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End of an Era
After 18 seasons at Oklahoma, Bob Stoops retires and Lincoln Riley steps in for seamless transition

Everyone knew that one day the Bob Stoops era would end at the University of Oklahoma.

After all, nothing good lasts forever.

And in Stoops’ case, his program was better than good. It was great every fall, year in and year out — with very few exceptions.

But no one was quite ready for the 56-year-old Stoops to walk away from coaching now, not when the Sooners are among the favorites to contend for the 2017 national title. Not with senior Baker Mayfield set to produce another chapter of quarterbacking mastery and an OU defense coursing with enough young talent to make even the most skeptical fan take heart.

The table is set this fall for a heaping helping of Sooner Magic. And like he had done the previous 18 seasons in Norman, Stoops was expected to be calling the shots again on the OU sidelines.

That, however, will not be the case when Oklahoma opens its 2017 season against Texas-El Paso on Sept. 2, in the friendly confines of Memorial Stadium, a place where Stoops’ teams have amassed an unfathomable 101-9 mark.

As of June 7, that job belongs to Lincoln Riley, who has masterminded the Sooners’ offensive wizardry for Stoops’ teams the past two seasons. While many figured young Riley would be the successor to his boss at some point in the future — few believed that moment would come so soon, and so suddenly.

But when Stoops announced his retirement at a hastily-called press conference that fateful June day, Riley was thrust into the spotlight and members of Sooner Nation were left in varied states of shock, confusion, disappointment and thankfulness.

The big question was — why now?

Stoops stopped short of going into specific details about his decision, only to say that the timing was right for him to transition into the next phase of his life. Part of that will include remaining involved with the OU athletics department as a special assistant to the athletics director.

“After 18 1/2 years, when is the right time?” asked Stoops, sitting alongside Riley, OU president David Boren and athletics director Joe Castiglione. “We’re in a cycle that never stops. There isn’t a good time. That’s the bottom line. Here lately, in the last week and a half, I knew it was the right thing to do.”

Earlier in the day before anyone really knew any details or even if the rumors of Stoops’ pending departure were just rumors, speculation ran wild about potential health issues, among other things.

There is a family history of heart disease, and Stoops’ father, a longtime high school coach in Ohio, suffered a fatal heart attack at age 54. But Stoops put to rest any concerns over his health and eluded to the fact he wanted to spend more time with his family and do other things in life.

He and his wife, Carol, have twin sons playing football at Norman North High School, and the boys will be going into their senior year this fall. Without the everyday grind of football looming, the couple will be able to catch up on a lot of plans they just haven’t had time for.

“Obviously, personal things are personal,” said Stoops. “A lot of things go into your decision — not any one thing. Not any one part of it pushes you over the edge. I think as much as anything, the primary (reason) was the right guy’s here right now.”

That right guy is Riley, who has been hailed as one of the next big stars on the national coaching scene. His handling of the OU offense since being hired by Stoops prior to the 2015 season has been nothing short of spectacular, including last season when the Sooners ranked second nationally in total offense (554.8 yards per game), third in scoring offense (43.9 ppg.) and posted a FBS record in passing efficiency (193.79).

At 33, he is five years younger than Stoops was when Castiglione hired him away from Florida in December 1998. As OU’s 22nd head coach, Riley steps into a pressure-packed situation but one that will be extremely familiar thanks to a coaching staff already in place and a lot of talent in the locker room.

Stoops acknowledged those existing factors as being part of his decision.

“I really am grateful for my opportunity to run the race I have and really feel confident as I pass the baton on to Lincoln Riley to really push this program forward,” said Stoops. “I didn’t want to miss the right opportunity to be able to step away and hand this baton off.”

The Sooners will enter the 2017 season ranked in the top 10, led by one of the favorites to win the Heisman Trophy in Mayfield. And despite the fact the Sooners lost some major offensive firepower in Dede Westbrook, Samaje Perine and Joe Mixon — each of whom has moved on to the NFL — the team returns 20 full- or part-time starters from a season ago.

