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NORMAN, Okla. — Boredom has not been a problem. Well, check that. Every so often, when he has awakened with nothing to do and all day to do it, he has been at a loss. But there’s a cure.
“I’ll go to the golf course,” says Bob Stoops, recent retiree, adding: “I don’t know what I’ll do in the winter.”
But that’s for later. After 34 years in coaching, Stoops seems relaxed and ready for whatever comes next, even if he’s not sure what that is. Since his abrupt announcement is June, life has been, he says, “strange and different” — but strangely good.
The strangest and best part, maybe, is what has happened at Oklahoma. Lincoln Riley, hand-picked by Stoops as his successor, has taken the Sooners to 12-1, the No. 2 seed in the College Football Playoff. They face Georgia in a semifinal at the Rose Bowl.
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Through all of it, Stoops has remained — well, not involved, exactly, but significantly invested, something akin to a very interested fan with an exclusive backstage pass. He is a regular at Oklahoma’s practices and a familiar figure in the halls of the Sooners’ new football facility, where he feels welcomed and comfortable.
“It’s easy to be there,” he says.
Or not to be — which is the point of all of this. For the last few months, as Baker Mayfield and the Sooners rolled to their third consecutive Big 12 championship and their second College Football Playoff berth in three seasons, Stoops’ workouts have lasted a little longer. He has traveled with his wife Carol. He has watched his sons’ high school football games. And sure, he has played “more golf than ever” — which makes sense when you consider that until now, he’s never played golf at all in the fall.
“I still don’t have a routine. … Every day is different,” he says, and the only thing wrong with that statement is it doesn’t go far enough. For Stoops, everything is different.
It’s apparent when he spends almost an hour on a recent morning hanging out at a Starbucks just off campus. Not so long ago, the idea would have been inconceivable. Not so much because he’s chatting easily with a reporter — though that’s a part of it — as the thought of carving that kind of time out of a college football coach’s schedule at almost any time of the year, but especially in December.
It’s hard not to look at Stoops and wonder: Doesn’t he need to prepare for practice? Or watch film of Georgia? Or text some recruits? Or something? But other than coffee, the only firm item on his agenda this morning is to meet Oklahoma athletic director Joe Castiglione to shoot a promotional video — Stoops isn’t exactly sure what for, but it’s part of his new gig as special assistant to the athletic director. There’s a high school basketball game to watch on this night. And not much else.
“None of it’s bad,” he says. “It’s been good. I’m not as preoccupied. I’ve got my own space. I’m able to see my boys play more. It’s just finding a new routine.”
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That’s not to say it hasn’t been a significant adjustment. Stoops says the first half of the season, or maybe two-thirds, “wasn’t great.”
“It doesn’t mean it’s still not right,” he says. “What I mean by that is, it was expected. I knew it would be that way. You don’t just make that kind of life change (away) from that regimented schedule for 30 years as a coach and all of the sudden, it’s easy.”
But it was made easier because of Stoops’ familiarity with Oklahoma’s coaching staff — and starting with Riley, their continued acceptance of his presence. In his 18 years as Oklahoma’s head coach, Stoops rarely spent much time in offensive meetings. But this season, he often sat in on Riley’s quarterback meetings, in part to become familiar with that week’s game plan.
“This way I know what to anticipate on Saturday,” Stoops says, “… so that I’ll know when I watch it, what I’m seeing.”
Oh yeah, the watching. If Stoops has unplugged, that means literally when it comes to the headsets during games. And that’s been perhaps the most difficult part of the transition.
The highlight clip from Stoops’ season — it has been played over and over again — came Sept. 9, his 57th birthday. Along with his wife Carol and daughter Mackenzie, he watched from a sky suite as Oklahoma dismantled Ohio State, perhaps the most impressive road victory of the season by any team. When the Sooners scored a second-half touchdown, the broadcast flipped to Stoops as he leaped to his feet and pumped his fist.
“I didn’t know the cameras were on me,” he says. “I’m up there trying to hide. All the time they seem to find you, I don’t know how. But I got tired of sitting there like, ‘Hey man, I don’t care what it looks like. I’m excited. I’m genuinely excited and I’m gonna show it.’”
