SOUTH BEND, Ind. — In the third quarter of Bob Stoops' fourth game at Oklahoma, he looked around the sideline, saw too many smiles and realized his team hadn't learned how to win.
The Sooners led by 16 at Notre Dame before the Irish scored 20 unanswered points and won 34-30.
“I remember telling the coaches in meetings the next day, ‘Listen, they hadn't been ahead of anybody like that on the road before. They don't know how to handle it and we've got to teach them how to handle it,'” Stoops recalled during his Monday news conference.
Fourteen years, eight Big 12 championships, a national title and 149 wins later, Oklahoma returns to Notre Dame on Saturday afternoon. Stoops transformed Oklahoma from a losing program into the consistent national power it is today.
But what about Stoops himself? If you believe him, he hasn't changed one bit since that first season.
“People don't change; they just get older,” Stoops said. “I feel like I'm pretty much doing things the same as I did in '99 and 2000 as I'm doing now.”
Whether he wants to admit it or not, Stoops — like virtually everyone on the planet — isn't the same person he was in October 1999.
Today, Stoops makes about six times the $650,000 salary he made that first year. His house is bigger. His kids are teenagers. A young, first-year head coach in 1999, Stoops is the fourth-longest tenured head coach in major college football today.
Here are five ways Bob Stoops has changed professionally since his first season as Oklahoma's head football coach:
Firing assistant coaches: Stoops didn't fire an assistant coach until just after the 2011 season, when he sent defensive backs coach Willie Martinez packing to make way for his brother Mike's return. Then last February, he fired offensive line coaches James Patton and Bruce Kittle, plus defensive line coach Jackie Shipp.
The decisions to let Kittle and Shipp go had to be particularly difficult for Stoops. He took a chance on Kittle, who had virtually zero experience coaching but was a longtime friend. Shipp had been on Stoops' staff since his first season in 1999.
Shutting down access: Stoops' practices and scrimmages have never all been open — especially during the season — but he would regularly allow fans and media to watch in the spring and during fall camp.
“The reason I keep it open is because I like our guys to be out and get used to being in front of the people,” Stoops said in April 2005. “And the fans enjoy it so much. … If we came in here on a Saturday scrimmage and if no one was here, I don't know if I could get my players out of the locker room.”
But lately, everything except the annual spring game has been closed entirely. The only practice access for media comes early at the beginning of spring practices and again in the fall, when one practice is opened for about 15 minutes. Reporters and photographers are escorted into one very limited area to watch the players stretch.
This August, OU made even that small opportunity a little more difficult, scheduling the open window for 6 a.m., before the sun came up.
A more hands-off approach: Stoops seems to operate with a lighter hand than he did in his early years, according to former OU fullback J.D. Runnels.
“It used to be, he was just like a position coach,” Runnels said. “I see him just overseeing things and trusting his players more.”
One clear example of that is Stoops' hiring last February of special teams coordinator Jay Boulware. The Sooners have had a few special teams coordinators through the Stoops years, but the head coach has generally overseen the units.
“Bob used to do all the special teams,” Runnels said. “Teddy Lehman, myself, all of us guys that wanted to be captains on special teams, we're sitting right next to Coach Stoops, answering every question that he has. He's right in the middle of it. Now he's kind of given that power away. I think it's a sign of him maturing as a coach.”
Less riverboat gambling: Speaking of special teams, Stoops' evolution as a coach is evident in the lack of surprising gambles he takes during games.
In 2002, Stoops dialed up a fake field goal in the fourth quarter at Missouri when his team trailed 24-23. The gamble paid off, resulting in a game-clinching touchdown.
The next year at Alabama, Stoops called a successful fake punt in the second half. One play later, quarterback Jason White connected on a long touchdown pass that secured a 20-13 victory.
Over the next several years, though, such attempts at trickery failed, making Stoops more cautious. In the third quarter of the 2008 Fiesta Bowl, OU had pulled within five points of West Virginia when Stoops called for a surprise onside kick.
The Mountaineers recovered, destroying all the momentum OU had built up, and the Sooners lost in a rout.
“What people forget is I was more of a gambler when they were working,” Stoops said last month. “All of a sudden you go to Vegas and gamble a few times and it doesn't work, you sorta quit going to Vegas.”
“A boxer's mentality”: Runnels compared Stoops' evolved game day mentality to those of competitive fighters.
“Early on, there was almost an MMA-type mentality,” Runnels said. “I feel like it was more of, ‘We have to deliver the knockout punch immediately. We've gotta make you submit. We've gotta beat you into a pulp.'
“Now, it's a boxer's mentality of wearing people down and waiting on your right plays and setting everything up, kind of controlling the fight and making sure everything goes your way. I think it's evolved into a marathon. He understands it's a longer game and a lot of things can happen. I don't think it's a bad thing, though, I really don't.”