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The Inflection Point – Part 2

After the 2006 RRS, I wrote an "essay" called "The Inflection Point" for some friends. The basic point was that something fundamental had changed in the UT and OU programs, shifting a balance of power that had been hard-tilted OU's way.

  Longhorn Girlie posted it on Hornfans, so many of you may have seen it.  I recently found it  on my PC, and thought it would be fun to revisit after three years.  Here it is, from October 2006, after Texas beat OU 28 - 10.

An inflection point is defined as:

a point on a curve at which the tangent crosses the curve itself.

a point on a curve at which the curvature changes sign. The curve changes from being concave upwards (positive curvature) to concave downwards (negative curvature), or vice versa. If one imagines driving a vehicle along the curve, it is a point at which the steering-wheel is momentarily 'straight', being turned from left to right or vice versa.

A moment of dramatic change, especially in the development of a company, industry, or market.

The key idea here is that an inflection point is the point where a change in the equilibrium or process starts to happen, often well before the point at which the change is evident to all.  Neill Armstrong landing on the moon was a significant event.  The inflection point was when the Apollo rocket stopped accelerating to the moon.  If it continued accelerating past the needed point, they would have rocketed into the void or the sun.  If it stopped accelerating too soon, they would have fallen short.

 In Winston Churchill’s “History of the Second World War”, he writes that he “slept the sleep of the saved” on Dec. 7, 1941, knowing that the democratic world would win the war.  He understood that the U.S. losing its Pacific Fleet was an inflection point that would start the events leading to an almost-sure victory.

 You pay attention to events to pass history tests.  You pay attention to inflection points when you’re making bets.

 OK, with that as an introduction, let’s look at something much more important than world wars or moon landings – Texas Football.  From the start of the 2000 season thru the end of the 2004 calendar year, OU went 60 – 6 (90.9%).  In that same time frame, UT went 51 – 11 (82.3%).  If you remove the games played against each other, five wins for TBTTN, OU was 55 – 6 (90.2%), and UT was 51 – 6 (89.5%), an almost insignificant difference.  Unfortunately, you can’t remove those five games from the records, and those five games (two embarrassing blowouts and three closer slugouts won by more poised and aggressive Sooner teams) ended up defining both programs.  The Sooners were the steely-eyed, swaggering tough guys, and UT was the paper lion that folded up when smacked in the mouth.  These RRS games came to define the respective teams and coaches. 

 In this time frame, OU won one MNC, three B12 titles, and went to four BCS bowls and three MNC games.  The driving force behind their squad was their coach Bob Stoops.  He was nicknamed “Big Game Bob” after winning a MNC in his second year at OU (his second year as a head coach), beating several higher-ranked and more seasoned squads along the way.  His teams played fast and aggressively on offense and defense, and always seemed to be more prepared than their opponents.  He wasn’t afraid to gamble to turn momentum, and his gambles usually paid off. 

 In contrast, Mack Brown became known as little more than a recruiter, a football Guy Lewis who could charm top talent into coming to Austin, roll the ball on the field, and was clueless about the hard work that won championships.  What should have been considered a positive trait- his emphasis on class and sportsmanship- became portrayed as a negative in contrast to Stoops’ brashness and swagger (after the Sooners burst on the scene in 2000 with a 63 – 14 slaughter of Texas, Stoops had a team photo taken with all of the Sooners doing the “horns-down” hand symbol on the field of the Cotton Bowl).  Stoops was considered a better strategician, better motivator, better developer of talent, and better game manager.  He was a winner, and Mack Brown was “Coach February”, the guy who could sweet talk blue chips into joining the Longhorns, but who could never develop them into a champion squad.

 The worst development for Texas was that Stoops had started to out-recruit Brown.  When OU started their run in 2000, their talent (as measured by recruiting rankings) was pretty good, but not elite- kind of on a level that TAMU is at now.  By 2004, the Sooners had won plenty of head-to-head battles (Tommy Harris) with the Longhorns for top talent, and had (per the recruiting rankings) as much or more talent than Texas.  The year before they had capped their class with the best RB from Texas in a generation (Peterson), and a QB that Brown had offered after his sophomore year of HS (Bomar).

