Stoops, Sooners have stumbled in recent spotlight games
You don't have to be Beano Cook to know that Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops ranks among the elite coaches in college football. Plenty of other cooks, from Rachael Ray to the guy who dips the fries in grease at McDonald's, know that much.
"If he's not in the top one or two, then he's definitely no lower than three or four," West Virginia coach Bill Stewart said. "When I think of great coaches in this country, I think of Bobby, [Jim] Tressel, Pete Carroll and Urban Meyer."
Yet in recent years, the man once known as "Big Game Bob" has been downsized to "Medium Game Bob." He occasionally has been a Big Game Boob. There have been too many massive pratfalls when the spotlight is brightest.
Saturday, the Oklahoma coach can become Big Game Bob once more. Beat undefeated, No. 2 Texas Tech (ABC, 8 p.m. ET) with the whole world watching and everything at stake, and Stoops can earn a return to the status he enjoyed throughout most of the first half of his illustrious head-coaching career.
Lose, and his stature remains somewhat less than supersized.
You can blame it all on Darren Sproles, really. The diminution of Bob Stoops started with him.
On Dec. 6, 2003, Oklahoma was undefeated, ranked No. 1 and ticketed for a BCS championship shot in the Sugar Bowl against LSU. The Sooners were widely expected to win their second national title in four seasons. They were playing Kansas State in the Big 12 title game that day, and they were two-touchdown favorites.
Then Sproles sprinted through Stoopsie's defense like the wind rushing down the Plain. He ran for 235 yards that night, plus earned 88 receiving yards, and K-State shocked the misfiring Sooners 35-7.
It was like knocking the teeth out of the schoolyard bully. All the invincibility disappeared that day.
Ever since, Stoops has stopped winning the big one at the same remarkable rate he had earlier. From that K-State game through today, Oklahoma is 4-8 against teams ranked in the top 15 of the Associated Press poll at the time. (And Stoops can thank God for Missouri, which has accounted for half his four victories.)
Five of the eight losses have come as a favorite. Three of them have come against Texas -- the archrival that Stoops once owned but now has beaten just once in four years. Four of the losses have come in the Sooners' past five bowl appearances. They've lost four straight BCS bowl games, all of them embarrassing in one way or another.
2004 Sugar Bowl -- LSU 21, Oklahoma 14. That was the game after the Big 12 title debacle. The Sooners, favored by three points, never led. Heisman Trophy winner Jason White was helpless against Nick Saban's defense, completing just 13 of 37 passes for 102 yards with two interceptions.
2005 Orange Bowl -- USC 55, Oklahoma 19. This was a toss-up game -- the Trojans were favored by a point -- and Oklahoma utterly collapsed, turning the ball over five times and surrendering 540 yards. It was 55-10 before the Sooners added some window dressing to a busted-out pane.
2007 Fiesta Bowl -- Boise State 43, Oklahoma 42, OT. The world remembers that the Broncos needed a phenomenal flurry of perfectly executed trick plays to win this game. But the fact is, seven-point underdog Boise State controlled the game until an 18-point Sooners rally in the fourth quarter set up the frantic finish.
2008 Fiesta Bowl -- West Virginia 48, Oklahoma 28. Once again, the Sooners were jumped early by a touchdown underdog. This time, they didn't recover at all, giving up 525 yards of offense to a team that barely used its most explosive player (Steve Slaton) and had been held to nine points in its previous game by Pittsburgh.
After both Fiesta Bowls, I've listened to a shell-shocked Stoops try to explain how his Sooners got their cowboy hats handed to them in games they were expected to win. One of the most cocksure coaches in the country had no answers. No swagger.
Stewart believes that any criticism of Oklahoma's performance in this past Fiesta Bowl shows lack of respect for the Mountaineers and for Stoops.
"With our game last year, we were a damn good football team," said Stewart, who coached the Fiesta Bowl on an interim basis replacing Rich Rodriguez and was named the full-time successor the next day. "If Pat White doesn't get hurt against South Florida and Pittsburgh, I think we're 12-0 and playing for the national championship. I don't think the Oklahoma game was any kind of upset.
"It's not like it was an Oklahoma bust. Bobby had his team ready. He is Big Game Bob."
Boise State coach Chris Petersen is too busy trying to go undefeated this year to rehash the undefeated run of two years ago. But he passed along word through a media spokesman that he believes Oklahoma was well prepared for the '07 Fiesta, as well.
It's a fact that Stoops' prime-time record suffers primarily because he set the bar so ridiculously high early in his career. Most coaches would love to be good enough to lose as many big games as he has -- they can't even get into anywhere near that many.
Mike Leach, the man on the opposite sideline Saturday night, is just such a coach. He's been trying for years to reach Stoops' level, but he has lost just enough big games to be labeled a gimmick coach who will never take a program all the way to the penthouse.
Now he's there, all of a sudden. It's his penthouse for as long as he can keep it. Leach is in unfamiliar territory but trying to act natural.
From 2003 through Nov. 13, 2007, Leach's Red Raiders were 1-9 against top-15 competition. Other than a Holiday Bowl upset of sulking, fourth-ranked California in 2004, Tech hadn't beaten anybody who was somebody.
Then Tech surprised the third-ranked Sooners in Lubbock, 34-27, capitalizing on an injury to Oklahoma quarterback Sam Bradford. Since then, this has been a different program.
Texas Tech has not lost since then, running its national-best winning streak to 12 games. That includes the landmark victory over No. 1 Texas earlier this month, followed by the 56-20 beatdown of No. 8 Oklahoma State. Now comes the biggest road game in Tech history, against a man who is 59-2 at home.
There's the plot twist: It's the Red Raiders who are hauling a three-game winning streak against top-15 opponents into Norman, where Medium Game Bob has something to prove to earn his reputation back.
Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.