Year 26: Bill Snyder178 wins, 2 Big XII championships
IMPROVE EVERY DAY
The more you talk to coaches, the more you realize theirs is a profession like many others.
The hours are ridiculous, and so is the money, but at its heart, coaching depends on the same things that guide you from middle-management to management in any other career: organization, people skills, talent evaluation, decision-making, and strategic acumen. But those who succeed at the highest level of coaching are probably in the 95th percentile in at least a couple of those.
Over the last five years, about 24 coaches per year have been hired to fill an FBS position. Of those, about 11 have been first-time head coaches. And a good percentage of those have taken over rebuilding jobs, some more difficult than others.
Coaching is tricky no matter what. You have to sell yourself to flaky 18-year-olds while still maintaining high levels of analytical ability and mental stamina. You have to glad-hand. You have to stand for a good portion of your 17-hour work day.
Most of all, you have to notice when the paint is peeling and do something about it.
And at a rebuilding job, odds are good that you're also inheriting iffy recruiting, aging facilities, and 20-year-olds with shaken confidence. You have to add psychologist and foreman to your list of titles. Few succeed at all these duties, and even fewer succeed over the long haul.
Here's a year-to-year look at the anatomy of a rebuild, from Year 1 (in which Bob Diaco is worried about the flow of foot traffic and researching direct flights from Hartford) to Year 26 (in which Bill Snyder goes to work in the shadow of a stadium that bears his name so he can corner teenagers, asking them how they've improved today).
"When I got here, those were the days you could have 95 on scholarship. We had 47. Lowest-scholarship program in college football. We were the only program that had lost 500 games in its history at that time."
The 1980s was a drab decade for sports. Football coaches wore the same outfit (a team polo of some sort tucked into tight pants). Games were played on AstroTurf that looked faded the moment it was laid down.
But when Bill Snyder took over at Kansas State in 1989, "drab" was far too positive an adjective. Under Jim Dickey and Stan Parrish, the Wildcats had gone 3-40-1 over the previous four seasons. But it wasn't Dickey and Parrish -- it was the program. Since 1940, K-State had finished with a winning record four times and had won three or fewer games 38 times. Snyder didn't inherit a rebuilding job. He inherited a building job.
"I was just amazed to hear young guys talk about never wearing their letter jackets because they were too embarrassed." Bill Snyder in 1991, his second year at Kansas State. (Getty Images)
"The group of young guys that were leaving [when I arrived] -- those who had used up their eligibility -- I had asked to meet with each of them, and did," he says. "It was the first day I was on campus as a new coach. I had asked Joan [Friederich, his longtime administrative assistant] to reach out to each of them. I was just amazed at the response that I got. I wasn't interested in anybody beating up on anybody else. I just wanted to get to know them. I was just amazed to hear young guys talk about never wearing their letter jackets because they were too embarrassed. They were not going to class because they were embarrassed. They were not going to [local bars-and-restaurants district] Aggieville. There were no rules against it -- it was because of total embarrassment.
"What I found, to the man, was that their GPA and classroom attendance had dropped steadily from the day they entered Kansas State. What I realized very quickly was the dramatic impact the lack of success had on not only football, but their entire life. Our first approach to it, and I think this was what becomes significant because it's never changed, was never what the scoreboard said. I made that clear to our youngsters.
"What I wanted them to embrace were intrinsic values, the same things you teach your children and I teach my children. Things that would benefit them in all facets of their lives. One of those was just the capacity to find ways to get better every day, the implicity of improvement."
Snyder was not quite 50 when he took the job. After a year as graduate assistant at USC, his first head coaching job came in 1967 at Indio High School, northeast of San Diego. By 1974, he had signed on as offensive coordinator at Austin College, north of Dallas. In 1976, he became an assistant for Hayden Fry at North Texas State in nearby Denton.
Only about 10 years older than Snyder, Fry was already a coaching veteran. He had taken the SMU head coaching job in 1962 at age 32, and by 1963 he was also SMU's athletic director. He engineered two top-15 finishes in Dallas (No. 10 in 1966, No. 14 in 1968), but by the early-1970s, boosters had begun to rebel. He was fired following a 7-4 campaign in 1972.
In his last three years in Denton, Fry went 24-9. His Mean Green patented the art of the near-upset; they lost to Mississippi State three times by a combined 21 points. They lost at Texas, 17-14. They lost to Florida State, 21-20. But they also beat SMU in 1977 and Oklahoma State in 1978, and after back-to-back nine-win seasons, Iowa decided Fry deserved another big-time job. And Fry decided Snyder had earned a shot as a big-time offensive coordinator.
Since a run as a burgeoning dynasty in the late-1950s, the Hawkeyes had fallen on hard times. The last four coaches had combined to average 2.9 wins per season. But by Year 3, Fry's Hawkeyes were viable. They went 8-4 and made a surprise Rose Bowl run in 1981, then finished in the AP top 20 each year from 1983 to '87. They spent time at No. 1 in 1985 before a loss at Ohio State.
With Snyder calling the shots, Iowa's offense averaged at least 27.6 points per game every year of that five-year span. It slipped to 25.8 in his final season, then plummeted to 17.9 in his absence. When he arrived at Kansas State, the Wildcats hadn't averaged even 16.9 points per game in almost a decade.
"I shared with our young guys that I would make judgment upon how well we improved day to day," he says. "And we've carried that out throughout the entirety of our program. And I'm blessed today that we have the examples, the tangible. We talk about intangibles all the time -- toughness, discipline, enthusiasm, spirit, and all those kinds of intrinsic things -- but our first year, we were 1-10. I got all those calls about 'You better get out of there. You're going to end up an insurance salesman.' But I felt great about that first year because they kept getting better on the field, as students, and in other facets of their lives."
He probably got warning calls before he took the job. Did he have reservations?
"I didn't know as much as I needed to know. But if I had, I don't know if it would have altered my decision. My decision was based on people, and I was sincerely impressed and affectionate toward the people of Kansas State. I knew the football wasn't good. They had some problems with it. It wasn't anybody in particular's fault -- it was the way it was."
You could spend a day trying to get Snyder to say something negative. It won't happen.
Willie the Wildcat, left, was Kansas State's logo from 1975-1988. The Powercat has been the logo since 1989. (Via)
Sometimes rebuilding is rebranding. From the start, his 'Cats set out to not only play differently than before, but look different, too.
And during that meeting, and during one of the many fiery lectures that he hoped would pave way for a steady program-wide renovation, the new head coach, in a peculiar move, gave each player a license plate. Willie the Wildcat was gone. These license plates bore a new logo. A Powercat.
The Powercat endured a few painful moments, but as a result, every great Snyder moment is visually tied to all the others.
To date, Snyder's KSU had looked like everybody else's -- the Wildcats lost the season opener, 31-0, to Arizona State, and fell by two points to Northern Iowa, 10-8, the next week. They'd finally broken through on offense in Week 3, scoring 20 points against Northern Illinois, but they'd allowed 37. A loaded Big 8 slate -- starting at Nebraska, finishing with Oklahoma and Colorado -- awaited.
But the closing seconds of the North Texas game are on YouTube for a reason. For the first time in almost exactly three years, Kansas State got to celebrate a victory, and the Powercat was there.
There were no leaps. All hints of improvement happened week to week and day to day.
"I had all of our coaches make sure that our players define for their coaches what it is that they can improve upon today and what they are going to put focus on when they go onto the field. We didn't have a lot of guys, and the locker room wasn't as big then as it is now. I'd do in there after every practice, and I'd corner every guy, and I'd put people at the door so they couldn't leave. I'd ask them what they tried to work on and what they were doing and whether they improved. They thought it was tedious, I'm sure, but persistence is one of those intrinsic values. Over a period of time, they became a bit better because they realized, 'This guy's not going to give up on this.'
"I used to go into the meeting rooms, and I would take each guy in the meeting room and ask them, 'What's important to you?' Sometimes it was football or academics or family. I'd say, 'What can you do today to get better?' They'd think about it, and they'd answer, and it'd be accurate, and they'd get a little bit better.
"I'd say, 'What can you do today to get better?' They'd think about it, and they'd answer, and it'd be accurate, and they'd get a little bit better."
"That hasn't changed."
