Stoops' reflections make wisdom of exit clear, offer a way back, too
Something happened at halftime inside the Cotton Bowl. It’s unclear what, but if it didn’t, why did Lincoln Riley believe it had been blown out of proportion?
Also, though the time may have been right to entrust the Sooner defense to new leadership at several points prior to last Sunday, it was still the right move Sunday, and not because, given Lincoln Riley’s staff, Oklahoma was in good shape to absorb Mike Stoops’ departure though it was.
Instead, because if Stoops, himself, is any judge of what went wrong, the defense is bound to respond better to about anybody else.
That’s the fallout from the soul-bearing the former OU defensive coordinator has admirably engaged in this past week.
He spent a long radio segment with former Sooner defensive tackle Dusty Dvoracek, he called back into the same station to tell host Jim Traber to quit reporting something he’s adamant did not happen and he gave a very open interview to The Athletic’s Jason Kersey.
The most telling comment Stoops made between the two interviews came when Dvoracek asked if players had changed.
“Times have changed greatly in the last 10 years. Social media has changed the game in a lot of ways,” Stoops said. “I think kids are much different now than they were when you were playing … Things have changed a great deal.
“I noticed it a little bit more when I came back [to Norman]. I had a really great group of secondary guys. You look at Tony Jefferson, Demontre Hurst, Aaron Colvin, Zack Sanchez. Those guys, they were the first group that I started to notice that they were a little bit different. They had their own ideas and thoughts and identities.”
The way Stoops said it — those players “had their own ideas, thoughts and identities” — was value neutral. He didn’t say it as though it was a bad thing. However, he was absolutely saying it made those players harder to coach, as though a young man with his own identity and ideas could ever be a bad thing.
“They still played to a very high level when we pushed them to go out there and perform … Everyone is not going to like you and the way you coach and the way you teach, that’s obvious … But they have to respect your knowledge,” Stoops said, “the process of going week-to-week, understanding where they have to be, why they have to be there and how they have to do things.
“I’m a stickler to detail and being precise in everything you do. Maybe that just wears on players.”
There is so much to unpack.
All four players Stoops named reached the NFL, Sanchez for just five games in 2016 with the Panthers, yet Hurst for three seasons with the Bears and Jefferson (Ravens) and Colvin (Texans) are still playing. Heck, Jefferson made nine tackles against the Browns the day Stoops was fired.
What Stoops revealed is the times, not players, have changed and he could not change with them.
In this space previously, it has been charged that Stoops coached cautiously and scared. Perhaps that’s because his players weren’t playing at the level he thought they should be. And perhaps that’s because he could not reach them.
The idea that four players able to reach the NFL — two of them who continue to play in the NFL — were less equipped that others who came before them to receive coaching as college athletes doesn’t hold water.
The idea that they could think for themselves and weren’t prepared to trust everything that was being told to them without having that trust earned, however, is reasonable.
Stoops actually makes a case for his own unrealized blind spots when he mentions his being a stickler for detail, wondering if that drove players away.
Because you know who’s also a stickler for detail? Just about every reasonably good defensive coordinator in the nation, the vast majority of which have not been giving up third-down and fourth-down conversions at the ridiculous rates OU has this season.
Stoops is not Bob Knight. He is volatile and over the top, but he’s not a bully. Every time he would address his unit’s difficulties, he offered humility as he wrestled for the answers. It made him compelling to listen to and write about.
Still, given his own words, it’s clear whatever emotional tool box is required to coach college football players at a very high level, well, he does not presently own it.
He may not be done.
He may find his way back.
He may excel again.
This past week, he offered the reasons why for that, too.
“I just want to rest, get healthy … heel, reflect and see where it takes me … I could see myself doing a lot of different things,” he said. “I could see myself trying to be an understudy to somebody, a Nick Saban, a Kirby Smart, somebody of that magnitude and trying to rethink, relearn, reteach.”
That kind of search sounds like an absolutely fantastic plan. Introversion may not be a valued coaching trait, yet its essential to learning what you don’t know and what you don’t know you don’t know.
It’s funny, because for several years, it became easy to root against Mike Stoops, to want him out, to wish what has finally happened would happen.
In his exit, by owning it all, and so publicly, you can see the beginnings of a comeback path already. You can see his exit being complete, too, but not in anger, dignity intact.
He needed to go.
His own reflections make that clear.
Also, given his leaving, he’s not so hard to root for.
Taking stock suits him.