

But Stoops had to follow John Blake, whose cluelessness had taken a program stalled under Gary Gibbs and Howard Schnellenberger, and driven it into the ground, then underground, then further underground.

Though much of Sooner Nation recalls whom took over for whom, not so large a swath continues to internalize just what that meant when Stoops arrived, the depths from which he began.

Maybe, now, he’ll be remembered for all of it and not just for winning a bunch of games, a bunch of conference crowns and a single national championship.

Maybe now he’ll be remembered for resuscitating the program in the first place, his greatest accomplishment, without which none of the rest of it could ever have happened; and now, too, for handing off that program to the next guy in very fine condition — better if Caleb Williams returns, but quite fine, still, if he doesn’t — not once, but twice.

It’s a funny thing, but two of Stoops’ three most memorable seasons now include 1999, in which he lost five games, and one he won only one, this one.

It’s another thing people forget: though the 2000 national championship was fabulous, it’s the season that preceded it, Stoops’ first, that captured the fans’ hearts, because even going 7-5 following Blake’s malpractice felt impossible.

Now, this.

Perhaps OU winds up with Brent Venables without Stoops’ return. Perhaps Venables still nets a fine last-second recruiting class without Stoops’ getting back on the road. Perhaps returning assistants and on-the-way-out assistants would have worked together to beat Oregon at the Alamo Bowl without Stoops entering to manage the process. But we’ll never know and that’s the point.

We’ll never know if any of it happens without Bob Stoops, only that all of it happened with him.

Remember when they called relief pitchers “firemen” because they came out of the bullpen to put out fires?

Stoops is the winningest coach in OU football history, but what he really is, is the program’s greatest fireman.

Twice he’s smothered the flames and set Sooner football back on a stable path, a task the legends who had the job before him were not asked to do once.

His legacy was secure.

Also misunderstood.

It shouldn’t be now

“First and foremost,” Stoops said, “I’m a program guy.”

Always compelling, occasionally eloquent, he nailed that one.

Nailed it good.

Jesse Crittenden is the sports editor of The Transcript and covers OU athletics. Reach him at jesse@normantranscript.com or at 405-366-3580

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