<
>

LSU, OU can't stop the calls

12/31/2003

NEW ORLEANS -- The call could come today. Next week. A year from now. But Oklahoma athletic director Joe Castiglione knows it will come sooner or later -- and all because five seasons ago he was smart enough to offer a Florida defensive coordinator named Bob Stoops his first head coaching job.

Stoops is simply the best college coach in the business. That's my humble opinion, but then again I've only seen him save an OU program that was thisclose to needing a priest, holy water and a few select Latin phrases.

Let's see. . . Pre-Stoops Hiring: no OU bowl appearance since 1994, which explains why the Sooners had three different head coaches in a 5-year span.

Post-Stoops Hiring: 55 wins, five bowl trips, three BCS appearances, one Heisman Trophy winner, one national championship, and the chance at another national title come Sunday evening against LSU.

Stoops is the best hire Castiglione ever made. Castiglione could spin in tomorrow and know exactly what they'd put on his grave marker:

Loving husband, Devoted father, Hired Stoopsy.

Now then, can he keep him?

"I would never take anything for granted, and I don't want to sound flippant about it, but I just really believe there's a confidence on our campus, that we're creating the best collegiate opportunity in the country, if, in fact, that's what our coaches want," Castiglione said. "If another university comes calling, I still believe what we have to offer is going to be better."

Castiglione is no dummy. Anybody perceptive enough to hand Stoops the keys to the Sooner Schooner is also perceptive enough to understand the coaching marketplace. Castiglione took an educated flyer on Stoops and they've been adding to the trophy cases ever since. Any more hardware and OU can open up a Home Depot.

One of these days Stoops is going to get a Don Corleone: an offer he can't refuse. Iowa, his alma mater, made a run at him just before he accepted the OU job. Ohio State, which isn't all that far from his hometown of Youngstown, inquired about his availability. Florida asked him to succeed his mentor, Steve Spurrier. And who knows how many
feelers or actual offers he's received from NFL franchises.

"Someday -- we're not foolish -- at some point there might be a different challenge, a different calling that he might want to pursue," said Castiglione. "And it still has business components, whether people want to acknowledge that or not. At some point there might not be anything we can do."

Every year the rumors -- some with more meat on the bone than others -- arrive with Stoops' name attached. And every year Castiglione tries to make it a little harder for Stoops to leave. OU's facilities are first-rate. Recruiting is boffo. The football budget needs a Brinks truck.

Stoops earns $2.2 million, as well as an incentives package that can move him to $2.5 million and beyond. You know, a little walking-around-Norman money. Plus, his assistant coaches are well compensated.

Now then, does Stoops make what Bill Parcells makes with the Dallas Cowboys, or what Spurrier was making under The Daniel? Nope, but then again, how many yachts can you ski behind?

Castiglione has followed with a certain degree of empathy, maybe even sympathy, the rumors that now are attached to the heel of LSU coach Nick Saban. As the number of NFL openings increase (Spurrier's resignation from the Washington Redskins makes six. . . and counting), so does the speculation that Saban is headed back to the pros. Iowa's Kirk Ferentz is dealing with the same rumors. And as usual, Stoops' name is mentioned out of habit.

Saban has done in part at LSU what Stoops has done at Oklahoma: revive a proud program, kick butt in recruiting, win games. For this LSU pays Saban more, or almost more (Phillip Fulmer's new deal with Tennessee might edge him out as the top guy in the SEC) than just about any other D-IA coach.

But there is only so much LSU and athletic director Skip Bertman can do. The same goes for OU and Castiglione. As it is they'll probably catch heat from some of their NCAA colleagues for the compensation paid to Saban and Stoops. But the simple truth is this: you usually get what you pay for.

"I'm guessing Skip's a pretty wise person," said Castiglione, who interned at the University of Miami when Bertman was a Hurricanes assistant baseball coach. "He's probably been working on this because it's a hot issue."

Saban is doing his best to minimize the NFL talk, especially this week. The deflector shields are up, as are the no comments. The last thing Saban wants is his LSU team and LSU recruits to wonder if he'll be wearing purple and gold next season.

Castiglione has been there, done that. He might be there again, depending if an NFL owner decides to money-whip his guy, or offer him the right challenge at the right time -- say, if Stoops leaves the Sugar Bowl with a second national championship.

"Pro opportunities have a different arsenal than we do," Castiglione said. "Quite frankly, with all due respect, I think our situation is better than some of the pro opportunities out there.

"We want to make sure we've done everything we can in our control. But at some point it's totally out of our control."

Stoops has a great thing going in Norman. He knows it. Castiglione knows it. Problem is, everyone wants what Stoops has created at OU.

"We wish them the best in finding a coach like the one we have," said Castiglione. "Just not the one we have."

Gene Wojciechowski is a senior writer with ESPN The Magazine. He can be reached at gene.wojciechowski@espn3.com.