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Oklahoma May Have Cost Itself Two Titles Because It Was Afraid to Leave Its Stoops

What are the risks of hiring from within football families?

AP Images/Ringer illustration

Oklahoma fired Mike Stoops as its defensive coordinator on Sunday, but by then it may have been too late. The Sooners have one of the game’s best offensive minds in head coach Lincoln Riley and have been blessed with one-of-a-kind quarterbacks in consecutive seasons: Last year they featured Baker Mayfield, who turned in the most efficient passing season in college football history en route to winning the Heisman Trophy and going no. 1 overall in the NFL draft. This year they have Kyler Murray, a stunningly dynamic talent whose athleticism is so incredible that the Oakland A’s took him ninth in the MLB draft. But Stoops’s defense has spoiled their efforts.

Mayfield’s OU career ended when the Sooners lost to Georgia 54-48 in last January’s Rose Bowl, a game in which they allowed 317 rushing yards on 34 carries. They surrendered rushing touchdowns of 27, 38, 50, and 75 yards, respectively. Oklahoma’s offense was good enough to win the national title, as evidenced by Mayfield and Co. hanging 48 points on one of the nation’s best defenses in the Rose Bowl. Unfortunately, while the 2017 Sooners were ranked no. 1 in offensive S&P+, they also ranked 101st in defensive S&P+. Thanks to Stoops, they were only half of an elite team.

This year, things could turn out similarly. Oklahoma lost last Saturday’s matchup against Texas in a game that deserves to be called a Red River Shootout. (You can call it a “Showdown” or “Rivalry” when there are fewer than 90 combined points.) The Sooners offense was effective, gaining 532 yards and scoring 45 points. The problem was the Sooners defense, which allowed 48, meaning Oklahoma lost by three. Once again, the Sooners rank no. 1 in offensive S&P+; once again, they’re nowhere near championship caliber on the other side of the ball, ranking 69th.

Oklahoma’s defense might be expected to allow a lot of points, because the Sooners run an Air Raid offense and therefore score a lot. But the Sooners also struggle in virtually all per-play and efficiency-based stats that account for their increased tempo. It’s possible for an Air Raid team to field a good defense—although it’s true that most haven’t. Oklahoma has landed a ton of top-tier defensive prospects year after year after year—it’s the fault of the defensive coaching staff that the Sooners couldn’t put together a unit that allowed fewer points than its high-octane offense scored.

Oklahoma’s 2018 title hopes aren’t dead. It just needs to run the table in Big 12 play. That means beating Oklahoma State in the Bedlam game on November 10, taking down sixth-ranked West Virginia in Morgantown on November 23, and then winning the Big 12 championship game—the only conference title game that guarantees the two best teams in the league will face off. And Oklahoma will have to do this with a defense that has been poorly coached for half a season and is now adjusting to the schemes and preferences of Stoops’s replacement, interim coordinator Ruffin McNeill. A few months from now, I feel like we’ll be able to look back and say that Mike Stoops cost Oklahoma two potential national championships.

Everybody who took a rational look at the Sooners over the past two years understood Stoops was a problem. (I don’t think I’ve ever seen a fan base hate a coordinator more than Sooners fans hated Stoops.) So why did OU let Stoops hold back a team that could have achieved so much? We’ve left out a critical piece of info: Mike is the younger brother of Bob Stoops, who was the Sooners head coach from 1999 through 2016, and responsible for Riley’s ascension to the top job in the summer of 2017. Mike Stoops never should have been hired as Oklahoma’s defensive coordinator in 2012. The Sooners had a legitimately great DC in Brent Venables, who worked at the school from 1999 to 2011. But when Mike was fired as Arizona’s head coach (he went 41-50 in his seven-plus seasons in Tucson), Bob bumped Venables to co–defensive coordinator to bring Mike aboard. (It is worth mentioning here that Mike’s defensive coordinator at Arizona for much of his tenure was, you guessed it, Mark Stoops, who is now the head coach at Kentucky.)

Imagine if this happened to you at your job. Say you’re the head of sales, and you’re doing a great job—sales are through the roof. Then one day your boss swings by your office. His younger brother just got canned from his job at a company across the country, so you’re no longer head of sales—you’re co–head of sales. Everybody would understand that this was absolutely ridiculous, right? You wouldn’t stand for it.

Venables quit. He left for Clemson a week after Stoops hired another Stoops, and has since transformed the Tigers into a year-in, year-out defensive powerhouse, producing four top-10 scoring defenses in the past five seasons. Venables even won the Broyles Award presented to the best assistant coach in the nation in 2016. He could have done these things at Oklahoma if he hadn’t been demoted so that the boss could hire his recently fired kid sibling.

