ATLANTA — Written on 6-year-old Hunter Beamer’s Christmas list is a new bike and a mini field goal post, among other things. But Hunter’s biggest ask, and probably the most difficult for Santa Claus to deliver, is something that doesn’t fit down the chimney. He wants No. 4 Oklahoma to not lose another game.
Hunter, the son of Oklahoma’s assistant head coach for offense and tight ends coach Shane Beamer, is a diehard Sooner fan. For Hunter and his two older siblings, Olivia and Sutton, this time of year is always exciting. But it’s also different than most kids’ holidays. Their family, along with other football families, are spending Christmas on the road.
This year, they’ll spend Christmas in Atlanta as the Sooners take on No. 1 LSU in the College Football Playoff semifinal on Saturday, Dec. 28.
“They’re used to us not being home for Christmas. I don’t know if we’ve ever been home for Christmas,” said Shane’s wife, Emily. “This is all they’ve ever really known.”
For the 24 kids of Oklahoma’s coaching staff, along with the broader support staff and their families, celebrating Christmas on the road has become a holiday tradition in its own right. And they don’t mind. It just means they get more than one Christmas and more than one visit from Santa. But more importantly, they get to watch their dads try to win one of the biggest games in their coaching careers.
“Obviously you don’t want to be home for Christmas,” said Becky Grinch, wife to Oklahoma defensive coordinator Alex Grinch and mom to their two kids, Tyler and Corbi. “You didn’t have a good season if you’re at home. The kids realize that.”
As for coaches’ wives, they often serve as the backbone of football families during the holidays. While their husbands are out recruiting and scheming for the bowl game, the wives are devising a master plan of how to make sure their kids’ Christmas is just as special on the road as it would be at home.
They’re buying presents, making arrangements for Santa and watching their children during Christmas break, all while their husbands prepare for the most important game of the season.
“It’s just an extra piece of Christmas that some people don’t have,” said Carol Stoops, wife of former Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops, whose three children were practically raised during his tenure. “I will say this: For my kids, some of their precious memories are bowl games. Christmas or no Christmas, it’s bowl games because they are with what I call ‘football cousins.’ They have real cousins, family cousins. But they know the coaches’ kids and see the coaches’ kids more than their real family.
“And that’s what my kids remember most. It’s not Christmas. It’s running around the halls, playing catch in the banquet area, hanging out with some of the players ... I get it, people have their own traditions. But this is our normal and it’s wonderful.”
While those who have spent Christmas on a bowl trip say it’s fun and a memorable experience, it also comes with lots of preparation.
Fortunately for the wives and kids of Oklahoma’s coaches, the university lends a hand. A week and a half before the team departs, OU sends a crate to each coach’s house. The family fills the crate with whatever they might want on the trip, but don’t want to take on the plane. Once filled, it is delivered to the team’s bowl hotel on the team’s equipment truck, which this year drove 856 miles to Atlanta from Norman. The crates are often filled with Christmas decorations and presents, and this year Becky packed a Christmas tree that can be hung on the wall.
As for Santa, he knows where to go thanks to the family’s Elf on the Shelf, a magical toy that helps Santa manage his nice list. The Beamers and Grinches each have their own Elf. They leave it to their kids to make sure the Elf informs Santa he needs to go to both their home in Norman and the Omni Hotel in downtown Atlanta.
“When you’re in a hotel room, it doesn’t feel like Christmas really. You’re in a hotel room with nothing,” Emily said. “To them, it’s exciting because Christmas is even sooner — it’s closer for them to say, ‘Santa is coming,’ and still actually have Christmas Day, too.”
“It’s kind of the best of both worlds because they get to go on a bowl trip with Oklahoma, or whatever school we're at, and it’s sort of like a vacation,” Becky said. “And then they get to be home and have a traditional Christmas either before or after the bowl.”
Many of the coaching staff’s families celebrate Christmas early. This year, with the dates falling the way they did, most celebrated on Sunday ahead of the team’s departure on Monday. This means many presents have to be bought earlier, one of the biggest undertakings according to the coaches’ wives. It’s often left to them, they say, to buy the family's presents.
Emily and Becky both say Shane and Alex help come up with ideas of what to buy their kids, but it’s typically left to them to purchase them.