 By New Year’s Day, 2005, the nation’s consensus was that OU’s program was markedly superior to UT’s in every way, and that the reason was the superiority of Stoops to Brown.  Much had been written about that, and here is a brief summary –

 1. OU got the most out of their talent.  Stoops inherited a loser, stocked with good but not great recruiting classes.  He shuffled players in and out of positions, WRs to DB, RBs to WRs, DL to OL, and got star production out of a lot of guys who had been lost on the John Blake depth chart.  This helped develop his reputation as a guy with an uncanny eye for ability and potential.  He had a Heisman winner (Jason White, a minor prospect from Tuttle, OK), a Heisman runner-up (Heupel), and a Heisman finalist (Peterson).

2. OU had the toughest teams because they had the toughest program.  Their S&C was brutal to the point of running players off.  It was understood that “the strong survived”.  In their MNC 2000 season, no starter missed a game due to injury, a combination of luck and toughness.

3. Stoops was a game-day genius.  He was never rattled, and always had a trick up his sleeve.  He used fake kicks to win games against Alabama and Missouri, and a pooch punt to bury Texas deep in its side of the field in the 2001 RRS.  In his defining games against Texas, his defenses could call out the Longhorn plays from their formations.

4. He had a great strategic sense.  He understood the benefit to OU of winning the RRS, and he played it to the hilt.  He would run down Mack Brown in off-the-record asides to media, and lay out to recruits how Texas would mis-use them.  Beating Texas would give them a mid-season launch in the polls, give them the lead in the B12 South race, and set them up for more recruiting victories.  To make it worse for Texas fans, his harassment of the Longhorns dated back to the 1984 Freedom Bowl massacre by UT-hater Hayden Fry of Iowa.

 What Bob Stoops had, everybody wanted.  The Browns and 49ers approached him about taking their head coaching jobs, to no avail.  He was wooed by the biggest college jobs, like Notre Dame, tOSU, and Florida, only to turn them down (he would often time the rejection with a recruiting event to get maximum leverage).  It was understandable why so many jobs were offered; anybody who can win a MNC before he turns 40 has to have something special going for them.  Unable to hire him away, mid-level programs would hire his assistants.  His first OC, Leach, went to Texas Tech, his second (Mangino) to KU, and his third (Long) to SDSU.  His first DC, brother Mike Stoops, went to Arizona.  The success of his staff, all young and aggressive guys, was contrasted with Texas’, where only a few guys left and not for high-profile jobs.  Frankly, it was reminiscent of Switzer’s young staff in the ‘70s, running Royal out of the game, and taunting the Texas staff as “a bunch of old guys who would rather listen to guitar pickers than work”.

 And then something happened to Bob Stoops, king of college football.  His Sooners got drilled in the Orange Bowl by USC like they were Jacksonville playing Davidson, 55 – 19.  OU fell behind in the 2nd quarter, and by the 3rd quarter seemed to want out of the game.  Rival QB Vince Young, the hero of the Rose Bowl game against Michigan, observed that Jason White wasn’t doing very much leading when his team needed a pick up (how the Sooners would make him pay for that!).  Make that record since the start of the 2000 season 60 – 7.

 No matter.  Big Game Bob would be back.  They would rely on Peterso to ease the transition to a new QB, either Bomar or Thompson (they would compete for the job- the Sooner way).  Dvoracek was transferred to a cage on-campus, and would shore up the defense (“Our best yet”, per Stoops).  A bunch of talented youngsters would step into the roles they had prepared for and the Schooner wouldn’t miss a beat.

 Except it did miss a beat.  The Purple Horned Frogs of TCU shocked the Sooners 17 – 10 at home.  Paul Thompson, the starter, was pulled for RS freshman Rhett Bomar, and the rebuilding began.  The OL was razor-thin in depth, and this limited everything they wanted to do on offense.  Star RB Peterson was hobbled through the middle of the season.  OU would lose again to UCLA, UT, and TT, finishing a 8 – 4 season with a win over an unmotivated Top 10 Oregon team, playing without its star QB (Kellen Clemens, now with the Jets).  Nevermind, the Sooners were back!