KSU lost all seven of its conference games in 1989 (average score: Opponent 36, KSU 12) and finished 1-10. But Snyder's scheduling began to pay off in 1990. For a program in need of confidence, so desperate for reasons to feel good about itself, Snyder scheduled the weakest possible opponents in non-conference slots. The tests would come in the Big 8, but the confidence would come in September.
In 1990, KSU beat Western Illinois, New Mexico, and New Mexico State, fell again to NIU, then beat Oklahoma State and Iowa State in conference play.
In 1991, the Wildcats took down Indiana State (barely) and Idaho State and got over the NIU hump. They beat Kansas, 16-12, to start Big 8 play (it was their first win over KU in five tries), and following a competitive loss at Oklahoma, they turned the first of many corners: they won three in a row. They knocked out Iowa State, Missouri, and Oklahoma State by a combined score of 105-33. Sure, the three would combine to go 6-24-3 that season. But the fact that KSU was beating the sacrificial lambs was indisputable progress.
After a setback in 1992 -- KSU began 3-0 but struggled on the road and finished 5-6 -- the real breakthrough came in 1993. Not only did the Wildcats thrash the thrashable, they broke through against the Big 8's best. They gave No. 6 Nebraska a major fight in Lincoln. They tied No. 16 Colorado. And to celebrate their first visit to the AP rankings since 1970, they whipped No. 14 Oklahoma, 21-7. They destroyed Wyoming, 52-17, in the Cooper Bowl to cap their best season in eight decades, a 9-2-1 run.
They followed that top-20 finish with nine in the next 10 seasons.
"I think we were 5-6, 7-4, and then we won nine games, 10 games, 11 in six of seven years. What it indicated to me was a steady climb. We didn't jump suddenly -- we had those increments in between."
Because there was such steady momentum, but never too much momentum, maintaining perspective wasn't hard. And as the profile grew, he had a choice to make.
"My thoughts are, don't forget how you got there. When we started out, I talked to my coaches, and I said we could go out and go after those four- or five-star guys, and I don't know what that means, honestly. We can chase those guys, and we may get some of them to visit. We may get into the kid's top five or four or three. But our reality is that we have more losses than anybody in college football history. We have 13,000 average attendance. We'd be wasting a lot of time and effort, which would be better served by going after those guys just underneath. Those are the fallback players the well-established schools fall back on, but those schools don't spend a lot of time getting to know them.
"So that's what we did. We have a lot of guys in the NFL, and we've got guys in there for 10, 11 years who weren't drafted, a number of guys who were walk-ons in the program. Our job is to develop people. You can't go scrape anybody off the street, of course, but if you can look at what this guy's going to look like in three years and how we're going to get him to look like that ...
"I think we've been fortunate in regard to recruiting. Granted, we've sent some fish hooks out there. I cautioned our guys ... there was a period of time in which we learned our lesson, saw the proof of the pudding. We had some [coaches] who were starting to reach out to some of those very high-profile guys, and we got beat up. Maybe we could have been successful doing that, but what we anticipated would happen, did happen. We ended up empty-handed."
One step at a time. From 1994 to '96, the Wildcats went 28-8: 0-6 against Nebraska and Colorado and 28-2 against everybody else. In 1997, they cleared the Colorado hurdle, losing only to Nebraska and finishing 11-1. In 1998, they scored a milestone over the Huskers, their first since 1968. The path was clear for a national title shot, but KSU fell in overtime to Texas A&M in the third annual Big 12 title game.
No matter who left -- and since Snyder was hitting the local junior colleges hard, he had a high degree of annual turnover -- KSU kept winning. The Wildcats finally claimed their Big 12 title with a romp over undefeated Oklahoma in 2003.
While there were some former four-star prospects on that team, the two-deep wasn't exactly full of them.
"I think all coaches across the country believe in their evaluation system, and I think you have to carry the system beyond the football field. You can get that tremendous player who fits your Xs and Os, but he might not fit in the locker room or in the class room, and he might create some problems that aren't worth him being in the program. The overall assessment is so important."
And how do you go about making this assessment?
"I ask our coaches to go in and visit with classroom teachers about the youngster's presence in the classroom -- not just how he does on test scores, but his presence. We talk to everybody we can. We reach out to relatives other than just the parents. Neighbors, friends, virtually everybody in the school. Secretaries, custodians. We try to get a very precise opinion."
Serving as a Snyder assistant is an internship. It is a crash course. You learn about every stone you have to turn over to succeed. It isn't fun. The hours he and his staff spend on their jobs are notorious. But if you survive, there's a good job waiting for you.
And those are only the most successful names. The Snyder coaching tree is an oak. His influence on the profession has been trumped only by that of his former boss, Coach Fry.
"I think the year we took the biggest dip was predicated more than anything else on a given position," Snyder says. "I wouldn't want to make that public, of course. But we probably made some coaching mistakes regarding how we used a certain position in our program."
Snyder is saying that his quarterbacks in 2004 and 2005 stunk. But he would never in a million years say that. Following the conference title and Ell Roberson's departure, the Wildcats returned all-world running back Darren Sproles, but the quarterback position was far from consistent. Snyder had a decent runner in Allen Webb and a decent passer in the late Dylan Meier, but he couldn't play them at the same time. KSU's average fell from 36.6 points per game to 29.6. In 2005, it fell to 26.3. And the once-impenetrable defense sprang leaks. Even the best coaches falter if they struggle at quarterback or if they have to replace too many ace assistants. Eventually you'll end up with a weak spot, or your new hire won't be as successful as the last one.
Kansas State went 9-13 in 2004 and '05, and Snyder retired. As almost every one of KSU's best seasons had come under his watch, the stadium was named after him: Bill Snyder Family Stadium. (The "Family" is in there presumably because he doesn't like to have full credit directed at only him.)
A three-year experiment with Ron Prince ended up a failure, and Snyder returned for 2009, ready for more growth at the age of 69.
Of course, you know that's not the end. A three-year experiment with Ron Prince ended up a failure, and Snyder returned for 2009, ready for more growth at the age of 69.
The hill wasn't as steep. The Wildcats were not riding a three-year losing streak. Still the growth was slow and steady: 6-6 in 2009, 7-6 in 2010, 10-3 in 2011, 11-2 with a second conference title in 2012.
"It wasn't football that brought me back; it was people. We were able to do the same thing. The point that I have the capacity to express with the young guys we have in our program is that once again, it was gradual improvement."
The defense is more flexible these days. It has a few more bend-don't-break tendencies. The offense has hints of spread in it while maintaining Snyder's patented power-running ways*.
* I asked him about my article linked here. His response: "One of our coaches gave me a copy of that article. It was interesting to me as well, so we gained some benefit out of it. I think the diversity of our system is key. We can be five receivers or two tight ends and a back. All of those people have the capacity of lining up and performing at a variety of positions. A lot of people are doing that; we're not alone. But how we utilize our guys is very diverse."
The program is evolving, but that's the point. The work never stops. Even for the engineer of the most spectacular, sustained rebuild in football's long history, if you ever stop trying to improve from day to day, you'll fall behind.
We jokingly call him a wizard because of his ability to succeed in a way that nobody else could. There have to be magic tricks, right? But the reality is that Snyder has written the manual on building a program. He identified and followed every step. He works long hours, he nags his players, he challenges his coaches, and he evolves. He has created a path that almost nobody else can follow. It's too long, too hard, too detailed.
When I ask him about 2014, in which too many analysts are calling K-State a Big 12 dark horse for them to actually be a dark horse, Snyder chuckles.
"I think most of us like being a dark horse."
He was the nation's biggest dark horse when he took a job nobody wanted in 1989. The label has suited him rather well.
"Right now, we're working to eliminate the things that cause losing. It's every day. Defending on the field is just a microcosm of lifestyle."
"That's what we're focused on: changing the culture here for the football team."
"A lack of attention to detail and mental conditioning, a lack of expectation and confidence due to poor preparation."
"Communication and presentation. Making sure we're operating at a high level there."
"And you're talking about inside the play, and you're talking about just in the day itself. It's all the same."
When he says "I could name another 100 things that we've tried to inspect hard in these first few months," you know he means it.
When Bob Diaco is telling you the things he's working to change at UConn, you can tell it's a list he's delivered before. It isn't so much UConn-specific as it is a list of Diaco principles. And when he says "I could name another 100 things that we've tried to inspect hard in these first few months," you know he means it.