I understand coaching nepotism to a certain extent. Coaches’ kids grow up idolizing their coach parents and are thus exposed to the complexities of coaching at a young age. (And hoo boy, are there a lot of complexities in coaching.) Meanwhile, other candidates for coaching vacancies might not have even considered becoming coaches until after their playing days were done. Still, I think there’s more nepotism in football coaching than any other field that I’m aware of. Well, football coaching and politics.

Sometimes hiring from within the family works out just fine. Bill Belichick, the son of a football coach, has had his sons, Steve and Brian, on his New England staff for years. It has not derailed the Patriots dynasty. Jack Harbaugh hired his sons, Jim and John, at various points in his coaching career, and those two went on to coach against each other in Super Bowl XLVII. (Jim has now hired his son, Jay, as his running backs coach at Michigan.) Wade Phillips is one of the best defensive coaches in the NFL and got his start by working on staffs under his dad, Bum Phillips. (It led to a great Twitter handle, too.) Kyle Shanahan’s stint as Washington offensive coordinator may have been prompted by head coach Mike Shanahan being his dad, but it turns out the younger Shanahan is one of the game’s sharpest offensive minds. He was hired as the 49ers head coach in 2017 after helping the Falcons reach the Super Bowl.

Sometimes, though, it doesn’t work out. A few examples:

  • Everybody who has ever rooted for a team that employed Brian Schottenheimer as offensive coordinator has probably wished he had a different last name. Schottenheimer oversaw the Mark Sanchez era in New York, coached for three years under Jeff Fisher with the Rams (finishing 25th, 21st, and 21st in scoring offense), worked at Georgia for one season in 2015 (the Bulldogs finished 85th in scoring offense and longtime head coach Mark Richt got fired), and was the quarterbacks coach for the Colts’ 30th-ranked offense last year. Now, he coaches the offensively challenged Seahawks.
Detroit Lions v Indianapolis Colts
Brian Schottenheimer in 2017
Joe Robbins/Getty Images

How did Brian get his start? When his dad, Marty, decided to get back into coaching in 2001, he insisted on having his son join him in San Diego as his quarterbacks coach. At the time, Brian’s primary experience consisted of being a wide receivers coach at Syracuse and a tight ends coach at USC; his dad got an NFL head job, though, so suddenly he was coaching quarterbacks in the NFL. He didn’t do a good job: Brian was the QBs coach for the Chargers from 2002 to 2005. You may remember that stretch as “the only years of Drew Brees’s career in which he didn’t look like one of the best quarterbacks in history.”

  • There is little evidence that Rob Ryan is a good defensive coordinator. In his 12 seasons as an NFL DC, Ryan’s defenses have finished 20th or worse in scoring defense eight times. He got fired from the Saints in November 2015, midway through a campaign that New Orleans finished 31st in yardage allowed and dead last in points allowed. He was hired by his brother, Rex, as the Bills’ assistant head coach in January 2016. Rex probably didn’t feel weird about hiring his brother as coach. After all, Rex and Rob’s dad, Buddy, had employed both sons as defensive assistants when he was the Cardinals head coach from 1994 to 1995. Rex and Rob had a great time in Buffalo and were spotted tandem bicycling together around the city. But the Bills had one of the worst rushing defenses in the league, and the brothers were both fired that December.
  • When coaches get on their dad’s staffs, they are often afforded opportunities that other coaches aren’t. Don Shula is maybe the best coach in football history, and he had his sons, David and Mike, on staff at different points during his remarkable decades-long tenure with the Miami Dolphins. David went on to become one of the youngest head coaches in NFL history after being hired and is now remembered as one of the worst in history: He was the fastest head coach ever to reach 50 losses. (After being fired by Cincinnati, he ran the Shula-branded steakhouse chain for 21 years. I get the nepotism there.) Mike went on to become Alabama’s head coach, despite never having coached in college and despite never having been a head coach at any level. He is basically the only person ever to fail at coaching Bama. The Crimson Tide went just 26-23 under Shula, and have since gone 138-20 under Nick Saban. Mike Shula is now the offensive coordinator and QBs coach for the Giants, whose 2018 season can be summed up with this:

Let’s run through a few more cases. Kirk Ferentz’s son, Brian, is his offensive coordinator at Iowa. Bill Snyder has kept his son, Sean, on Kansas State’s staff since 1994, promoting him to assistant head coach in 2011 and making it abundantly clear that he wants Sean to be K-State’s next head coach. Frank Beamer wanted the same for his son, Shane, at Virginia Tech, promoting him to assistant head coach in 2011. (Shane left for Georgia in 2016 after the Hokies tabbed Justin Fuente to replace his father in the top job.) USC coach Clay Helton bestowed the responsibility of coaching future top-three NFL draft pick Sam Darnold upon his brother, former Trojans QB coach Tyson Helton. Bobby Bowden had all three of his sons (Tommy, Terry, and Jeff) on his staff at one point or another throughout his 34-year tenure at Florida State, and now Jeff works as Terry’s special teams coordinator at Akron. And I don’t even know what to say about the fact Jon Gruden’s son, Deuce, served as the strength and conditioning coach for Jon’s brother, Jay, in Washington—but left this past offseason to work for Jon with the Raiders. I guess if your uncle is the head coach of one NFL team and your dad becomes the head coach of another, the move is to quit and switch jobs.

