How Bob Stoops killed Big 12 defenses

From ESPN - July 17, 2017

NORMAN, Okla. -- Though it happened nearly two decades ago, Mike Leach claims he can recite, verbatim, the phone conversation during which Bob Stoops offered him the Oklahoma offensive-play-calling job.

"It was really pretty quick; Bob's not exactly a talkative guy, anyway," Leach said before recounting Stoops' pitch: "'Hey Mike, you probably heard I just got the head job at the University of Oklahoma. Would you be interested in being the offensive coordinator? I want to run all that stuff you guys did at Kentucky.'"

And with that, the virus that would debilitate the Big 12's defenses was unleashed.

Leach might have been patient zero, but Stoops was the boat that brought the Air Raid offense to the shores of the Big 12. From there, it spread like a contagion to every corner of the league, and beyond -- eradicating defenses along the way.

After Stoops' stunning retirement last month, Oklahoma is now in the hands of another Leach protg, infected early with the Air Raid bug.

Stoops' legacy at Oklahoma will include the string of terrifying defenses he forged at the advent of his arrival in Norman.

But his legacy to the Big 12, ironically, figures to be the destruction of defense.

Because, whether it was the trailblazing hire of Leach, the addition of the hurry-up tempo, or even the recruitment of Lincoln Riley back to the league, Stoops was a driving force behind why Big 12 offenses have become so unrelenting. And as rivals have followed his lead, Big 12 offenses have never been more potent.

But, it has come at a cost. The league has made the playoff only once in three years and has not won a national title since 2005.

And now, playing defense in the league has seemingly never been more futile.

The first symptoms

Stoops landed the Oklahoma job by being the defensive mastermind, paired with Steve Spurrier's offensive genius that resulted in a national championship at Florida.

The year before Stoops arrived, the Big 12 remained a conference predicated on power rushing and ball control. Nationally, struggling Oklahoma ranked fifth-to-last in passing, as Sooners quarterbacks tossed almost twice as many interceptions (16) as they did touchdowns (9). In fact, from the Big 12, only Texas and Kansas State ranked in the top 50 in the country in passing.

That 1998 season, the most effective passing offense in college football actually hailed from, of all places, Kentucky, where Hal Mumme and Leach dared to throw the ball on almost every play.

"Kentucky did not have the best people in the league, but they were moving the ball as well as anybody," Stoops said. "So I just knew when we started here, if they could do it at Kentucky, why would not we be able to do it [at Oklahoma]?"

At first, the Air Raid was a shock to the system of a fan base raised on Barry Switzer's triple-option wishbone.

"There was a period of time where the two most wanted guys in the state of Oklahoma were me and Josh Heupel," Leach said. "Me for suggesting that you could throw the ball at Oklahoma and in the Big 12. And Josh Heupel for having the temerity to play quarterback and not be able to run faster than 5 flat."

At the beginning, not all went smoothly behind the scenes.

The bulk of Stoops' staff had come from Kansas State, where Stoops had previously coached before Florida. They, too, were unsure about Leach and the Air Raid.

"Bringing guys from Kansas State and other places, I did not want a melting pot of other offenses," Stoops said. "If I made any right decision, it was that. We were going to be all-in on what they were doing at Kentucky and Mike."

It did not take long for the rest of the staff or the fans to be sold.

The Sooners scored 40 points in their first three games of the 1999 season, then took Notre Dame to the wire in South Bend. Oklahoma would finish with a scoring average of almost 36 points per game, almost 10 more than the league average.

"Head coach after head coach will say, 'I will let you run what you want,' then all of a sudden the bullets start going off and they get involved," Leach said. "I made [Stoops] repeat as often as I could that he said he'd let me run it and not interfere.

"And he never did."

And it spreads

After the Sooners topped the Big 12 in passing and returned to a bowl after a four-year drought, it was not long before others attempted to replicate Oklahoma's success utilizing the Air Raid.

After his one year in Norman, Texas Tech hired Leach, and Lubbock became an incubator for the looming outbreak of the Air Raid, both to the Big 12 and other conferences.

There, Leach groomed, among others, Dana Holgorsen, Kliff Kingsbury, Sonny Cumbie, Sonny Dykes, Seth Littrell and Lincoln Riley, who combined would spread variants of the Air Raid to Oklahoma State, West Virginia, Houston, TCU, Texas A&M, Cal, North Carolina, Arizona, North Texas, Bowling Green, Louisiana Tech, Indiana, East Carolina and, in the case of Riley, whom Leach hired to be an assistant at age 20, back to Norman.

Leach eventually took his offense to Washington State and the Pac-12. Today, even the likes of Ohio State and Clemson have their offenses rooted in the Air Raid.

"I'd love to give you some dramatic response, but I knew it would work," Leach said. "How could it not work? If I thought the offenses other people were running were better, I'd be running that offense. I knew it was not better. Somebody might have better players. You might get overpowered. And, obviously, I am biased. But the material does pretty well bear me out.

"People are copying this offense. Not the other way."

The big mutation

While Leach was successfully cultivating his attack at Tech, Oklahoma's offense under Stoops was only becoming more lethal.

During the 2000 national championship season, in a remarkable stretch the Sooners put up 63, 41 and 31 against No. 11 Texas, No. 2 Kansas State and No. 1 Nebraska, respectively, on their way to an unbeaten season and BCS national championship.

Because of its passing prowess, Oklahoma was becoming a destination for blue-chip quarterback recruits. And with a tradition rooted in Heisman halfbacks and All-American offensive linemen, the Sooners incorporated a bruising rushing attack into Leach's spread formation principles.

"I knew that by bringing [the Leach offense] here, it would attract quarterbacks," Stoops said. "The evolution of it for us, I knew when we brought it here, we would be able to -- being that we were Oklahoma -- put more of a run game with it. And recruit to a run game."

The defenses flatline

Is a cure in sight?


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