If Bill Snyder had passed on the Kansas State job, he might have ended up as one of Diaco's assistant coaches. A native of Cedar Grove, N.J., Diaco played linebacker for Hayden Fry at Iowa from 1992 to '95. When his career ended, he basically stuck around. Diaco was a Hawkeye graduate assistant in 1996 and '97, then began the climb. He coached running backs at Western Illinois and Eastern Michigan. He coached linebackers for EMU and Western Michigan. He became Brian Kelly's defensive co-coordinator for a year at CMU, then joined Al Groh's staff to coach linebackers at Virginia for three seasons.
When Kelly needed a new defensive coordinator before the Bearcats' great 2009 season, he gave Diaco a call. Diaco moved to Cincy for one year, then followed Kelly to Notre Dame the next.
You don't really know when your break might come. Diaco's career moved rather slowly, then went straight from second to fifth gear. Within six years, he went from position coach in Kalamazoo to coordinator in South Bend. And by 2012, he had won the Broyles Award, given to the nation's top assistant.
Fry once called Diaco his "bell cow," the herd leader around which others gravitated. Diaco is intense and personable. He sounds like a head football coach, to the point at which his delivery sounds like coachspeak even when he's telling you something insightful.
He was born to become a big-time coach. So can he make UConn football big-time?
Hartford's Bradley International Airport, about 45 minutes from UConn's Storrs campus, features direct connections with 24 metro areas, ranging from Toronto to Los Angeles.
There's a joke in here about how every one of those cities has a school in the American Athletic Conference, but Bradley offers precious proximity. Diaco knows it. This is a good thing because while New England produces prospects, a) the depth isn't the same as in other areas of the country, and b) there are a lot of spoons in the pot.
From 2002-14, the state of Connecticut produced 16 four-star prospects according to Rivals.com. UConn didn't land any of them. Four signed with Maryland, three with Florida, two with BC, and two with Penn State. They're in on big 2015 four-star tackle Christian Wilkins of Suffield, but so are Alabama, Auburn, Clemson, Florida, Notre Dame, Ohio State, and so on.
UConn joined FBS in 2000 and reached the polls for the first time in 2007. That's not long enough to build any serious reputation as a local heavyweight, or at least light heavyweight. So Diaco is going to expand the definition of "local."
"You can't argue with the fact that the state of Texas is producing more talent -- 374 players in the 2014 class ... 351 for the state of Florida, 199 for Georgia. But there's some darn good players up here. And look, the American Conference has got its name for a reason. It's a national footprint. You're playing teams in your conference in North Carolina, Louisiana, Florida, Ohio, Texas, Tennessee.
"If you don't recruit those states of those metro cities ... well, I guess it depends on resources, but we're definitely going into those cities. I researched direct flights from Hartford-Bradley to different cities. That's how we chose the cities we're going to go to the most. You're talking to kids about plane fare, accessibility."
According to the Rivals database, as of mid-July UConn had offered 32 2015 recruits from the state of New Jersey, 17 from Florida (the destination of many of those direct flights), 13 from Texas (hello, DFW), 11 from Illinois (hey there, Chicago), nine from Pennsylvania, and only seven from Connecticut. Diaco will sell family travel access, UConn's athletic culture, himself, and what he feels is one hell of a student experience.
"I'm just going to sell UConn and our distinctions and see what that prospect decides, what's in his heart. If he wants a football factory, then he's going to make his decision based on that. If he wants to be a doctor with emphasis in genetic mapping, then the list will start to take shape in that way. A lot of the guys who have very high rankings are national players that will be looking at a different pool of schools to begin with.
"It's a beautiful football facility. I can't imagine there's a better one. It's nice and easy for the student-athletes to navigate in."
He's selling me on the school, and he might not even realize he's doing it. You can't stop the salesman mid-pitch.
Football's a completely different animal, but Diaco feels there is positive branding that comes from UConn's vast basketball success.
"I think that the brand is strong, in part, based on those championships. Those are worldwide news events, and we've had unprecedented-in-sport type of success there. So the brand is strong. And then you just take a peek, just a quick Google search. You'll see this is one of the top public universities in the country, one of the top research universities in terms of science and mathematics. It's in an area that's very close to a bunch of Fortune 500 companies. We're pretty rich in resources. And it's a resident life campus, not a commuter campus. This is a good place for the quintessential college experience."
He's selling me on the school, and he might not even realize he's doing it. You can't stop the salesman mid-pitch.
"Hopefully prospective student-athletes don't make the decision based on football alone. You can't hide behind [the information you mail a recruit]; there's too much info at a finger's touch. If your graduation rate is at 43 percent, you can't hide from that. A lot of players want to go to institutions that they are going to graduate from, next to their teammates and classmates. If you're in a metroplex, and you're recruiting against other AAC teams, and if there's a prospect that's interested in you and another school, and he also wants to be an engineer, and your engineering department is strong, you've got more opportunity there."
Paul Pasqualoni had this same program to sell. He went 10-18 and was fired midway through the 2013 season. Even the program's shining moment -- the Huskies' 2011 Fiesta Bowl appearance under Randy Edsall -- had a firm ceiling. UConn went only 8-5 that year, won the Big East's automatic BCS bid via three-way tie at 5-2, and lost by 28 points to Oklahoma. Then they lost their head coach to Maryland.
As Bill Snyder found walking in the door in Manhattan, there is no blueprint. So Diaco has no choice but to lean on some well-used clichés in his first spring on the job.
"Each day's a new day. We're a one-day-at-a-time organization. It wasn't some crescendo moment after Practice 15. But I don't want to minimize how important and what a great success [spring football] was. If you can end spring ball without catastrophic injury, it's a success.
"We just slathered on one more coat of paint. It needs a lot more. We're nowhere near what we're going to look like. We're right on the front end of the building process."
The paint reference is literal and metaphorical. I asked him what he saw on his first day on the job, and he gave what ended up becoming a common answer.
"The care and cleanliness of the facility. The locker room, the player lounge, the hallways, the traffic in the building. It had basically become a free-for-all. We had to raise the team's expectations and understanding of our expectations for how they treated things. We had to make a lot of changes for them in the building to help shine everything up so it became something respectable-looking again. Give the players things and present them in a first-class way and create a level of pride."
Wins may or may not roll in for Diaco at UConn. Difficult jobs remain difficult, and like a clean house, deterioration can happen so slowly that you hardly notice. Proper maintenance is hard. But "one day at a time" is a cliché for a reason. There's really no other way to go about the upkeep.
For a lot of coaches, there's also this:
"When you're caring for the players, when you're caring for the young men and giving them the things they need at 7:00 a.m. and 7:00 p.m. and on the practice field and in the dining hall and in their strength and conditioning and in their academic support? That feels right."
Memphis International Airport sits only about seven miles from downtown, but unlike his counterpart at UConn, Justin Fuente flies as little as possible. Located at the gateway to America's South, Fuente can reach plenty of kids in his car. But that was only the second thing that attracted him to the Memphis job.
"They had done it before," he says. "There was a time not that long ago that it was a very competitive program. And for whatever reason, a perfect storm of events, they never really capitalized on that run they had there with Coach West."
"They had done it before," he says. "There was a time not that long ago that it was a very competitive program."
Tommy West seemed like the perfect candidate to run the program. He spent eight years as Danny Ford's defensive coordinator in the 1980s, served as a Johnny Majors' assistant at Tennessee, coordinated the South Carolina defense for two years, and spent five seasons in charge at Clemson, from 1994 to '98. He had ties throughout the Southeast (which matched his thick accent), he was a solid defensive guy, and he had easy access to all sorts of defensive talent. After a couple of years building what he had inherited from Rip Scherer at UM, he set out on what was an unprecedented run of success: five bowls in six years, two seasons with eight-plus wins, and in 2004, a brief stay in the AP top 25, Memphis' first.
During his nine seasons at Memphis, West's Tigers beat Ole Miss twice (and almost two more times), scared Mississippi State and Tennessee, whipped Bobby Petrino's Louisville Cardinals, and scored the program's second (2003 New Orleans) and third (2005 Motor City) bowl titles. But the Tigers faded swiftly, losing 14 of 19, and after a 2-10 2009, he was let go. Larry Porter replaced West and proved how quickly the wrong hire can prove to be the wrong hire. He won three games in two years.