As it turns out, football’s nepotism streak doesn’t end there. People from notable coaching families have a lengthy history of hiring people from other notable coaching families. Lane Kiffin hired both his dad, Monte, and his brother, Chris, to be on staff at Florida Atlantic. His offensive coordinator there is Charlie Weis Jr., the son of former Notre Dame head coach Charlie Weis and by far the youngest coordinator in Division I, much like Lane was once the youngest head coach in the NFL. Of course, a coach’s son who skyrocketed up the coaching ladder at a young age is willing to help another coach’s son skyrocket up the coaching ladder at a young age. Kiffin’s FAU tight ends coach is Clint Trickett, the son of former Florida State assistant head coach Rick Trickett. However, Chris Kiffin no longer works for Lane Kiffin, because … wait for it ... fellow coach’s son Kyle Shanahan hired him away to join the 49ers. When Lane Kiffin was the Raiders head coach from 2007 to 2008, his defensive coordinator was … wait for it! … fellow coach’s son Rob Ryan. Rob’s twin brother (and also a coach’s son), Rex, had fellow coach’s son Brian Schottenheimer on his Jets staff as offensive coordinator. Now, Schottenheimer works for Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll, who isn’t a coach’s son, but whose wife babysat for—OK, here’s where I bring it home—Lane Kiffin! That happened when Carroll and Monte Kiffin coached together at Arkansas. Carroll later hired Lane as his offensive coordinator at USC, and now Carroll’s son, Nate, is on the Seahawks staff as a receivers coach. Did you follow that?

After Bob Stoops hired his brother as his defensive coordinator, he promoted his biggest rival’s head coach’s brother to assistant head coach—Cale Gundy (brother of Oklahoma State head coach Mike), who is still on OU’s staff as the offensive coordinator. Look at the staff of any coach who got massive professional advancements because of his last name, and you’ll almost certainly see another family name that you recognize. I tested this theory out by looking at the Idaho staffs of Paul Petrino, who previously served as the offensive coordinator at Arkansas and Louisville because his brother Bobby was head coach. Sure enough, Petrino hired Bryce Erickson, the son of former Arizona State coach Dennis Erickson, as his quarterbacks coach.

We’d never tolerate this level of nepotism in the majority of real-world jobs, and I think it holds football back. The greatest coaches are innovators, but time and again, teams opt to hire coaches who perpetuate the mind-sets of past coaching generations—literally, since those past generations are their parents! And the football world’s insistence on hiring coaches’ siblings and sons insulates the profession from demographic change. There are a lot of non-white people who are excellent at coaching football, but instead we’re probably going to see Jeff Fisher III one day hire Jeff Fisher IV as his offensive coordinator. (I typed this joke before looking into whether Jeff Fisher has a son named Jeff Jr. He doesn’t, but don’t worry: He hired his son Brandon as a defensive backs coach when he was with the Rams.)

This all comes back to Oklahoma, where Riley was put into an extremely strange situation. Bob Stoops had been Oklahoma’s coach since 1999 and basically earned lifetime job security after winning a national championship in just his second year at the helm. You know—the type of job security that allows you to swap out one of the best defensive coordinators in the country for your younger brother, who is a crappy defensive coordinator. Bob then abruptly resigned in 2017, just a few months before the start of the season. If he’d retired at the end of a season, as most coaches do, Oklahoma likely would have set out on a national coaching search and brought in some well-regarded mind to rebuild the program in his image. But by quitting so close to the 2017 season, Bob left the school with no time for that type of transition. Stoops ensured that Riley, an incredibly bright mind who could keep the program running as planned, would take over as the Sooners’ next head coach. In turn, that ensured Mike Stoops would stay on staff, as Riley wouldn’t have the time or political capital to clean house.

Riley owed something to Stoops. It may have taken him decades to land a job as a big-time college head coach through more conventional means, but Bob plucked him from relative obscurity at Eastern Carolina and gave him one of the most sought-after coaching gigs in the nation. It’s hard to fire the brother of the guy who did that for you—and by the time Riley worked up the courage and credibility to do so, it had already cost Oklahoma.