And even as he remains genuinely invested in Oklahoma’s success. Stoops’ announcement came in June, he says, because that’s when he made up his mind. There wasn’t a health scare. And there weren’t ulterior motives – among other things, it wasn’t some sort of power play to promote Riley; Oklahoma officials were all aboard with that idea. Stoops had been mulling the idea for weeks, and looking back, he believes it was perfect timing. He handed Riley control of a very talented, veteran roster, which provided a springboard for a stellar season and fed naturally into successful recruiting that suggests the program will continue to operate at a very high level.
“I felt it proper for Lincoln and the program,” he says. “It would empower him immediately, having a strong and good football team. And I felt the team could handle it, me stepping out and him stepping in, that with the leadership on the team it would be smooth and seamless.
“The other part is, give Lincoln the credit. No one is a ‘final four’ team in June. Along with the other coaches, he had the focus and keeping the team on track. … Lincoln showed nothing was gonna change here. It was as smooth and seamless as it could possibly be. And that’s not the case if (the coaching change) happens now.”
Is he coming back?
Stoops knows people wonder if he might soon be back on a sideline somewhere. During the last few months, several suitors gauged his interest. He turned them all away, and insists he meant what he said back in June: He has no intention of coaching again.
But here’s a theory: Stoops means what he says right now, but maybe in a year or so he’ll feel differently. He nods.
“That’s fair,” Stoops says. “Sometimes you get in life something you don’t like … you have to do something different. But I don’t see that happening with me. I’ll figure out a new path, and I’ll do it.”
That’s basically been this season. Stoops has had to figure out a new path. It included waking up without a set agenda, spending time returning emails and calls from a makeshift office in his stadium suite, doing some speaking engagements — and yeah, plenty of golf; he says his handicap hovers near 10.
As important as anything else, retirement included making all of his twin sons’ high school football games. Drake and Isaac Stoops are seniors at Norman North High School. In recent seasons, Stoops had attended as many of their games as he could, which mostly meant the nights before Oklahoma played home games. But he was typically preoccupied with the next day’s game plan, and he routinely left early to get back to the Sooners. This year, he made every game, and stayed through to the end, and thoroughly enjoyed focusing on his boys without distraction.
“I think that’s the other part of why I did what I did,” he says, “I was to be able to be there more mentally and physically for my family as well as for my own self. I wanted my own time and my own space and to control my life the way I wanted to control it.”
Although the image of Stoops celebrating in Ohio Stadium lingers, it’s another moment in another Ohio stadium that might define how different this season has been. On Oct. 7, the day Oklahoma was upset at home by Iowa State, he accompanied Drake on an official visit to Athens, Ohio, where they attended Ohio’s game against Central Michigan. A week later, he skipped the Texas game, too, though for a different reason.
“I can’t go down into the middle of all that,” he says — though he laughs at the idea of wading through the crowd at the Texas State Fair.
“Too many people,” he says. “No good place to sit and watch it.”
And that was part of the problem: Just watching. Stoops spent the first two-thirds of the season trying to figure out how to watch games, and where best to watch them (for home games, he settled into a small box on the stadium’s west side where he could remain mostly out of sight).
“It’s just hard,” he says. “I can’t be around a bunch of people. It matters too much to me. People ask me questions and I don’t want to be rude, but I’m still too emotional and invested in it to watch casually. I just can’t do it.”
But in the season’s final weeks, Stoops says, watching didn’t seem quite as difficult. Likewise for the rest of his different and strange new existence. It has gotten easier, as the weeks and months pass, to just let go and see what comes next.
“The team’s doing great,” he says. “That’s all that really matters in my mind. I’ll figure my world out as I go.”
And then it’s time to go. Stoops wants to order coffee, but the line is too long. Instead he walks to his car, parked down a block and around the corner, and heads off to shoot that video — and from there, he’s not really sure. The recent retiree is still searching for a routine — but he seems to be enjoying the ride.
IMAGES FROM THE COLLEGE FOOTBALL BOWL SEASON