The same program that had won 24 games from 2003 to '05 and 13 from 2007 to '09 was 5-31 in its previous three years when Fuente took the job. But he took it.
"We're located close to and easily accessible to good football locations. Mississippi's been very good to us, and we have a bunch of guys with ties in Texas, which isn't very far away. Texas kids understand the offseason part of it; it's so strong there. It's pretty easy to access several states with our location. We've tried to draw a big circle. But I think, first and foremost, you have to do a great job servicing the city we live in, doing a great job with the coaches in Memphis, evaluating those kids and getting them to stay in town. There's a lot of talent in the city."
Getting to these cities and players is no problem. Landing them, on the other hand?
Despite prime location, Memphis' best season between 1977 and 2001 came in 1983, when the Tigers beat Ole Miss, Vanderbilt, and Mississippi State but still lost to Southern Miss and tied an Arkansas State team that was not at the time Division I-A. They were tough and competitive and finished all of 6-4-1. Be it acquisition or development, access to great talent has not produced great talent in uniform.
"Third, I felt like the people here, the powers that be, the people who support the program, were ready to jump into this thing with both feet. You've got to have great support; you can't do it yourself. The prominent people here in the community, the university as a whole, everybody has to be on board."
Winning five games in three years forces you figure out what you want to be. With conference realignment in full swing, and some lucrative moves on the table, Memphis decided to try to get its act together.
In the mid-1990s, Justin Fuente was already a big deal. A blue-chipper in the class of 1995 (other blue-chip quarterbacks in that class: Chris Redman, Dan Kendra, Brock Huard) and the Daily Oklahoman's offensive player of the year, Fuente graduated from Tulsa Union high school -- which was beginning its ascent to national status -- and elected to sign with the Sooners.
Oklahoma was itself going through transition. Gary Gibbs had just been let go after going 20-13-2 in three seasons amid NCAA sanctions; he had been replaced in favor of boisterous rebuild master (and "noninjurious" pipe smoker) Howard Schnellenberger. He promised national titles, and Fuente figured to play a key role in that. He had thrown for 6,000 yards and 65 touchdowns in high school, and one assumed he'd post comparable numbers in Norman.
Justin Fuente warms up before a 1995 game against Oklahoma State. (Getty Images)
Schellenberger's time in Norman was short. He lasted one year, and OU compounded a couple mistakes with a third: hiring John Blake. In two years under Blake, Fuente started 13 games, won four, and threw for 2,300 yards. Once destined to be a Sooner star, Fuente went under the radar. He transferred to Murray State, where in 1999, he threw for almost 3,500 yards and was a finalist for the Walter Payton Award. After a stint with the Arena Football League's Oklahoma Wranglers, the 24-year-old Fuente decided to pursue a coaching career. He remained under the radar, finding a job as quarterbacks coach for former OU assistant Denver Johnson at Illinois State. Johnson not only became a strong influence but helped him figure out who had influenced him the most.
"I was fortunate enough to play for Bill Blankenship."
A former Tulsa quarterback, Blankenship was the guiding force behind Union's prominence, serving as the Redskins' head coach from 1992 to 2005, losing 26 times in 14 seasons and winning three 6A state titles. He has since moved back to the college ranks, serving as TU's head coach since 2011.
"He and I have a good, close relationship, and I've always enjoyed the way he's gone about things. I'm different than he is in a lot of ways, but I've had respect and admiration for him. Coach Johnson and Blankenship were college teammates back in the day, and I even now I find myself saying a lot of the same things they have said. When I was at Illinois State, we had a pretty good run. Coach [Galen] Scott, who's now my linebackers coach, he was on that staff.
"Those I-AA jobs are fascinating jobs. They give young guys a chance to develop and get their feet wet."
His stay in Normal, Illinois lasted six seasons. In 2007, he moved up the ladder as Gary Patterson's running backs coach at TCU for two years, then took on the role of offensive co-coordinator. In his three years, TCU's offense ranked 12th, 11th, and 17th in the Offensive F/+ rankings. When he left for Memphis, the Frogs fell to 70th in 2012, then 94th in 2013. His departure wasn't the only one that mattered, but his absence has been felt.
"My first couple of weeks on the job at TCU, I absolutely fell in love with the way that Gary had it organized from a practice standpoint, from an offseason standpoint. I just really tried to do everything I could to soak up every detail as to why and how we were doing things. He's been a huge help to me, gave me a tremendous amount of responsibility at a young age."
Fuente could have moved up the minor league ladder as a quarterback, but you don't hear blue-chipper when he speaks. You only hear born coach. His voice is gravelly, as Schnellenberger's probably sounded when he was likewise 38 years old. Speak to him for five minutes, and you get a clear impression of how he talks to his team, his family, his pets. He isn't misheard very often. And while he never wants to speak ill of any former Memphis coach, his sentiments are also clear when discussing the challenges he faced walking in the door.
"The first thing we needed were some numbers. Our roster had been decimated. We just didn't have people in the program."
"The first thing we needed were some numbers. Our roster had been decimated. We just didn't have people in the program. And through some of the legislation passed through the NCAA, it's a little more difficult to build that back up. You can't just go out and sign 40 guys. We had to figure out a way to develop our walk-on program just to increase our numbers."
An FBS team is allotted 85 scholarships. In 2012, Fuente inherited a team that had just 50. His first offense returned just three starters, but that's probably just as well, because the 2011 Memphis offense was atrocious.
"We had a long way to go from a physical standpoint. The overall health of our squad, from the emotional health to the physical health, it just didn't give us a chance. I felt like if I created a list of things to improve and presented it to the team, it would overwhelm them. We had to be responsible to each other -- coming to workouts ready, on time, all those discipline things. And we needed to develop some trust with our kids. We had players who had had different position coaches every year through their time in the program."
When you fall as far as UM had, there are no shortcuts. You have to make the best hires you can make, bring in the right kids, and begin the upkeep. And according to Fuente, you aim for pure coaching talent. If assistants leave for bigger jobs because they're so good, have a plan already in place.
"If you don't spend any time thinking about [succession], then you've got your head in the sand. It may not be set in stone, but you've got to have an idea for what might happen if there's turnover. You have to realize those things are going to happen and create a work environment people want to work in.
"We hired good coaches, tried to bring in guys who I had some familiarity with. I tried to paint as realistic a picture as possible as to what the task was in front of us. And when you hire good people, you're going to lose coaches.
"I also felt it was important that I had at least one guy who had been a Division I head coach before -- we did that with [offensive coordinator] Darrell Dickey."
Fuente's biggest coup may have been nabbing and keeping Barry Odom as his defensive coordinator. A longtime assistant under Gary Pinkel at his alma mater, Missouri, Odom needed only one season to begin crafting something useful of the Memphis defense. He was a rumored candidate for Arkansas' defensive coordinator position in the weeks after the 2013 season ended.
"To be honest with you, I never thought he'd leave Missouri. He played there, and he'd been coaching there for a long time. I couldn't believe he would leave, but when I got the job, we kept talking. I felt pretty good about that hire, and I was fortunate enough to hire James Shibest, who's done a fantastic job on special teams and in recruiting. Things kind of fell right for us in a few aspects, but I had a pretty decent idea of which direction I wanted to go."
When you see the improvement that Memphis made on the field, it's easy to assume success isn't far.
"Now they understand how close the margins are."
When you see the improvement that Memphis made on the field, when you compare the 2011 product to the 2013 product, it's easy to assume success isn't far. Memphis finished 3-9 in its first season in the American Athletic Conference last fall, but that included competitive losses to Duke and Cincinnati (combined record: 19-8) and one-play-away losses to UCF and Louisville (combined: 24-2). Memphis was 0-4 in one-possession games, a sign of how far the Tigers have come and how they still have work to do.
"At times, we played fantastic defense last year and weren't able to have the discipline overall to pull off those tight games. A play here on offense or defense or a turnover. And I think the guys understand how close they can be, and they'll get those rewards when they're mature enough to handle that responsibility ... It's pretty easy to pull up the film of the UCF game and find the reasons why [George] O'Leary's UCF team beat us even though we were so competitive.
"This spring, we were physically capable of making it through practice. We weren't there in 2012. Our conditioning and strength were so poor that we weren't able to practice in the manner that I wanted to. It wasn't like the previous staff made a conscious decision not to do that, obviously," -- Fuente quickly covers up what appears to be a slight to other coaches -- "but it just wasn't where we needed it to be.
