On April 29, 1998, Joe Castiglione answered the phone to find OU President David Boren on the other end of the line for the third night in a row. Boren was searching for an athletic director, and his sights had been set on Castiglione for quite a while.
Just four days prior, Castiglione and Boren met in person in a Dallas-Fort Worth conference room with various higher-ups from the university. Castiglione, who had already declined the position twice, agreed to meet on one condition: This would not be an interview. He was coming to help them discuss and define what they should be looking for in an athletic director, not to accept the job.
“We had a two-hour conversation that was really interactive,” Castiglione said. “It was just kind of intellectually stimulating — a very specific, direct exchange of perspectives on issues to leadership.”
While waiting for his plane, Castiglione was offered the job once more. This time, he paused. He was happy at Missouri, seeing his years of work come to fruition in the form of a revived football program, and his wife’s entire family was from the state. He couldn’t ignore how well the meeting went, though, and he returned to Missouri unsure.
That’s when the calls started coming.
Boren was persistent, seeing Castiglione as the right fit for the job. He didn’t just want to talk about athletics, though — he wanted to talk about everything. In a sense, he was letting Castiglione get a feel for him, the way he ran his university, and his goals and aspirations for it.
“He called me every night,” Castiglione said, still in awe of the exchange. “A president doesn’t do that.”
Boren’s persistence and vision helped Castiglione make the decision to take the job, coming to Norman and accepting the offer on April 30, and that persistence and vision have become what Castiglione uses to lure coaches to OU. Twenty years later, Castiglione is one of the longest-serving athletic directors in the country, and Oklahoma is one of the premier programs.
“We aspire to greatness, nothing less,” OU President-designate Jim Gallogly said during his presidential announcement speech in March. “I will push very hard. I will ask a great deal. We know what that looks like on the football field, don’t we? ... Because we expect perfection, and we are going to have that same standard for every single thing we do at this university. Every single thing. We will work together as a team, and we will achieve great things. Because we are Sooners.”
Castiglione stood in shock, surprised by the unexpected praise from the university’s next president. The standard that Gallogly gave the university — that of the athletic department — wasn’t such a good bar to set 20 years ago. Castiglione transformed the Sooners, helping build the athletic department into a powerhouse that remains consistently near the top in the nation.
Oklahoma has won national championships in football, softball, golf, and men’s and women’s gymnastics, as well as individual titles in tennis and wrestling, since Castiglione’s arrival. The university has seen multiple appearances in men’s and women’s Final Fours, the BCS Championship and the College Football Playoff. Most recently, the Sooners won their 12th men’s gymnastics national title.
The day College Football Playoff committee member and OU alumnus Bill Hancock met Castiglione, he knew he was talking to someone who would rise through the ranks of college athletics. Castiglione made an immediate impression on Hancock, showing an easy ability to relate to people that Hancock believes has greatly aided in his success.
“He has good people skills,” Hancock said. “(Castiglione) has great judgment. He’s thoughtful and deliberate, but doesn’t hesitate to make decisions.”
Castiglione has made some of the biggest and best decisions in the history of the athletic department, hiring the "winningest" football coach in program history in Bob Stoops, nine-time national champion men's gym coach Mark Williams and three-time national champion women's gym coach K.J. Kindler.
Comfortable with taking risks, in one of his most recent hires Castiglione promoted Lincoln Riley to head coach after Stoops’ retirement. Just 33 years old at the time, Riley had been with the Sooners two years as offensive coordinator. Castiglione’s risk appears to have paid off, as Riley has helped OU to a Big 12 title, a spot in the College Football Playoff and the No. 1 recruiting class.
Castiglione is known for his ability to find the right coaches for the university, but there’s no perfect formula or best method. Instead, he trusts his intuition. He looks for characteristics that fit the university and the goals he has for the department, as well as paying attention to the general sense he gets from the person. What Castiglione is looking for is a term used by many of the coaches at OU — "buy in."
After over 30 years in athletic administration, it becomes easier to spot the people who aren’t going to fit — they make promises, but with conditions attached to them. That’s not what Castiglione wants; he wants confidence, work ethic and self-awareness.
“These are tough jobs,” Castiglione said. “I want somebody who’s not afraid of the expectation, that genuinely relishes the competition, but most importantly recognizes their role in putting others in a position to be successful.”
Castiglione sits in a leather chair in his office and gives credit to everyone else, trying to avoid accepting the large role he’s played in transforming the athletic department. From multiple Final Four chairs sitting against a wall to Big 12 title hats displayed on a shelf beside his desk, Castiglione’s success is apparent.
The athletic director feels strongly about sharing success, often noting how the athletic department is only a small part of the whole university. The department is self-sustaining — operating on the revenue it pulls in on its own — which allows it to give roughly $9 million to the university a year, according to Castiglione.
Castiglione would rather not speak about his own contributions, though, preferring to acknowledge the people who have helped the department and himself along the way.
“Our success is a reflection of the efforts and talents of a lot of people and the support of our university administration — President Boren being a big part of that and our board,” Castiglione said.
Boren and Castiglione are part of one of the most successful trios in college athletics, along with Stoops. Soon after Castiglione was hired, he introduced Stoops as the Sooners’ next head coach, which would prove to be the beginning of a new era for the university. The three worked closely to improve the state of athletics at OU, as well as finding a friendship and admiration for one another along the way.
In two short months, Castiglione will be the last of the trio remaining. Stoops retired in June 2017, and Boren will retire June 30. With a new head coach and a new president, Castiglione will be faced with trying to form a new trio to push the university forward into success.
“No one has any kind of feeling like success is owned or owed,” Castiglione said. “We have strong mindsets and bold confidence, and the experience certainly helps a great deal, so we’re prepared for what might come our way, but just because we put on the uniform and show up doesn’t mean it comes naturally. At Oklahoma, there’s a level of expectation — we’re trying to support our programs the best we can, and at many places that’s better than most.”