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COLUMN | ENTERPRISE | FEATURE | GAME | LOOSE DEADLINE
FIRST PLACE: ENTERPRISE
NORMAN – Huddled in a DFW International Airport conference room, hashing out the final details of a job offer, Joe Castiglione sat across the table from Bob Stoops and surged with the satisfaction that he'd secured his No. 1 target as Oklahoma's next coach.
Then Stoops dropped a bombshell.
"That's when he told me, 'I've got a little bit of a challenge here,'" Castiglione said in recalling that critical hire in the winter of 1998.
Hesitantly, Castiglione waded in.
"I said, 'Well, what is it?' Bob said, 'I'm supposed to meet with Iowa in the morning.'"
Of course, Stoops became a Sooner, and the rest – history of the highest standard, complete with a seventh national championship and restoration of OU pride and stature among the nation's football elite.
But a look back inside the search reveals how Stoops vaulted to the front of Castiglione's list and some anxious hours wondering if Stoops might be swayed by his alma mater.
Bitter End, New Beginnings
The end of the John Blake era at OU was both surreal and startling to Castiglione.
On the job for just five months, the football coaching transition was Castiglione's first major move as athletic director.
Blake refused an opportunity to resign, despite an offer to buy out his contract in full. So a special meeting of the regents was called to order, with their votes – which were not unanimous – carried out in an unusual public forum inside the Oklahoma Memorial Union on campus.
The decision, coming one day after the Sooners beat Texas Tech to end a 5-6 season, was controversial, reflecting emotions pro and against Blake among fans and players, some demanding action, others preferring patience.
On a Sunday, Nov. 22, 1998, the regents voted 4-2 to fire Blake in a roll call procedure that was dramatically carried on live television and radio across the state.
"I never in my life imagined anything like that," Castiglione said. "We all realize there's a high level of importance to decisions and how they're made. But to this day, I don't know of any (proceeding) like it. I just don't. Have never heard of it."
In those moments, Castiglione discovered the gravity of the search he was about to conduct.
"If I wasn't able to quantify how important this process was," Castiglione said, "that Sunday night cemented everything."
Committee of One
Castiglione moved quickly to initiate his search.
And it was his search – a committee of one.
University president David Boren didn't even have knowledge of the candidates.
"At the time, there was this sort of industry philosophy that you have a big search and create these big committees that represent all facets of campus and people have a chance to contribute what they think," Castiglione said.
Castiglione was of a different philosophy.
His experience suggested that employed coaches don't like their names tossed around in regard to other jobs. And big committees lend themselves to big mouths.
Castiglione didn't want anything getting in the way of attracting the best coaches.
"They may not be willing to come and meet before a big group like that," he said, "because of the risk factor."
Castiglione had to convince Boren his way was the right way.
"We had a robust conversation about it," Castiglione said.
In the end, Boren understood and agreed, yet found himself tempted at times to check in on the search and any potential names Castiglione might be willing to share.
To no avail.
"'With all due respect, president, you're on a need to know basis,'" Castiglione said he jokingly told Boren. "'When you need to know, I'll tell you.'
"Of course, he's the president. If he gave me a directive, I'd have told him."
Castiglione did lean on a few people he trusted for advice and information. Among them: Lee Roy Selmon, Chuck Neinas and Eddie Crowder, all heavyweights tuned in to the pulse of college football.
Working on their input and his own past experiences, Castiglione immediately formed two lists: A and 1A.
Stoops, then a hot name as defensive coordinator at Florida, was the lone assistant making the cut for the A list.
When it came to Stoops, Castiglione sensed a need to act fast. Competition loomed in the chase for a new coach. Four other prominent programs – Clemson, South Carolina, Mississippi and most notably Iowa – also had athletic directors on the prowl.
So the Monday morning after Blake's firing, Castiglione made contact with Stoops.
That Wednesday: a face-to-face meeting in Dallas.
Castiglione's first encounter with Bob Stoops came when he was at Missouri and Stoops was an assistant under Bill Snyder at Kansas State.
Jim Leavitt, a Missouri grad, was the co-defensive coordinator with Stoops at K-State. Leavitt introduced Stoops to Castiglione, who had accompanied the Tigers for a basketball game in Manhattan.
"If first impressions mean anything, the time I met him, he really impressed me," Castiglione said.
"Sharp guy. It's one of those, you file it away."
There was another chance encounter, on the football field when Missouri and K-State played. And when Stoops moved to Florida, overhauling the defense and helping Steve Spurrier win a national title, Castiglione again took note.
"'That's a savvy move right there,'" Castiglione said he remembered thinking.
"I had a chance to just sort of watch. I'm always watching."
When Castiglione and Stoops met in the Admiral's Club at DFW Airport, the day before Thanksgiving, Castiglione was focused much deeper.
The formal interview lasted six hours. They talked, ate lunch, traded philosophies and volleyed questions back and forth.
"We didn't argue about his defensive philosophy," Castiglione said with a laugh. "I wanted to learn a certain amount about his coaching philosophy. How he would think through his role as a head coach. How he would develop his program.
"I was really keyed into his attention to detail. His understanding of the psychology of people, getting people to do things because they want to, as opposed to you wanting them to."