"This spring, our guys were able to hold the rope longer than they've ever held it before. For 15 practices, they were able to get after it every single day.
"We were here, and almost immediately we got thrown into a new league. That wasn't really factored in when we started out. So you go from winning four games in Conference USA [in 2012] to all of a sudden playing at Louisville. That's a fine football squad. So you try to adjust."
"It feels like you're not fighting yourselves anymore. You're beginning to fight the other team."
"It feels like you're not fighting yourselves anymore. You're beginning to fight the other team."
In one sentence, that's where Kevin Wilson thinks his Indiana program has come. After a 5-19 record in his first two years, his Hoosiers were tantalizingly close to a bowl bid last fall.
"We're at the point where we're playing winning teams, and we're in the game, but it's making the play you need -- getting a critical turnover or not committing one. Getting a red zone stop. We came up short to Navy. We beat Penn State, and we played Michigan State super competitive and came up short. We're trying to be a bowl team, and we come up a weird play short against Minnesota. We're in a lot more one-possession games now. We get into a shootout at Michigan and turn it over in the fourth quarter. We're thinking we're a bowl team, and we're competitive, but we weren't competitive enough to beat those 8-4 teams."
Indiana has been the personification of slow growth under Wilson. The Hoosiers were in no way destitute like Kansas State in the 1980s, but they weren't exactly rich either. Bill Mallory took them to six bowls in eight seasons in the 1980s and early-1990s. Since then, though? One bowl, one winning season. Indiana was 25th in the AP poll in late-September 1994, then lost 21 of Mallory's last 27. Cam Cameron took over and averaged 3.6 wins per season. Gerry DiNardo averaged 2.7. The late Terry Hoeppner won nine games in two years before passing away, and while Bill Lynch fulfilled Hoeppner's progress with a 7-6 effort in 2007, he followed that with 12 wins in three seasons.
But even if Wilson couldn't look to extended success in Bloomington as reason for hope, he saw it elsewhere.
"There's a lot of balance in the Big Ten. You look at what's happened at Northwestern, at Wisconsin. Coach [Glen] Mason had some good runs at Minnesota. Joe Tiller had some good runs at Purdue. Our conference has the stigma of the big schools, which to me goes back to the Woody Hayes-Bo Schembechler run, of course. Everybody thinks Penn State's a great program, and they've won one Big Ten title [since joining in 1991 -- in that time] Wisconsin's won six; Northwestern's won three. [Penn State also won two other titles, but lost those due to sanctions.]
"How many times can you be offered a job at a state school, a Big Ten school, where there's commitment, where there's stability, and where there's potential? I thought this school had stability with the athletic director and president. There was a commitment to facilities. It's a great academic school, but we've done a nice job with the basketball facility, the football practice facility, baseball facilities. They put the money in football, and they build facilities. There's commitment to reinvestment.
"I had coached at Miami (Ohio) and Northwestern. I had a good feel for it. There might be a run where the school's not successful, but it seemed like it could be.
"Plus, they gave me a seven-year deal."
No matter what else happens, Wilson has a legacy. He was directly involved in two of college football's most influential offenses. A walk-on offensive lineman at North Carolina in the early-1980s, he spent three years as a graduate assistant for the Tar Heels, where Randy Walker was an offensive assistant. Walker moved from quarterbacks coach to offensive coordinator in 1985, while Wilson left in 1987 to take on full-time jobs: offensive line coach at Winston-Salem State in 1987 and N.C. A&T in 1988. Then his career took a unique turn.
Wilson's record as a head coach is officially 10-26: 1-11, 4-8, and 5-7 at Indiana. But technically, it's 10-36. He went winless in one year as head coach at Fred T. Foard High School in Newton, N.C. That's not a good look, especially not for a 28-year-old with aspirations. But if his career was suddenly lacking direction, Randy Walker changed that. Walker turned to Wilson to lead his offensive line at Miami (Ohio). Within a year, he was offensive coordinator.
It took a few years, but Miami started winning: 8-2-1 in 1995, 8-3 in 1997, 10-1 in 1998. In Walker's last four years, Miami beat Northwestern, Cincinnati, Virginia Tech, and North Carolina, nearly beat Indiana, and went 25-6-1 in the MAC. It was time to take on another challenge. Walker accepted the Northwestern head coaching job following Gary Barnett's departure to Colorado, and he brought Wilson.
To date, the Walker/Wilson offense was what one might call traditional. The RedHawks (and former Redskins) enjoyed plenty of power running, as evidenced by the career of running back Travis Prentice, who rushed for more than 3,300 yards in 1997-'98 and outgained Miami's passing game by himself in 1998.
This didn't work at Northwestern. Miami had been averaging 33.1 points. Northwestern averaged 12.8 in 1999. It was time to experiment.
In the spring of 2000, the coaching staff decided they needed to do something different. They went to Clemson and studied with Rich Rodriguez. Kevin told Randy: 'I'm really excited.' Randy looked at him and said: 'Yeah, but (head coach) Tommy Bowden has Rich Rodriguez but I've got you.' It just drove [Walker] crazy (to run a no-huddle, pass-happy spread offense) but he knew he had to do it. He was adaptable.
And joking aside, he probably knew what kind of mind Wilson had. Walker and company didn't come back to Evanston to run Rodriguez's offense; they came back to run their own offense from Rodriguez's sets.
Rodriguez showed them was less a new way to attack the problem of good defenses but more just a new way to think about attacking the problem. Rodriguez showed them the shotgun and the zone read stuff they were doing at Clemson and had done at Tulane, but the reason it clicked for Wilson and Walker is that they realized that they could run all their old stuff -- the zones, the power, counter, option, etc -- all from spread sets.
And this was probably the great leap forward for the spread.
Northwestern's offensive production improved by almost 200 percent in 2000, to 36.8 points per game. And in 2002, Bob Stoops came calling. Mark Mangino had left to become head coach at Kansas, and Wilson, now something of an unintentional spread guru, was hired to become his new offensive co-coordinator.
The Hoosiers give up a TD in a game they lost against Ohio State, 42-14, last November. (Getty Images)
"I don't like it when coaches think they can fix every problem."
Wilson is no longer talking about Indiana's progress; now he's talking about where the Hoosiers still have to go. In three years, they have ranked 117th, 110th, and 106th in the Defensive F/+ rankings. Last fall, the Hoosiers went undefeated when allowing fewer than 41 points but managed to do so only five times in 12 games. He replaced coordinator Doug Mallory with former Wake Forest defensive coordinator Brian Knorr.
"If I could go back and do something different, I would have wanted to have had a higher defensive standard."
"Most people have five offensive assistants, but I have four because I'm one of the five. I put five coaches on defense. I do need that defensive leader to be kind of strong. Sometimes it's your talent -- it's taken us some time to build that. But we've had better talent and depth on offense. If I could go back and do something different, I would have wanted to have had a higher defensive standard."
He tells a story about one of his offensive tenets: if you fumble, you're out of the game for the rest of the half no matter what. ("It's not negotiable.") In 2012 against Navy, because of others' fumbles, Tevin Coleman -- now an IU star, then a green freshman -- was in the game in crunch time with IU nursing a 30-24 lead. He ran the wrong way on a pass route, the Hoosiers were forced to punt, and Navy drove down to score the game-winning touchdown. He explains that he felt it was worth the loss to prove how serious the program is about certain aspects of its performance.
"I set what's tolerated and what's not, and while we've created an offensive culture, we haven't created a defensive culture. If we can get the defense to start helping the offense, think of how good the offense could be. Our defense was young last year. We did make a change, but change doesn't make us better. Getting better makes us better. You don't do something different just to do something different." He pauses. "Of course, if you keep doing things the same way, and you're not getting results, you'll probably get the same results.
"We've recruited a bit better. We've got our current team on the page we want to be, and we've recruited better. But in this conference, you've got Michigan State and Ohio State taking a few extra good defensive guys, and you're going to miss out on them.
"I think we've got better depth, but people think depth only matters with injuries. We had enough depth overcome offensive line injuries last year, but depth creates competition, too. As a coach, it's really good when you've got enough depth that, if a guy's not practicing well, he can be challenged by a teammate. I'm hoping that we get more well-rounded depth.
"Gerry DiNardo has been saying you need five to six years to get your defense intact. I like that, because it makes me look good!"