“He’s definitely all-football mode, really more than any other time this year,” Emily said of Shane. “He’s a great dad. He loves Christmas morning and gets into all that, but he probably doesn’t know much of what anyone is getting. He definitely knows their list and what they’ve asked for. But it’ll be just as a big of a surprise to him as it is for the kids.”
As for Christmas festivities, that’s usually left to bowl officials and the head coach’s wife.
Carol and Bob, who was Oklahoma’s coach for 18 seasons and had his share of big bowl games, spent multiple Christmases on the road. Carol recalls two in particular: 2001 at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena and 2005 at the Holiday Bowl in San Diego.
In 2001, the team flew out on Christmas Day and her three kids, then all under 5, wanted to bring the presents they opened that morning on the plane. Carol and Bob had to tell them no, as they could only bring so much on the trip. In 2005, Carol recalls sneaking out of her hotel room with the other coaches’ wives on Christmas Eve and preparing gifts for her kids the next day.
For Carol, it’s those moments that she’ll cherish forever.
“This is a coach's busiest time. Obviously they’re out recruiting, and they have bowl prep, and they’re working with the young guys, and it’s just crazy, crazy busy. The coach’s wife — a lot falls on her, and I say that in admiration not of myself, but other coaches' wives,” Carol said. “What’s changed is, years and years ago when our kids were small, I would have friends or family say, ‘Gosh, it must be hard for you not to be home at Christmas.’ And I said, ‘Here’s the deal: If we were home at Christmas, that wouldn’t be a good thing.’ You have to look at it in perspective. It’s great. It is what you make of it.”
Caitlin Riley, wife to Stoops’ successor Lincoln Riley, took over for Carol as Oklahoma’s first lady three years ago. The Rileys have two daughters, Sloan and Stella, both under 8.
And she’s a big reason why Christmas on the road remains enjoyable for many of those who’ve recently done it with the Sooners. It’s the atmosphere that OU’s athletic department has cultivated over the years.
“We’ve been very fortunate to be on some of the most family-friendly staffs, and I’m telling you, Oklahoma is at the very top of that list,” said Becky, who has been with Alex at schools like Missouri, Washington State and Ohio State. “I remember my husband called me as soon as he got hired, and I was still in Ohio — he called me, and the first thing I’m asking is, ‘Does everyone seem really nice? Are we going to fit in well?’ And he says, ‘Yeah, the coach’s daughter is running down the hallway playing right now.’ So that was a good sign ... And Caitlin and Lincoln do a great job of making it family-friendly. They have young kids, too, and that just makes everything so much more fun.”
Carol has now seen it from both sides with her son, Drake, playing wide receiver on the team.
“It starts at the top. The president, athletic director, coach — it’s about family. Family is so important. We’ve always had a family atmosphere and still do,” Carol said. “It’s just a culture. And I think we all have it in perspective. Winning is obviously so important, but it’s not a win-at-all-cost atmosphere. Family is first.”
This year, the coaches’ wives plan to have brunch together on Christmas morning and then spend the afternoon with the team, which will practice that morning.
“I think a lot of kids, maybe at school or wherever, are probably like, ‘Wait, Christmas morning you don’t get to spend with your dad?’” Emily said. “But the nice thing about when we’re all traveling together, everyone’s dad is at work together. So we’re all in the same boat. Especially here, it’s a tight-knit group of coaches’ families that we all kind of stick together. That makes it a lot easier on the kids.”
As for this Christmas, the Beamers and Grinches are ready.
Emily bought Shane a panoramic photo of Gaylord Family-Oklahoma Memorial Stadium, while Becky bought Alex a new pair of Cole Haan shoes — his favorite brand.
As for the kids, they will, for the most part, get what they asked for — bikes, scooters, LEGOs and wireless headphones, among a long list of other things.
It’s yet to be seen if Hunter’s wish will come true. If the Elf on the Shelf got word back to Santa, OU will soon perhaps have a Peach Bowl trophy — and maybe more — on its shelf back at the Switzer Center.
Either way, this Christmas won’t soon be forgotten.
“Christmas, no matter when or where it is, it’s special,” Becky said. “It’s more about being with those you love. I think that’s the biggest thing I’ve learned from this.”