An emotional Riley graciously accepted his new position in front of a room filled with media members, current players and OU administrators and support staff. He thanked several of his former coaches for the opportunities afforded him over the last few years, and struggled to talk about his latest mentor.

“(Coach Stoops) gave me a chance a few years ago that I’ll never forget,” said Riley, fighting back tears. “His guidance has been incredible. To be the guy to take over for him is an incredible honor.”

The future certainly looks bright for the Sooners, who recently moved into the new south end facilities of Memorial Stadium. The team is only a few weeks away from starting preseason camp with Riley as its new head coach.

“Bob Stoops stands as one of the premier legendary figures in one of the most storied programs in college football history, yet he is still best identified by his humble nature and team approach that refused to get caught up in stature,” said Castiglione. “That’s the reason Bob is such a great leader. He has great vision and great accomplishment, but it never changed who he is as a man and a coach. Working along side him has been one of the most enjoyable aspects of my job.

“At the same time, I am thrilled that Lincoln Riley is in position to take over as the head coach. He is widely regarded as one of the brightest minds in college football and there is no question in my mind that he is the complete package. Our program is in very good hands.”

Stoops was in a similar position when Castiglione began searching for a new head football coach a few months after his arrival as athletics director at OU in 1998. He was being courted by several top programs, but chose Oklahoma despite the fact the football program had suffered through five straight non-winning seasons, including a 12-22 stretch under John Blake (1996-98).

Once in Norman, it did not take long for Stoops to turn Oklahoma back into a powerhouse and keep it there for the past 18 seasons.

After going 7-5 in his first year, the Sooners produced one of the most memorable seasons in program history, reeling off 13 straight victories en route to winning the school’s seventh national title. And that was only the beginning of a run that would include winning 10 Big 12 titles and three more trips to the BCS championship game, as well as a spot in the 2015 College Football Playoff.

“Bob came along at the perfect time for Oklahoma,” said legendary coach Barry Switzer. “They needed someone to turn things around and lead them back to greatness, and he proved he was the right coach to do that. And he kept on proving it for 18 years, winning championships and more football games than anyone in OU history.

“That’s a pretty special legacy to take with you on your own terms, which is pretty rare for college football coaches.”

Stoops led the Sooners to 14 seasons that produced 10 or more victories and 18 consecutive bowl games. His teams owned an 11-7 mark against Red River rival Texas and a 14-4 record against Bedlam rival Oklahoma State.

While defense was considered his specialty during his years as an assistant coach — including Florida’s defensive coordinator when it won the 1996 national title — Stoops was quick to adapt to the spread offense that has become so prevalent over the past 20 years.

He reached the 100-victory milestone faster than any coach in college football history, thus making Oklahoma the only school to ever produce four coaches with at least 100 wins (Bennie Owen 122-54-16, Bud Wilkinson 145-29-4, Switzer 157-29-4).

In 2013, Stoops passed Switzer’s mark for program wins. And when the 2016 season came to a close — and the Sooners claimed another top-5 finish nationally — his career mark stood at 190-48.

The success of the OU program under Stoops’ guidance helped spearhead several renovation and revitalization projects across campus in recent years, including several involving the once-venerable Memorial Stadium that has evolved into one of the most elite facilities in the country.

It seemed as if there was no end in sight for the Ohio native who grew up following Switzer’s Oklahoma teams in the 1970s. But Stoops had hinted at times in the past that he did not want to grow old in the coaching business.

So despite all of his recent success and with another title contending team waiting for his legendary charge this fall, he decided it was the right time to make his move.

“Going out on top or as close to the top as you can get, that’s important to him,” said Stoops’ brother, Mike, who is OU’s defensive coordinator. “His unselfishness, not to just leave after Baker’s done — that’s not who he is. People don’t understand those things.

“Putting Lincoln into position for success is important. Keeping the continuity in what we’re doing is important.”

Bob Stoops summed it all up with a little spiritual note…

“The Bible says, ‘To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven,’” said Stoops. “I’m grateful for this season of my life, and feel I’ve fulfilled my purpose here at OU as its head football coach.”

(Jay C. Upchurch is the editor-in-chief of Sooner Spectator.)