At Oklahoma, Wilson found a level of success that you don't find in the MAC or at Fred T. Foard. Mangino had been considered one of the nation's best assistants, and in two years, Oklahoma had averaged 33.8 points per game. But with Wilson and Chuck Long running the offense, the Sooners improved to 38.6 per game in 2002, then 42.9 in 2003. Quarterback Jason White won the 2003 Heisman, and OU made the BCS Championship in both 2003 and 2004.
Wilson took over as sole coordinator in 2006 after Long became head coach at San Diego State; in 2007, with a redshirt freshman quarterback named Sam Bradford, the Sooners averaged 42.3 points per game and were in line for a national title shot before Bradford suffered a concussion against Texas Tech and Mike Leach's Red Raiders scored an upset. The next year, Wilson painted his masterpiece: 51.1 points per game and six straight games scoring 58 points or more. Oklahoma fell short of the national title thanks to a couple of goal line stands by Florida, but the offense OU employed with power, speed, smarts, and absurd pace set the bar for all spread offenses.
Wilson knew he wanted to be a head coach, and he knew that you cannot control your opportunities. After the 2010 season, Indiana called.
"At those bigger schools, unless you're next in line, you're going to have to go to a smaller place, or you've got to take a chance."
"You've been in a place for nine years, so that's a long time as an assistant. Without being antsy -- you know you don't have to go -- you're maybe looking for an opportunity. I'm the coordinator at Oklahoma. Certain jobs might come open, but the pay isn't as good, or the likelihood of things going well isn't great. It's tough. Sometimes at those bigger schools, unless you're next in line, you're going to have to go to a smaller place, or you've got to take a chance.
"When you look at it, there aren't a lot of these jobs. They're very hard to come by. Where are you going to be truly attracted? And how many times are you going to be attractive to others? You're unproven as a head coach, and at some point maybe you get too old for it."
Wilson was 49 when he moved to Bloomington; he'll turn 53 this fall. He took his time getting to a head coach's office, and he knows it takes time to build a program that hasn't seen success in a while. In the meantime, document the progress -- for others' and your own peace of mind.
"Our goal has always been constant and consistent daily improvement. Weight room, getting stronger. Health issues. Staying solid academically. We came up short in some games, but we went from one to four, four to five. Draft picks: we went from one free agent, to three, to two drafted and four free agents. The goal is constant improvement, and we show them where numbers are trending that way. I had 72 guys who had over a 2.7 GPA, 46 over 3.0. You just keep hammering all the good things you're doing.
"But ultimately it's the scoreboard and the total wins and losses. It's all justification and coffee talk until you're winning seven and eight and nine and 10. We haven't won as much as we like for the players and fans. But we're getting better and more competitive and confident. Now that has to translate to making the play."
Have your goals changed since the start of your first season?
"The only thing that's changed is our internal standard of what's accepted or tolerated. I've never had a goal of X wins or X points. You've gotta be a bowl team? I never say that. I want to be the best team we can be, and we do that with constant improvement. I don't go back and justify stats. I keep showing our offense their shortcomings. I've tried to build the defense up and keep the offense humble.
"We're a work in progress. But we're definitely working and definitely progressing."
"I felt very prepared, actually, just because I was so close to my two brothers when they went through it. I spent six years with Mike, and I felt like I'd been an assistant for a long time, had been around a lot of quality people. I don't know if you could ever fully prepare in terms of time demands and obligations, but I felt pretty prepared."
Fewer than seven years separate the three coaching Stoops brothers. Bob will turn 54 years old in September; he's entering his 16th season in charge at Oklahoma. Mike is 52 and spent almost eight seasons as head coach at Arizona. Mark just turned 47 and enters his second year running the show at Kentucky. He had to wait four years longer than Mike and seven years longer than Bob to get a top job.
And yes, Kentucky qualifies as a top job. It's in the SEC, first of all. That alone is attractive for a confident football coach, and all Stoopses qualify as confident guys.
"I felt like the challenge of coaching in the SEC was a big draw for me. I felt like it was the right time and the right place."
"I felt like the challenge of coaching in the SEC was a big draw for me. I felt like it was the right time and the right place. I felt like I like the region, and I grew up nearby in Youngstown, Ohio."
"Nearby." That's a key word. It's true that, separated by 360 miles, Lexington and Youngstown are closer to each other than Lexington and 11 of 13 other SEC cities. But as I wrote last year, the Ohio River is wider as a metaphor.
It's a reflex to tie Kentucky into the Southeast and only the Southeast. And it's easy to assume that a new Kentucky coach is going to have trouble competing for elite high school kids in Florida, Georgia, and Louisiana. They don't have the same history to sell -- they have been ranked in one of the past 29 seasons, and they didn't finish that season ranked. Upon reaching eighth after defeating No. 1 LSU at home in 2007, the Wildcats lost four of five, and even after defeating Florida State in the Music City Bowl, they finished 8-5 and unranked.
While many of us looked to the south and wondered, Stoops turned and faced north. He signed three Ohio high schoolers (one a four-star prospect) in his abbreviated 2013 recruiting class, but given a full year to prepare, he outright invaded. According to Rivals.com, Ohio produced 19 four-star prospects in the 2014 class. Ohio State landed seven of them, other Big Ten schools reeled in two, Notre Dame landed two, and Oklahoma and Tennessee got one each. Kentucky signed five. In the past five recruiting classes, UK had signed five four-stars, period.
In all, nearly 40 percent of UK's 2014 class hailed from the Buckeye State.
"It's home base," Stoops says. "Ohio was part of the plan all along."
We hear a lot about how the SEC is so successful because it sits on a football goldmine. The states of Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, Alabama, Mississippi, Tennessee, Kentucky, and Louisiana produce enough talent to fill the rosters of every SEC, ACC, and Sun Belt squad. Basically everybody east of Texas recruits Florida. The SEC added schools from Texas and Missouri in 2012, expanding its reach dramatically. And by making Ohio "nearby," the reach is even larger.
As you may have heard, the University of Kentucky has a pretty good basketball program. Since 1942, the Wildcats have won eight national titles, finished as runner-up four times, and reached the Final Four on four other occasions. They have won, by my count, 47 conference titles and 28 conference tournament titles. They boast 25 active NBA players, have had 38 selected in the first round of the NBA Draft, and have produced nine Hall of Famers.
There have been some football successes, sure: eight top-20 finishes, 15 bowls, two conference titles, one claimed national title. But the Wildcats have always lagged on the gridiron in comparison to the hardwood.
It famously could have been different. In the early-1950s, the Wildcats employed both Adolph Rupp and Paul "Bear" Bryant. UK hired the 32-year-old Bear in 1946, and he led the Wildcats to five of those eight top-20 finishes. They went 11-1 in 1950, losing only to Tennessee before knocking off Bud Wilkinson and Oklahoma in the Sugar Bowl and claiming a share of the national title. (They finished seventh in the AP poll, Jeff Sagarin's ratings retroactively ranked them No. 1, and that's all the impetus a college football fan needs to hang a virtual banner.)
Bryant-at-Kentucky is one of the sport's great what-ifs. But with an ego almost as expansive as his coaching talent, Bryant realized he was always going to be No. 2 at UK.
That was the crux of the matter, me and Coach Rupp. If Rupp had retired as basketball coach when they said he was going to I'd probably still be at Kentucky. The trouble was we were too much alike, and he wanted basketball No. 1 and I wanted football No. 1. In an environment like that one or the other has to go.
I got this picture in my den of Bud Wilkinson laughing at a banquet over a story I told about that time we won the SEC championship at Kentucky, the only time a Kentucky football team ever has. Rupp had won it in basketball for the umpteenth time, and they gave him a great big blue Cadillac with whitewall tires, and I said at this banquet, "And here's what I got." And I held up this little old cigarette lighter. Well, when the thing came to a head I remembered that cigarette lighter, and I knew I was too far behind to ever catch up. [...]
In Louisville I picked up a paper, and there it was. Rupp was not retiring at all and Dr. Donovan was saying how pleased he was. That did it. I made up my mind to go. I'd been led to believe Adolph was going to retire, and I'm glad now he didn't, he's meant so much to basketball. Well, the only offer I had open then was from Texas A&M.
Bryant needed to be recognized as the top dog, as the coaching genius he was, with no delay. This urgency paid off for him. But it led to him storming out of Lexington in the mid-1950s and creating for Kentucky a rather clear reputation.
