Every year around this time, I think about how terrifying it would be to parachute into the quagmire that is Phil Steele's brain. I wonder if his thoughts come and go in a warp-speed ticker of unexplained abbreviations and indecipherable math. I wonder if he is so bothered by white space that he is constantly tempted to start penciling Big 12 schedules onto the walls of his house. I wonder if he formulates annotated depth charts of his recurring dreams.
A few weeks ago, Steele's doorstop of a college football preview thudded onto newsstands, and in so doing, continued to edge closer to the physical manifestation of John Nash's blackboard. Steele's magazine is now considered the gold standard of preseason college football magazines largely because of its tiny-type obsessiveness (Steele famously conserves space by referring to "last year" as LY, and "this year" as TY, and "end zone" as EZ, and "highly touted" as HT, though that occasionally stands for "home team" and/or "halftime," etc.), but also because of its accuracy. This is a fact that the magazine itself -- which is, without question, the most bombastic and self-referential preview magazine ever published -- makes clear on page 6 of the current edition, when one of its assistant editors leads an article about the magazine's own unparalleled 16-year record of prophesies by likening it to Oklahoma's 47-game winning streak from 1953-57. On the surface, that comparison may seem like a stretch, but this is the absurd beauty of immersing yourself inside Phil Steele's overstuffed pages of data: It is a tribute to our collective obsession with a sport that, as much as we try to quantify it, remains stubbornly irrational.
Which brings me to Bob Stoops.
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If his career were to be observed in a vacuum, Bob Stoops would come across as one of the most successful college football coaches in America. In his 15 years at Oklahoma, he's won double-digit games 12 times; one of the only instances he didn't was in his first year, 1999, when he took over a program that had suffered through a post-Barry Switzer malaise under three different coaches. His teams have played in bowl games every season, and they've played in major bowl games 10 times, and he won a national championship with an undefeated season in 2000 and played for national championships in 2003 and 2004 and 2008. This summer, the Oklahoma board of regents made him one of the highest-paid coaches in college football, which seemingly makes sense, given that he's won 80 percent of the games he's coached since arriving at the school.
And yet I'm not sure if there's ever been a potentially iconic coach who inspires more ambivalence among his fan base than Bob Stoops. It's hard now to even remember that "Big Game Bob" (the nickname bestowed upon Stoops after winning the Orange, Cotton and Rose Bowls in consecutive seasons in the early 2000s) wasn't always a nickname larded with irony. Until the Sooners throttled Alabama in the Sugar Bowl on the first day of 2014, there were at least semi-legitimate questions as to whether Stoops and Oklahoma had landed at some metaphoric crossroads, about whether they'd gone as far as they could together.
And yet based largely on that single 45-31 win over Alabama, and on the revelatory performance of quarterback Trevor Knight in that game, nearly every preseason magazine -- including Phil Steele's OCT ("obsessive-compulsive tome") -- has the Sooners picked to finish in or around the top four, and to make the inaugural College Football Playoff. And if it doesn't happen, if the Sooners lose a game or two early on this season (especially given the relative ease of Oklahoma's 2014 schedule) or if they fall to Texas in the Red River Showdown for the second consecutive year, those questions will resurface. Merely because of what Phil Steele and others have prophesized, this is now a make-or-break season for Bob Stoops, an incredibly successful coach who comes across to many as a perpetual underachiever. It might seem illogical, but no sport twists logic into a pretzel quite like college football.
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From 2003-2008, Stoops lost five straight BCS bowls, including three national championship games. He fell 21-14 to LSU in the 2004 Sugar Bowl and he got throttled by Pete Carroll's USC machine in the 2005 Orange Bowl and he got upended by Boise State in the 2007 Fiesta Bowl in one of the greatest games in modern college football history, and he followed that up with a loss to West Virginia in the 2008 Fiesta Bowl and then a loss to a perhaps the most iconic player in modern college football history in the 2009 BCS National Championship.
It's a pretty remarkable run, in that even as Stoops was building up his program's reputation as an offensive juggernaut and producing multiple Heisman Trophy winners, the Sooners were being constantly overshadowed by their opponents. And this, of course, is the root of ambivalence toward Bob Stoops, because for decades, Oklahoma has attempted, through football, to extract itself from the looming shadow of Texas. It goes back to the 47-game winning streak that defined the program in the post-war years, and it goes back to Bud Wilkinson, the coach who won 82 percent of his games and won three national championships and then retired at age 47.
It was Wilkinson who helped lift the state from its post-Dust Bowl malaise and made the Sooners a competitive program, and it was Wilkinson who built expectations for Oklahoma football at a time when the Big Six Conference was in the process of expanding to the Big Eight. From 1949 to 1956, Oklahoma went on one of the greatest runs in the sport's history, winning championships and Heisman Trophies year after year, winning 77 games, losing five and tying twice. "What young coach ever was more the darling of fortune?" wrote football historian Allison Danzig.
And so the expectations were set at an almost unattainable level, and after a solid run under Chuck Fairbanks, Switzer took over and won three more national championships. This was what Bob Stoops stepped into, at the age of 39, an oft-brash and outspoken product of a coach-heavy family from Youngstown, Ohio; he hired his brother Mike as defensive coordinator, then hired him again in 2012 after Mike was fired as the head coach at Arizona. Mike Stoops overhauled the Oklahoma defense upon his return, which is part of what has Phil Steele and so many others excited about the Sooners' preseason prospects: If Knight's performance at quarterback against Alabama was not flukish, and if the defense continues to improve, it is reasonable to envision the Sooners (without the additional hurdle of a conference championship game) eking into a playoff with anything less than two losses.
Of course, in the past nine years, Oklahoma has never won fewer than eight games, but it's also never lost fewer than two. This makes Stoops both a consistently excellent coach, and one who hasn't lived up to the expectations set by his predecessors (and the preseason polls, which, until last year, had put the Sooners in the top 10 every season since 2000). It makes him both empirically excellent and emotionally lacking, and if that seems to make little sense, imagine how it must feel inside Bob Stoops' brain.
Last year, Stoops repeatedly leveled criticism at the Southeastern Conference; this summer, he took a chance by signing wide receiver Dorial Green-Beckham, exiled from Missouri after multiple disciplinary issues. I don't know if he feels a burden to elevate his legacy beyond the middle ground where it currently lies, but I'm guessing the thought resides somewhere in his head. I imagine he perceives the logic of the criticism leveled against him, but also recognizes that he has chosen to do an irrational job within an irrational sport. The expectations are built in June, the day those preseason annuals hit the newsstands, the day Big Game Bob attempts, once again, to extract himself from the odd purgatory of a stellar career that isn't quite good enough.