The end of the 2014 season was the lowest point of Bob Stoops’s tenure at Oklahoma. Fresh off beating Alabama in the Sugar Bowl, the Sooners entered Stoops’s 16th year with national championship aspirations. But after a 4-0 start, the No. 4-raned Sooners lost a stunner at No. 25 TCU, 37-33. Oklahoma was fortunate to beat Texas the following week — the Sooners were doubled up in total yardage and first downs but escaped with a 31-26 win thanks to touchdowns on a kickoff return and an interception return.
That Texas win wasn’t a wake-up call, though. Oklahoma lost at home to No. 14 Kansas State the following week, then, two weeks later, OU was blown off its home field, surrendering 45 unanswered points in a 48-14 loss to Baylor. It was the worst home loss of the Stoops era and the only time a Stoops-coached team dropped consecutive home games.
The Baylor loss knocked Oklahoma out of the AP Top 25 for the first time since 2009. Two straight wins saw OU climb back to No. 18, but Oklahoma then dropped a third home game, falling in stunning fashion to Oklahoma State. The Sooners led the Pokes 35-21 midway through the fourth quarter, but Oklahoma State ripped off 17 unanswered points to win in overtime — a comeback made possible by Stoops’s questionable decision to re-punt to Tyreek, one of the most explosive players in Big 12 history, after an OSU penalty, which immediately lead to a game-tying 92-yard punt return with 45 seconds left in regulation.
And then Oklahoma wrapped up its first 3-home loss season of the Stoops era with arguably the worst whipping the Sooners ever received under Stoops. Facing off against former defensive coordinator Brent Venables and Clemson in the Russell Athletic Bowl, the Sooners were absolutely crushed — trailing 27-0 at the half, 40-0 after three before eventually falling, 40-6. A year after slicing up the vaunted Alabama secondary, Knight was flummoxed by Venables, hitting 17-of-37 passes for 103 yards and three picks.
It was after that game, according to Berry Tramel of The Oklahoman, that Stoops considered walking away.
“The bowl game was such a disaster, Bob really seriously considered leaving,” then-OU president David Boren told the paper. “Bob was so discouraged after that.”
And, really, walking away would have been viewed as a sensible decision at the time. A year that began with a top-5 ranking and championship hopes ended with an 8-5, unranked thud. The 2014 season looked like a changing of the guard in the Big 12: Stoops’s Crimson Killing Machine had broken down, to be replaced by Gary Patterson getting TCU up to Big 12 speed and Art Briles’s revolutionary offense at Baylor.
Sixteen years in, Oklahoma looked like it was ready for a changing of the guard.
And that’s what makes this such a fascinating what-if, because there was no heir apparent in place in Norman. Lincoln Riley was still East Carolina’s offensive coordinator at the time. The hottest up-and-coming head coach of the 2014-15 cycle was…. Colorado State’s Jim McElwain. The hot coordinators of 2014 were already promised away to other head coaching jobs by then — Chad Morris to SMU and Tom Herman to Houston. Maybe Oklahoma untangles one of those coaches from their freshly-signed contracts, but probably not. And then the search would have turned to… Alabama defensive coordinator Kirby Smart? North Carolina offensive coordinator and former OU fullback Seth Littrell? Oregon offensive coordinator Scott Frost? Bowling Green head coach Dino Babers? Maybe OU convinces former Stoops assistant and then-A&M head coach Kevin Sumlin to get out ahead of the posse, but the posse was still three years away at that point.
There wasn’t an obvious choice on the market in the waning days of 2014, which could be why common sense prevailed and Stoops returned for the 2015 season.
And as we know now, that was absolutely the correct decision. Rather than resign, Stoops re-tooled his offense, pushing out Josh Huepel and hiring Riley as his replacement. The Riley hire paired perfectly with another development already working in OU’s favor, as Texas Tech transfer Baker Mayfield became eligible in 2015. He beat Knight out of the job that off-season, and Oklahoma is 34-6 with three Big 12 championships, two College Football Playoff appearances and one Heisman Trophy since.
Stoops would have been totally justified had he walked away after 2014. But as history has shown us, sometimes the best moves are the ones you don’t make.