NORMAN – Huddled in a DFW International Airport conference room, hashing out the final details of a job offer, Joe Castiglione sat across the table from Bob Stoops and surged with the satisfaction that he'd secured his No. 1 target as Oklahoma's next coach.
Then Stoops dropped a bombshell.
"I've got a little bit of a challenge here,” Stoops said.
Hesitantly, Castiglione waded in.
"Well, what is it?”
Said Stoops, "I'm supposed to meet with Iowa in the morning.”
Of course, Stoops became a Sooner, and the rest... history — more rich Sooner history, complete with a seventh national championship and restoration of OU pride and stature among the nation's football elite.
But a look back inside the search reveals how Stoops vaulted to the front of Castiglione's list and some anxious hours wondering if Stoops might be swayed by his alma mater.
Bitter end, new beginnings
The end of the John Blake era at OU was both surreal and startling to Castiglione.
On the job for just five months, the football coaching transition was Castiglione's first major move as athletic director.
Blake refused an opportunity to resign, despite an offer to buy out his contract in full. So a special meeting of the regents was called. Their votes – which were not unanimous – were carried out in an unusual public forum inside the Oklahoma Memorial Union on campus.
The decision, coming one day after the Sooners beat Texas Tech to end a 5-6 season, was controversial, reflecting emotions pro and against Blake among fans and players, some demanding action, others preferring patience.
On a Sunday, Nov. 22, 1998, the regents voted 4-2 to fire Blake in a roll call that was dramatically carried on live television and radio across the state.
"I never in my life imagined anything like that,” Castiglione said. "We all realize there's a high level of importance to decisions and how they're made. But to this day, I don't know of any (proceeding) like it. I just don't. Have never heard of it.”
In those moments, Castiglione discovered the gravity of the search he was about to conduct.
"If I wasn't able to quantify how important this process was,” Castiglione said, "that Sunday night cemented everything.”
Committee of one
Castiglione moved quickly to initiate his search. And it was his
search — a committee of one.
University president David Boren didn't even have knowledge of the candidates.
"At the time, there was this sort of industry philosophy that you have a big search and create these big committees that represent all facets of campus and people have a chance to contribute what they think,” Castiglione said.
Castiglione was of a different philosophy.
His experience suggested that employed coaches don't like their names tossed around in regard to other jobs. And big committees lend themselves to big mouths.
Castiglione didn't want anything getting in the way of attracting the best coaches.
"They may not be willing to come and meet before a big group like that,” he said, "because of the risk factor.”
Castiglione had to convince Boren his way was the right way.
"We had a robust conversation about it,” Castiglione said.
In the end, Boren understood and agreed, yet found himself tempted at times to check in on the search and any potential names Castiglione might be willing to share.
To no avail.
"‘With all due respect, president, you're on a need-to-know basis,'” Castiglione said he jokingly told Boren. "‘When you need to know, I'll tell you.'
"Of course, he's the president. If he gave me a directive, I'd have told him.”
Castiglione did lean on a few people he trusted for advice and information. Among them: Lee Roy Selmon, Chuck Neinas and Eddie Crowder, all heavyweights tuned in to the pulse of college football.
Selmon, of course, is the former Sooner and NFL great who rose through the ranks at South Florida to become athlectic director. Neinas is a noted coaching headhunter, who operates his own consulting firm in Boulder, Colo. That's also where Crowder, another former Sooner great and former college coach, also resides, offering help in various coaching hires.
Working on their input and his own past experiences, Castiglione immediately formed two lists, A and 1A. Stoops, then a hot name as defensive coordinator at Florida, was the lone assistant making the cut for the A list.
When it came to Stoops, Castiglione sensed a need to act fast. Competition loomed in the chase for a new coach. Four other prominent programs — Clemson, South Carolina, Mississippi and most notably Iowa — also had athletic directors on the prowl.
So the Monday morning after Blake's firing, Castiglione made contact with Stoops.
That Wednesday: a face-to-face meeting in Dallas.
Castiglione's first encounter with Bob Stoops came when he was at Missouri and Stoops was an assistant under Bill Snyder at Kansas State.
Jim Leavitt, a Missouri grad, was the co-defensive coordinator with Stoops at K-State. Leavitt introduced Stoops to Castiglione, who had accompanied the Tigers for a basketball game in Manhattan.
"If first impressions mean anything, the time I met him, he really impressed me,” Castiglione said.
"Sharp guy. It's one of those, you file it away.”
There was another chance encounter, on the football field when Missouri and K-State played. And when Stoops moved to Florida, overhauling the defense and helping Steve Spurrier win a national title, Castiglione again took note.
"‘That's a savvy move right there,' ” Castiglione said he remembered thinking.
"I had a chance to just sort of watch. I'm always watching.”
When Castiglione and Stoops met in the Admiral's Club at DFW Airport, the day before Thanksgiving, Castiglione was focused much deeper.
The formal interview lasted six hours. They talked, ate lunch, traded philosophies and volleyed questions back and forth.