ARLINGTON, Texas — Bob Stoops trotted out onto Globe Life Park’s field, and for the first time in 1,113 days, he was set to coach a football game.
The all-time winningest coach in Oklahoma history was back on the gridiron, but he traded the Sooners’ crimson and cream for the black and powder blue of the Dallas Renegades in the first year of the XFL.
The circumstances of this game — a 15-9 loss to the St. Louis BattleHawks — differed from his last, a 35-19 win over Auburn in the 2017 Sugar Bowl, in every respect. The result was different, the location was different, the league was different, but Stoops remained the same coach.
Stoops expressed all his classic tropes — from his iconic visor, to his coaching power stance with his left leg slightly leaning ahead of his right, to his intense stare with his arms folded, to his steady demeanor as he roams the sideline. In many ways, everything remained the same, despite coaching a roster full of players who couldn’t cut it in the NFL and playing a game in an abandoned baseball park.
Stoops’ addition to the XFL gave the league a legitimacy that non-NFL professional football leagues have lacked in the past, and the Renegades’ loss was largely meaningless, but Stoops’ return was the marquee event in the league’s opening weekend.
And he felt right at home on the sidelines.
“It was great, outside of the outcome,” Stoops said. “This whole process has been great. I’ve loved it. It’s been great being around the guys and coaching them. They’re a great group of players and coaches. It didn’t feel much different out there, I hadn’t forgotten. I was excited to be back.”
In those 1,113 days since Stoops’ last game with the Sooners, Lincoln Riley has kept the program’s prestige alive, with three Big 12 Championships and College Football Playoff appearances, as well as two Heisman Trophy winners. In that time, Stoops has remained out of the public eye. But on Feb. 7, 2019 — 610 days after his retirement — his return to the XFL was made official.
And despite the largely anemic play on the field in a league with an unclear lifespan, the Renegades' opening game drew the attention of fans and media, in large part due to Stoops’ return.
“I don’t pay attention to what's about me — it’s not about me. It’s about our team and winning,” Stoops said. “I didn’t put too much on this one game that I was coming back. That’s just not me. I’m back for a lot of games, and I want to win. This was one of 10 regular-season games, and I’ll move on to the next one.”
For the first time in his career, Stoops is coaching professionals as opposed to student-athletes, which is a transition legendary coaches like Alabama’s Nick Saban have traditionally struggled with.
And going to the professional ranks checks out for Stoops, as he struggled in his final years with the Sooners as an elite recruiter. As an XFL coach, Stoops doesn’t have to deal with recruiting, parents, boosters or any of the other auxiliary aspects of being a college coach. With the Renegades, it’s all football, all the time.
In order to make the transition, Stoops has been transparent with his players, listening to their concerns and adjusting accordingly.
“The wonderful and great thing about Coach Stoops is that he came in with that college mindset,” said Renegades wide receiver Jeff Badet, who played for Oklahoma in 2017. “But he’s such a player’s coach that he kind of was asking us (what to do) and he transferred into being a pro coach. At first it was a college atmosphere, but he knows we’re all grown men at the end of the day.”
Along with the change in who he’s coaching, the budding XFL has unleashed a unique marketing campaign and given more access to the media.
Unlike college or even the NFL, reporters have access to players and coaches on the sideline during the game. The Stoops of the past likely would have scoffed at the notion of taking a break in the middle of the game to talk to the media, but that wasn’t the case Sunday.
In his first in-game interview, Stoops cracked jokes about his starting quarterback Philip Nelson’s past as a model, showing how he’s tagging along with the league’s relaxed attitude.
“I was ready for it,” Stoops said of the interview. “I’m here to do my part and help the league in any way that I can, and so that means participating differently than I had before. There’s people everywhere in the locker room following me around. I get it, and I enjoyed watching it yesterday ... it’s great access for people that are interested in it, and I think it’ll continue to grow.”
Stoops brought a band of familiar faces with him to Dallas to coach, including quarterback Landry Jones, who played for Oklahoma from 2008 to 2012, and defensive end Frank Alexander, who played for Oklahoma from 2008 to 2011, as well as Badet, whom Stoops did not coach but did recruit to play for the Sooners.
“It’s still the same, I couldn’t have drawn this up,” Alexander said. “Just being back with coach now, it feels like we’re just starting back in (2007).”
With a pedigree and record as decorated as Stoops’ — 190 wins, 10 Big 12 titles and a national championship — he could’ve gotten back into coaching multiple other times in the last two years, but he hasn’t. His name has been tied to high-caliber jobs, such as Florida State this past season, but his push to get back into football is simple: his competitive spirit and desire to win.
“I came in all-in, expecting to win — I’m not doing this for any other reason,” Stoops said. “I want to win and win big. I’m disappointed because I thought we would’ve played better in a lot of different areas.”
Stoops has every reason to have struggled with his transition — from the time off, the XFL's new rules, the transition to coaching adults instead of students — but through it all, his players say he hasn’t lost a step.
“With Coach Stoops, it’s kind of like riding a bike,” Badet said. “You can go a long time without riding it, but as soon as you get back on you know how to ride it.
“Coach Stoops hasn’t missed a beat. He’s been tip-top.”