McMillen guards Stoops' blind side
NORMAN, Okla. -- The second the 38-28 loss to Texas Tech came to an end, Matt McMillen flipped on his cell phone.
Waiting for him were five voice mails -- all from Oklahoma's charter company. Something about a flat tire. In California. And the plane's inability to get to Lubbock and pick up the Sooners. The team had just squandered a 14-point lead, lost the game and now was stranded. And McMillen, in his first year as Bob Stoops' right-hand man, had to deliver the news.
"I just told him, 'Bob, the plane isn't coming,'" McMillen said.
"Good," Stoops shot back. "The way we played, we don't deserve to fly home. Get a bus."
"It was my worst nightmare," McMillen said. "But it happens. And it was good to get something like that out of the way."
That was five years go. Nothing has gone quite that wrong since, which is a good thing. The less you hear of Matt McMillen, the better job he's doing. The 41-year-old administrative coordinator, the self-described "air traffic controller" of Stoops' football life, coordinates everything from team travel arrangements and team banquets to representing Stoops at athletic administration meetings.
"I don't know what we'd do without him," Stoops said. "His job allows me to spend more time in the film room, more time in the meeting room, just more time doing football. I don't have to deal as much with everything else."
McMillen, whose value to Stoops is underscored by a six-figure salary, manages the office. He's the president of Stoops' foundation. And he makes sure the right people have tickets for Stoops' Owen Field luxury box. He's the office clown -- breaking the in-season tension by walking down the hallway with his pants hiked up to his armpits. And he's the star of OU fan Toby Keith's latest music video, "Stays in Mexico."
But all you really need to know about McMillen is this: To get to Stoops, you gotta get through him.
"I'm pretty much the guy in the control tower," McMillen said. "The guy keeping the planes from colliding."
And the skies are crowded. Sit in McMillan's office for five minutes -- where his feet are often atop his desk -- and the phone rings four times. There's Greg Tipton, the equipment manager, looking for the official dress list to get the uniforms ready. There's Matt Trantham, in charge of game operations, asking if McMillen can get the team off the field two minutes early for a pregame flag presentation. There's Kenny Mossman, media relations director, curious about media availability after practice. There's the director of the Make a Wish Foundation, wondering if Stoops has five minutes for a 9-year-old boy dying of cancer.
He averages 40 to 50 phone calls a day. And a monthly cell phone bill of "a couple hundred dollars." How does he balance it all?
"I have a complicated system of writing things down and using checkmarks," he said.
Stoops and McMillen met at Kansas State in the late '80s, when Stoops was an assistant coach and McMillen an associate athletics director for the Wildcats. When their minds would wander, McMillen said, they'd talk about "someday."
That day came in 1999, when Stoops left his job as Florida's defensive coordinator to become the head coach at Oklahoma. The Sooners already had Merv Johnson, a 20-year OU assistant coach as the director of football operations, but Stoops was eager to bring McMillen to help run the logistics of the football program.
McMillen, who was working as the marketing director for the National Cattlemen's Beef Association at the time, was eager to get back into athletics.
"I was hoping it would work out, but I didn't know," McMillen said. "Eventually, Bob called, offered me the job and the car couldn't fishtail out of the driveway fast enough."
Both Johnson and McMillen work for the Sooners, with Johnson in charge of more football related duties like organizing the walk-on program and evaluating recruiting tape while McMillen focuses on day-to-day logistical issues.
"Bob does something as simple as change the practice time," McMillen said. "And there's a million people to inform. That's where I come in."
He also stars in the role as staff clown. Last summer, after the completion of two-a-days, McMillen dressed up in way-too-tight coaching shorts, a skin-tight football jersey, a helmet without a facemask and black socks drawn up to his knees and drove an ice cream truck onto the practice field, where he and the student managers tossed ice cream to the Sooner players.
"I like to keep things light -- keep everybody smiling," McMillen said. "That's my role."
This summer, he was asked by Keith to star in his latest video, "Stays in Mexico." In the four-minute clip, McMillen plays a geeky married salesman from Sioux Falls, South Dakota who succumbs to a "Cabo Wabo tequila-fueled weekend of debauchery" on a trip to Mexico.
"I had a blast," McMillen said of the taping, which took place this past July. "I got to show off my modified donkey kick."
But life isn't all fun and games. At least not constantly. McMillen is busiest in December, when, in a perfect season, he has Big 12 Championship travel, bowl game travel, the team's annual banquet and a pair of ultra-important recruiting weekends to coordinate.
"Last year, I just bought a huge Christmas tree and shoved it in my office," he said. "That was about it. I'm not home much in December."
Yet the man with a wife and two kids wouldn't trade it for the world.
"This is one of those jobs that you never get into a grind, it's never the same thing day in and day out," McMillen said. "And there aren't many people that can go to the office each day and say that."
Wayne Drehs is a staff writer at ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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