"I think basketball has done nothing but help us," says Stoops. "I get asked that question often. We've embraced basketball and their success. Where it would hurt you is if people didn't care as much [about football], but that's not the case here. That's evident by the overwhelming support that we've been given since we've been here. That's given me more and more optimism. People are showing up. We've had overwhelming numbers at the spring games."
He is referring most specifically to the 51,000 or so in attendance in April 2013. He's also referring to the 60,418 average attendance during UK's six home games against FBS opponents. The Wildcats won only one of those, but results don't matter yet. They will, but they don't yet.
"Donations are up. We've got $120 million of stadium renovations going on. We're building a football-only building with private donations. We're designing it right now. More than half the money's raised already."
Naturally, a new Kentucky football coach is going to talk up his relationship with the basketball program. That he's asked about basketball as much as any coach in the country this side of UConn's Bob Diaco perpetuates and proves the stereotypes.
Kentucky basketball is a behemoth. But Kentucky fans are not monogamous. Professional sports have little impact on the budgets of Kentucky sports fans. There's plenty for football, especially with SEC money, and the athletic department has made moves to satisfy Stoops, whether they ever give him a Cadillac or not.
"That first year, you're laying the foundation and trying to be clear on your standards and expectations. That first fall, going through your first season, you discover a lot about yourself, and you learn about what you need to improve on. I learned we needed to work hard at team leadership, developing more positive leadership within our program. Better people make better players."
Stoops called on his interactions with a name familiar to this piece.
"Coach Fry had a great deal of influence on me." Like his older brothers, Mark played for Hayden Fry and Iowa in the 1980s. His Hawkeye career began two years after Mike's ended and four years before Bob Diaco's began.
"Culture, belief system, principles and practices. This is what I learned at a very early age at Iowa. The way you carried yourself, the way you had a positive attitude when you walked into the building. The way we took pride in the way our facilities looked. Pick up after yourself! If you see something on the ground, pick it up! If a picture is tilted, straighten it out!"
Referring to all of the Stoops Hawkeyes, he says, "We all have such great respect for Hayden."
The career path that took him to Kentucky is at once familiar and unfamiliar to the ones followed by his brothers. While Bob and Mike coached for Bill Snyder at Kansas State before disseminating elsewhere (Bob to Florida, then Oklahoma; Mike to Oklahoma, then Arizona), Stoops' career was impacted by other fellow Snyder alums. He spent four seasons as defensive backs coach for Nordonia High School in Ohio, then joined Jim Leavitt's inaugural staff at South Florida. Leavitt was also a graduate assistant at Iowa in 1989, then spent six seasons at KSU, first as Snyder's linebackers coach, then as his defensive co-coordinator with Bob Stoops.
After a year in St. Petersburg, Mark moved on to Wyoming, where another former Snyder assistant, Dana Dimel (KSU's offensive line coach and offensive coordinator), was replacing Joe Tiller.
"The big thing from both Dana and Jim was work ethic and organization -- the same thing that started with Hayden Fry and Bill Snyder."
Dimel won 22 games in three seasons in Laramie, then landed the head coaching job at the University of Houston. Mark followed and served a year as defensive co-coordinator.
"You have to have a strong recruiting plan. That's certainly true in the South."
Stoops got to know the state of Florida in three years as Larry Coker's defensive backs coach at Miami, and when Mike Stoops landed the Arizona job, he called on his baby brother to lead the defense, just as older brother Bob had done for him in Norman. He was good enough at his job to get a call from Jimbo Fisher in 2010, asking him to become his first defensive coordinator at Florida State. After three years of that, Kentucky called.
"What jumps out at you right away as you go through different regions is, you have to have a strong recruiting plan. That's certainly true in the South. FSU was competing against the best of the best, and I got to take part in the stiff competition we had within the state of Florida."
His masterful recruiting plan got him a raise in May 2014, even after a 2-10 season.
"It was the overall perception -- can Kentucky compete? Can they compete within their own state? We've already proven we can compete with anybody in recruiting. Now comes the next page: seeing the fruits of our labor.
"Dealing with expectations now is different. People are excited and believe in what you're doing. Recruits believe in it. A lot of people have high expectations. That's a balancing act because ... I don't want to talk negatively about anything or anybody," -- no coach does -- "but it's obvious we're in a rebuild here. And that requires a longer period of time."
"I want guys that I feel will be head coaches, that kind of ability, that kind of attitude."
"I want guys that I feel will be head coaches, that kind of ability, that kind of attitude." Bob Stoops after beating Alabama in the 2014 Sugar Bowl. (Getty Images)
Mike Stoops, Mike Leach, Mark Mangino, Brent Venables, Bobby Jack Wright, Cale Gundy, Jonathan Hayes, Steve Spurrier, Jr.
Bob Stoops' first coaching staff at Oklahoma had six men under 40 years of age and three under 29. Three were Bill Snyder assistants. One had been an OU quarterback barely four years earlier. One had coached an offense Stoops hated defending. Three assistants on this staff have become head coaches elsewhere. Leach's replacement, Chuck Long, did too. So did Mangino's replacement, Kevin Wilson.
This was seen at the time as an inordinately young staff. It was. At least until Jim Harbaugh took over at Stanford, it was the prototype for going young and hungry with your hires.
"Yeah, but they all had great experience," Stoops says. "I brought three from Coach Snyder's staff, and they were part of the rebuild. Steve, Jr., might have been our youngest coach, but he was just with me [at Florida] where we'd won a national championship. I had a lot of experienced guys. Jonathan Hayes wasn't coaching, but he had played tight end for 14 years in the NFL, so I though he could probably coach that position."
You coach what you know. It's one of the truisms of the profession; it can also pin you into a corner, and some guys fight like hell out of that corner. By his leaning on the past, you'd have assumed that Stoops, once an Iowa defensive back and then a career defensive coach, would have leaned on a run-heavy Bill Snyder approach (especially since Mark Mangino was KSU's run game coordinator), or perhaps the fun-and-gun style of Steve Spurrier. Instead, he went with a newfound spread attack, one that had given him fits at Florida, and plucked Leach away from head coach Hal Mumme.
"At the time in the SEC, they were the only ones doing that. They led the league in first downs, in time of possession, in a bunch of other categories. I knew they didn't have the top personnel, but they were still incredibly productive offensively."
The story has always been that Stoops wanted the offense he hated defending the most, and that's true. But there was more to the decision than that.
"I didn't feel we had the players for [slowing it down and grinding away] to happen. I thought we'd have to build to that. I felt this would be the fastest way for us to make an impact offensively." One other thing: "I needed to attract quarterbacks. At the time, we didn't have one on campus. That offense attracted Jason White, Josh Heupel, and Nate Hybl. All three of them came that winter."
We like to talk about system and play-calling and all of the things that coaches control. But in the case of X-and-O v. Jimmy-and-Joe, we overthink the former and overlook the latter. "He wanted to use the offense he'd hated to face" seems like a profound thought; "he needed quarterbacks" is less grandiose. But then you look at the results.
In landing Heupel (a junior college transfer), Hybl (a Georgia transfer), and White (a local high school legend and eventual Heisman winner), Stoops' opportunistic selection of offensive style landed him six years' worth of starting quarterbacks, 19,751 yards, 169 touchdown passes, and 67 wins. Spotting opportunities and taking advantage of them is not a football-specific lesson, but it can be as valuable as any others.
If you've been a part of a single miracle, you've lived a blessed sporting life. By the time he took the Oklahoma head coaching job, 38-year-old Bob Stoops had already lived through enough for countless careers.
As an Iowa defensive back, he was part of Hayden Fry's Iowa turnaround. The Hawkeyes went 9-13 in Stoops' freshman and sophomore seasons but won eight games in each of the next two years, reaching the Rose and Peach, Iowa's first two bowls since 1958.
As an Iowa assistant, he had a role to play in the Hawkeyes reaching No. 1 in the country in 1985, their first stay there since 1961.
He was an original member of Snyder's staff at Kansas State, and he was the defensive co-coordinator from 1991 to '95. That team that had gone 4-50-1 over the previous five years, and in his final year on Snyder's staff, KSU went 10-2 and finished seventh in the country.
