Saturday, January 3, 2004

NEW ORLEANS — The controversial college bowl season has produced more than one split decision.

Former Oklahoma defensive coordinator Mike Stoops already has officially taken over as Arizona’s coach. So, why is he in New Orleans in an “unofficial capacity,” helping his brother, Bob, and defensive coordinator Brent Venables prepare the Sooners (12-1) for tomorrow’s Sugar Bowl showdown with LSU (12-1)?

“Mike knows his personnel in the secondary so well,” said Venables, the defensive assistant who was given the coordinator label when Stoops was officially installed at Arizona (Dec.8). “So, he’s been around the last three weeks filling-in Bob on all the intricacies of each player, making sure he knows exactly what each player can and can’t do. … He’s been in practice and has sat in on a couple of meetings since we’ve been here [in New Orleans].”

Now, the first and most obvious question is what does Arizona think about its newly hired coach’s presence in New Orleans? Though the holiday season is a dead (no-contact) period in college recruiting, shouldn’t the newest Wildcat be in Tucson hawking season tickets at alumni fundraisers, meeting with returning players and generally going about the business of purging the memory of John Mackovic by putting down the roots of his regime?

Arizona AD Jim Livengood couldn’t be reached to comment on the issue. But one Big 12 coach who wanted to remain anonymous sounded off on Stoops’ presence in the Big Easy:

“There aren’t a lot of guys who could get away with what he’s doing. I understand that he wants to finish things out, see things through for his brother. And if it wasn’t a sibling thing, I don’t think either Oklahoma or Arizona would go along with it. It does fit Mike’s personality perfectly, because I can promise you he doesn’t care what anybody on the outside thinks. But it’s really pushing the bounds of professionalism. I can’t imagine that the people at Arizona are pleased.”

Maybe the folks at Oklahoma shouldn’t be, either.

History tells us it’s much better to make a clean pre-bowl break than linger as a lame duck coach. Over the last 15 seasons, the season’s premier bowl has featured a departing or newly departed head coach or key coordinator five times. In the four instances in which that coach stayed on with the team through the bowl game, teams are 0-4 (see chart).

The lone positive outcome featuring such a scenario was Tennessee’s victory over Florida State in the 1999 Fiesta Bowl. The Vols lost longtime offensive coordinator David Cutcliffe to the head job at Ole Miss before that title game. But unlike the other four coaches in his situation, Cutcliffe left the program completely before Tennessee began its bowl preparations.

Though Stoops is no longer officially a member of the Oklahoma staff, he clearly has been intimately involved with the team’s bowl preparations. Will he be at the game? On the sideline? Has his presence been awkward or invaluable, a distraction or a boon?

After all, Mike was announced as Arizona’s coach just days before the Big 12 title game, and we know how that weekend worked out for the crimson and cream. He came to Kansas City as a lame duck defensive coordinator, and the Sooner Schooner summarily dropped both axles, enduring a 35-7 beating from Kansas State that represented the most humbling loss of the Stoops era in Norman.

“Mike’s career situation had nothing to do with that loss,” insisted Venables on Wednesday. “People want a scapegoat. But we didn’t tackle well. We gave up too many big plays. We didn’t play well on the underthrown ball. We didn’t match their intensity. We all share the blame for that — every player and every coach.

“As for Mike’s presence here, it’s not a distraction. Anytime you have the chance to utilize a defensive mind like Mike’s, it’s a positive for us. … For him, I think it is a no-win situation. He’s torn. He feels like he needs to finish this job up right. But if you devote all your time and energy here once you’ve taken a job somewhere else, the other people that you’ve made a commitment to feel slighted.”

If Arizona feels slighted, Sooner Nation is probably confused. They’d probably like to know why Bob, long acknowledged as college football’s resident defensive guru, needs pointers on his own team from his little brother in the first place. Two players on the Oklahoma secondary (Mike’s baby) in question have started for four straight years (cornerback Derrick Strait and free safety Brandon Everage), dating to OU’s 2000 national title season. What more could brother Bob and Venables possibly have to learn about such staples?

“Mike had a great deal of influence on game-planning and game-day play-calling,” said Venables. “It’s another set of eyes, informed input. … Hopefully, I’ve been paying attention for the last 10 years that he and I have been working together, so that between myself, Mike, Bob and the rest of our staff, we’ll get by.”

If Oklahoma doesn’t get by LSU, it will be impossible not to wonder whether Stoops hurt two programs with his presence in New Orleans.

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