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Bob Stoops speaks to the media during a press conference about Lincoln Riley's departure, Monday, Nov. 29, 2021, at Oklahoma Memorial Stadium. (Kyle Phillips / The Transcript)

More than four years ago, Bob Stoops stood at a podium to announce his retirement from the University of Oklahoma.

On Monday, Stoops was at the podium and introduced as OU’s interim head coach.

He’s back.

It’s hard to overstate the impact of Stoops’ return to the program, particularly in the wake of Lincoln Riley’s departure to USC on Sunday. But in his opening statement, Stoops gave a message of hope and reassurance.

“All you fans, and again, player parents, everyone… give it a little bit of time and you're going to see, this is just a little bump in the road,” Stoops said. “There's not one guy, one person in the history of this program that's bigger than the program, coach Switzer, myself or Lincoln Riley.

“What I told the players is they are the program. [The] players throughout these decades, they are OU football, not us as a coach.”

But Stoops isn’t at OU in name only. He plans on working while he’s in the role, and there could be a long road ahead for the program.

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Stoops was on the golf course when he got the call that Riley was bolting for Los Angeles.

It was OU athletic director Joe Castligione and president Joseph Harroz, who wanted to ask if Stoops would step in as the interim coach.

“Before we could complete the question, his exact answer, and you can hear from his lips, was, 'Of course I will,’” Harroz said, “'Anything I can do, I'll do.' That's his immediate answer.”

It was an easy choice to ask Stoops, Castligione said.

Stoops was hired as the OU coach and spent 18 years at the helm. He retired in 2017 after winning 190 games — the most in OU history — 10 conference championships and a national championship in 2000.

Part of the reason he stepped aside was to make room for Riley, his offensive coordinator, to become coach of the program. So when Riley told OU he was leaving, Stoops said he was disappointed but ultimately thought about the program first.

“My initial reaction is what's best for the program immediately, recruiting, and the players,” Stoops said. “I should say, first and foremost, the players on our team right now. Reassuring them that they are OU football, sticking together, they could very well be a championship program next year, and that we will attract the very best in the coaching profession and the same thing is projected out recruiting.”

Stoops was also in the meeting where Riley told the team he was leaving and had a chance to address the team after Riley broke the news.

“They were of course blindsided,” Stoops said. “And so they were in shock. Yesterday, definitely. I was in the meeting. They were very respectful of coach Riley as he addressed them. Some even, you know, clapped for him as he left. But, in shock. But then after Joe [Castligione] addressed them and then I had an opportunity to address them, again, to understand, they are OU football. This one guy didn't all of a sudden create OU football.”

Stoops will be walking into a locker room that lost more than just Riley.

Riley also took several assistant coaches with him to USC, including defensive coordinator Alex Grinch and assistant head coach Dennis Simmons.

“When you have coaching changes, assistant coaches are caught in the middle of it on whether to go or not to go,” Stoops said. “That’s just ongoing. For me, I don’t think it’s definitive who would be staying, who would not be. We will have to wait and see this week how it goes with the assistant coaches.

“But there was a good number of them in our meeting this morning, ready to work and go out tonight to go to work recruiting.”

But Stoops will also be working with familiar faces. Assistant coaches Demarco Murray and Joe Jon Finley are former players of Stoops’, and Bill Bedenbaugh, Calvin Thibodeaux and Cale Gundy were on staff before Stoops left in 2017.

That familiarity played a big role in Stoops’ return.

“I stayed close with them. I recruited all of them, they all played for me,” Stoops said. “They all cared so much about this university, so there was nothing to think about for me. I knew, I said if I can help with, what’s best for the program than I’m in. I’ll do the best I can. Those guys, they’re all loyal and care about the university in a big way.”

Stoops will also be recruiting for the Sooners starting Monday night, and his work is cut out for him. The Sooners have lost several key recruits since Riley departed, and key current players Spencer Rattler and Jadon Haselwood also announced Monday that they’re entering the transfer portal.

And with the early signing period set for Dec. 15, Stoops knows there’s a lot of work ahead.

“There’s gonna be all of that, and some will (enter the portal),” Stoops said. “I’ve already had guys come to me who have said, ‘Coach, I want to play in the bowl game, but I want to look at the portal just in case someone [is hired that] doesn’t fit me, doesn’t work.’ So I understand. But that doesn’t mean that they’re all looking to leave.

“I think, in today’s world people sometimes look at what the options are if they feel they need to, and then make the right decision for them. So it’ll be ongoing. Some will be true, some won’t be.”

Stoops will continue to have other obligations.

He’ll be inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame on Dec. 6. He’ll be at the Big Ten Championship game Saturday as a member of the Fox Sports Big Noon Kickoff Crew.

But his commitment to stepping in after Riley’s departure helps stabilize OU, Castiligione said.

“Having coach Stoops connected to the university in this way is fantastic,” Castligione said. “We talked about that earlier. He stayed connected even when he stepped away full time from coaching. His presence, his wisdom, the love for this university, it shows every day.”

But regardless of who is hired as the next official head coach, Stoops is confident the program will continue to be successful, and he'll be here as long as the Sooners need him to be.

“OU football has been here a long time, and it isn't going anywhere else,” Stoops said. “It's going to be here and it's going to be at the top of college football and is going to continue that way.”

Jesse Crittenden is the sports editor of The Transcript and covers OU athletics. Reach him at jesse@normantranscript.com or at 405-366-3580

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