By 1996, he found himself on Steve Spurrier's staff at Florida. As defensive coordinator, he was apparently the missing piece. After getting trounced by Nebraska in the national title game in 1995, Florida's defense did the trouncing in the 1997 Sugar Bowl, serving a 52-20 thrashing to Florida State and finishing with Spurrier's first and only title.
Not yet 40, Stoops was greedy to think he could play a role in another sports miracle. But when you aim high, you sometimes connect. He filled his staff with aggressive minds, sent onto the field an offense and defense that were equally young and aggressive, and won a national title in his second year.
Oklahoma began the 2000 season ranked 19th; the Sooners had improved from five wins to seven in 1999 and, thanks to both returning talent and the letters "OU" on their helmet, started 2000 receiving what we figured was a bit of benefit-of-the-doubt. Whoops.
The Sooners moved to 10th with a memorable 63-14 destruction of No. 11 Texas. They moved to third with a 41-31 win over No. 2 Kansas State. And they moved to No. 1 with a 31-14 pounding of No. 1 Nebraska. They fended off No. 23 Texas A&M in College Station, and survived a rematch with Snyder and K-State in the Big 12 title game -- a game that had already twice dashed national title hopes, first in 1996 when Texas beat Nebraska, then in 1998 when Texas A&M beat KSU. In the Orange Bowl against Bobby Bowden and Florida State, his old boss' chief rival, Stoops and his Sooners ground Heisman winner Chris Weinke to a pulp, won 13-2, and took home OU's seventh title, its first since 1985.
Josh Heupel after Oklahoma beat Florida State in the 2001 BCS Championship. (Getty Images)
"The only hesitation would have been just wondering from the outside why it was not working anymore."
For the other coaches in this piece, I asked "What attracted you to this job?" For Stoops, the attraction was obvious -- championships, Heisman winners, All-Americans, etc. Even when down, great historical programs remain attractive. Still, when athletic director Joe Castiglione approached Stoops, OU was in the middle of five years of mediocrity. Gary Gibbs' six-year tenure, in which he was asked to cope with NCAA sanctions and still produce top-10 results, ended with a 6-6 thud in 1994. Howard Schnellenberger waltzed in, went 5-5-1, and waltzed out. In a desperate home run swing, the Sooners instead struck out with John Blake, going 12-22. The OU program Stoops inherited wasn't the OU of Jamelle Holieway and Billy Sims and the Selmon Brothers and Steve Owens and Bud Wilkinson.
"I needed to see what allowed them to fall into the five straight years of non-winning seasons. You're concerned about that. Was it leadership from the top? Internally, within the department?
"After meeting with Joe [Castiglione] and President [David] Boren, I could tell the leadership from them was there, that we would be able to change the culture that was here at the time."
The house-keeping metaphors continue to be almost too obvious to make. But what was true at UConn, what was true at Indiana, what was true at Memphis, what was true at Kentucky, and what was very true at Kansas State was also true in Norman. You start letting your standards slide, and suddenly you're looking up at the words "SOO___ MAG__" on a wall.
"The entire look of all our facilities was worn out, kinda run down, dilapidated," Stoops says. "Nothing was taken care of. Everything was just worn out. Heck, the saying here is 'Sooner Magic.' Well, the 'NER' and 'IC' were worn out. That kinda summed it up."
It had been a while since Stoops had been a part of a team that lacked for confidence. Over the previous six years, the teams for whom he coached had gone a combined 60-12-1. The last four had all finished in the AP top 10. Perhaps his late-1980s stint in Manhattan paid off, as he saw similar things in Norman that Snyder saw in Manhattan.
"Getting around the players, they didn't feel valued or worthy of being there." Bob Stoops in 2000, his second season with Oklahoma. (Getty Images)
"Getting around the players, the lack of confidence and just this sort of beat-down feeling from them. They didn't feel valued or worthy of being there."
The lessons you learn come back to the forefront in non-sequential order. Stoops claims his biggest influence is his second most-recent boss (after Castiglione): "Oh, Steve Spurrier. When I started here, I took virtually everything, the way we were doing it, from Florida. Coach does a lot of things different than most people. It was natural in that I feel, personality-wise, I'm more like him than any others I've been around."
This is clearly evidenced in every interview Stoops does. In the pantheon of smack-talking coaches, only Spurrier ranks higher than Stoops, who will take the mantle when the master retires. Spurrier and Hayden Fry are different in about every way two successful people can be different. But Stoops found himself influenced by both -- Spurrier in structure, Fry in personal touch.
"Coach Fry, what I remember about him, is that he was close with the players. All us players looked up to him. We always loved it when he had something to say to you. You kind of remind yourself ... grab the kids, have a personal touch with them whenever you have the opportunity."
And, of course, "hire great coaches. He hired an all-star group of coaches that help you and work with you."
Hire the best possible coaches, accept that they might end up leaving for other jobs, and trust your ability to hire the next best possible coaches, too.
At this point, Bob Stoops is the Arsene Wenger of college football -- he succeeded so quickly that maintaining a high level, but not the highest level, has at times given the impression of tailing off. After winning it all in his second season, and after three title game appearances in his first six seasons, he has been there only once in the last nine years. After winning six Big 12 titles in his first 10 seasons, he's won only one in the last five, and that's with chief rival Texas falling apart.
Stoops still cranks out 10-plus wins per season without fail -- he's done so 12 of the last 14 years -- but the Emerging Big 12 Power du Jour (Oklahoma State in 2011, Kansas State in 2012, Baylor in 2013) has managed to surpass the Sooners for three straight years. The "Big Game Bob" moniker he earned in his first few years, when he was winning 18 of 19 games against ranked teams, has been used sarcastically against him over time.
At least it was, until the Sooners knocked off No. 6 Oklahoma State and No. 3 Alabama, both away from Norman, to finish 2013. Then the dripping sarcasm dried up. Stick around long enough, and your reputation goes through cycles.
He's also been around long enough for all sorts of rumors to strike. Stoops to Florida. Stoops to Ohio State. Stoops to Every Open NFL Job. Even though there's been little to any of them, the rumors persist each season, and his players have to notice. Does he worry about that distraction?
"No. They know how many stories are out there that are fabricated. And they know that if there's truth to it, they'd be the first to know. If I'm not talking to them about it, they know not to pay attention."
Back to the 12-for-14 run of 10-plus win seasons. Consistent results require consistent recruiting, development, and depth despite natural attrition -- injuries, transfers, grades, disciplinary problems, etc. Only once has Oklahoma been caught off-guard; it is perhaps not a coincidence that it was the first season in which Oklahoma had to start a quarterback the Sooners hadn't landed in the winter of 1999.
"2005 was the only time it was really obvious. I knew we were going to have a tougher time because of the number of great players we lost."
After losing just seven in five seasons, they lost four that fall with redshirt freshman Rhett Bomar behind center, throwing to a new set of receivers and getting protection from a green offensive line. The defense was without eight of its top 11 tacklers from 2004. They were upset by TCU in the season opener -- just their second home loss in seven seasons -- and whipped by eventual champion Texas. It felt as if the Big 12's balance of power had shifted. And then OU won four of the next five conference titles.
I was driving through Oklahoma City back from Texas on January 1, 2000, the day after Oklahoma had lost to Ole Miss in the Independence Bowl. In front of a crowd of nearly 50,000 in Shreveport, in their first bowl since a 1994 Copper Bowl pasting, OU had trailed 21-3 at halftime, stormed back to take a 25-24 lead with two minutes left, then fallen via 39-yard field goal at the buzzer. I have no idea why I was listening to sports talk radio -- I never, ever, ever do -- but I was; a man called in to rail on the Sooners, their rinky-dink offense, and their gutless defense.
I like to imagine that this guy calls in to the same station to deliver the exact same rant after each OU loss. He finished the call with the three magic words every fanbase in the country recognizes from local sports radio and message boards. If the Sooners were going to keep this know-it-all coach around, with these know-nothing assistants, then they were obviously just settling for mediocrity.
Coaching is the ultimate thankless profession, particularly in the Internet era. But you're paid handsomely for the derision. Stoops, in particular, is paid really well. He has won 160 games in 15 seasons, nine top-10 finishes, and four BCS bowls, and he begins Year 16 predicted to make the first College Football Playoff, land top-10 finish number 10, and win conference title number eight.
Somebody, somewhere, will call that mediocrity. Oklahoma seems okay with it.