Castiglione sought out all sorts of details, including game week preparation, recruiting philosophy, the importance of academics, the hiring of staff, what kind of offensive scheme Stoops might favor.
Then Stoops surprised Castiglione.
"One thing I never heard, 'Give me five or six years.' Never once did he say that or infer it," Castiglione said. "He said, 'I don't think I would be fair to the players that we inherit or that we recruit that first year, if I didn't give them the best chance to be successful.
"'I have to ask them to buy into my system. And I have to put them in the best position to be successful. I don't want to just throw away a year by excluding them from the process of building this program.'
"When he told me that, that was one of a number of things that just clicked with my philosophy."
Castiglione said he was acutely aware of the plight of OU players. The Sooners were about to undergo their fourth coaching change in 10 years. For the seniors, their time under Gary Gibbs, Howard Schnellenberger and John Blake were filled with disappointment and turmoil.
"We wanted them to have the best overall experience they could for as long as they were going to have eligibility," Castiglione said. "Give them the chance to have a great experience, so they would remember that year as being something very important, that they contributed to this future success of the program."
So Stoops' skipped any talk of five-year plans and putting his own players in place. Stoops let it be known, the future was now.
"When he said that," Castiglione said, "I'm thinking to myself, 'All right.'
"Sometimes, at the end of the day, even though you have all the pieces together, there's something that grabs you in the gut and you know, that's the right one.
"With Bob, after that meeting, he got in my gut."
The Iowa Bombshell
Castiglione moved forward, conducting some interviews over the phone, one more in person with a standing head coach.
As was the case then, the Sooner athletic director still declines to name names out of ongoing respect for those involved and in keeping his word.
Besides, with Stoops in his gut, who else had a chance?
Castiglione took the next step with Stoops, arranging another Admiral's Club interview that fateful Sunday, this time with Boren, three regents, a booster, Neinas and Crowder.
Neinas – frequently used in coaching searches – informed the group that he had then-TCU coach Dennis Franchione on standby to come for a chat, if needed.
The group meeting with Stoops went brilliantly.
And when Stoops stepped out for a moment, a buzz filled the room.
Neinas and Boren announced that no more interviews were necessary, that OU had found its man. Soon everyone was in agreement and Castiglione joined Stoops in an adjoining room to discuss details of a deal.
Soon, Stoops was tempering the enthusiasm.
Yes, the interview had gone well, but Stoops had a commitment to talk to the folks at Iowa.
The same Iowa where Stoops had played and met his wife Carol and began his coaching career under Hayden Fry, who was retiring.
"I felt out of respect – I had been there 10 years, that's my alma mater – that I owed that to them," Stoops said recently. "I'm a loyal person that way. I felt that I owed them that."
For Castiglione, it only raised Stoops to another level.
Still, it was hardly an encouraging revelation.
"You start to wonder," Castiglione said, "the heart strings are tugging at the alma mater, they start rolling out the black and gold carpet, who knows who they roll out at this meeting, maybe Coach Fry himself.
When Castiglione walked back through the door into the conference room, Boren and the others knew something was amiss.
"They knew when I walked in, they could just tell from my body language," Castiglione said. "They said, 'What?'
"I said, 'Well, the good news is there's a characteristic here, if you can look beyond what I'm about to tell you, that just endears him more to the University of Oklahoma. But there is an area of concern."
Stoops left to catch a flight for Iowa.
The OU contingent talked, feeling confident and holding the framework for a deal with Stoops.
"All we could do was be patient and wait," Castiglione said. "And that was a grueling 24 hours."
In the end, there was no need for concern, although it did exist, and heightened when weather delayed Stoops' flight to meet with Iowa officials, thus delaying an arranged phone call to Castiglione.
At that meeting, however, athletic director Bob Bowlsby didn't roll out any black and gold carpet or enlist Fry to welcome Stoops home.
Instead, Bowlsby told Stoops they were considering him, as well as others.
"Fortunately," Stoops said, "I realized that soon into the interview and made sure that everything was OK at Oklahoma."
Oh, everything was OK, as soon as Stoops called with the good news that he'd be returning – for good.
Castiglione had gone to Boren's office that afternoon, where he nervously awaited Stoops' delayed call.
"I had my phone with me and finally got the call," Castiglione said. "Bob had accepted the job.
"Of course, we were all ecstatic."
The next day, Tuesday, Dec. 1, Stoops was introduced as OU's 21st head coach on the front porch of Evans Hall on the north oval.
Nine days since the firing of John Blake, Castiglione's search process came to a close.
Just like Blake's firing, there were initial mixed reviews, even among those in the media.
"I remember several people pointing their finger right into my shoulder saying, 'I hope you realize what you have done,'" Castiglione said. "Basically, they were inferring we should have hired a sitting head coach.
"Now everybody says, 'Oh, this was an easy hire. Bob Stoops was a no-brainer.'"
Comment of the judge, Gene Duffey: Excellent look into the behind the seasons negotiations of one of the most significant football hirings of the last decade. Good lead sets the scene. Good info on what Oklahoma did to lure Stoops to Norman and what Iowa didn't do. Liked how Castiglione talked about his first impressions of Stoops from years before. Also good background on the firing of John Blake.
► Second place: Bud Withers, Seattle Times
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