 This off-season was worse than the last.  MNC UT drilled OU in recruiting, and OU (unsurprising since Bomar looked to be entrenched at QB for at least 2 more years) whiffed on a QB recruit.  They signed several OL, but Texas got the best Texas schoolboys, except for one signed by Notre Dame.  Notre Dame, as a matter of fact, grabbed so many top national OL recruits in 2006 that there were none left for the Sooners, who had to settle for the next tier.

 Never mind.  They had Bomar, Peterson, and (per Stoops) the best defense yet.  Vince Young was in the NFL, and the Sooners were picked to win the B12 and contend for the MNC.  Then Bomargate struck, and the Sooners entered the season with a rejected QB, a young, and untested OL with true freshman as depth, the best RB in the nation, and a talented defense coordinated by Bobby Jack Wright and Brent Venables.  They almost lost to UAB, got scared by the Huskies, got jobbed by the Ducks, and were thrashed by the Horns.

 OU is now 3 – 2.  After going 60 – 6 from 2000 thru 2004, they have gone 11 – 7 since.  Stoops’ record is 78 – 18 (81.2%).  As a contrast, Brown’s record at Texas is 88 – 20 (81.5%), and 79 – 17 since 1999, Stoops’ first year. 

 Obviously something happened to reverse the fortunes of OU.  What was it?  Is there an “inflection point” moment that sent the Sooner Schooner careening off track?  When was it?

 Let’s look at possible reasons for the collapse, and see how plausible they are. 

1. Perhaps Stoops wasn’t that good.  Maybe instead of being one of the greatest coaches ever, he is instead a very good coach who had some talented players with exceptional football character.  Maybe when his team’s on field leadership consisted of Heupel, Williams, Marshall, Griffith, Calmus, and Woolfolk they were elite, and when led by Bomar, Dvoracek, and Wolfe they weren’t.  This argument may be supported by the prior note that the 2000 MNC team had no starters miss games due to injuries.  By the end of a season, every team has injuries- separated shoulders, strained ligaments, if not compound fractures- the fact that the Sooner starters kept lining up signaled their character.

 2. Maybe Stoops is a very good coach without good leaders on his team.  If that’s the case, the inflection point was the 2004 Sugar Bowl against LSU when the last of the 2000 team used up its eligibility.  This was also the last credible performance by OU in a big, high profile game, even if it was a loss.

 3. The quality of his staff degraded.  Mike Leach was an innovator.  Stoops knew from his SEC days at Florida that he wanted Leach (Assistant at Kentucky) as his OC.  He replaced him by promoting Mangino, a very good OL coach but not an innovator.  Mangino was replaced by Chuck Long, whose main qualification was tenure on staff.  Long was replaced by Kevin Wilson, and it’s not known if this was a promotion for merit, or a way to keep him from running off more OL.

 Mike Stoops was replaced by a new hire, Bo Pellini, which is not how Stoops usually did it.  There was no defensive drop off that year, 2004.  There was the next year, after Pellini took a lateral move to LSU and was replaced by Bobby Jack Wright.  Pre-2005, OU tended to give up 15 ppg or less.  2005 and on, OU tended to give up over 23 ppg.

 Maybe Stoops is a terrific coach, but since most of the coaching is done by assistants, depends heavily on top assistants.  If he hasn’t done a good job of filling staff positions, you can point to 2005 departure of Pellini as the point where the replacement quality really tailed off.

 5. Texas got better.  Stoops relied heavily on his domination of Texas to sell the program to recruits.  The RRS is a strategically vital game for both programs, since the winner (post 1996) has the inside track to the conference crown, and is in a great position for marketing to recruits.  The north Texas media will also get behind the winner, helping them promote their program, and belittling the loser. 

 Since the 65 – 13 loss to OU in 2003, Brown “retired” his DC and hired a couple of “old pro” outsiders (Tomey and Robinson) who admittedly wanted to make a splash and get offered head coaching jobs elsewhere.  They are credited with advising Mack on how to toughen up the program.  When they left, rather than promoting an assistant to the DC spot, Mack hired the top DC in the market, Chizik.

 Meanwhile, the offensive staff figured out how to best use the college game’s top talent, Vince Young.  Young came in with the top ranked 2002 UT signing class.  This class would go 50 – 7 (and counting) from 2002 to 2006 (Studdard, Sendlein, Blalock, S. Young, and Robison are from this class).  If this explanation applies, signing day 2002 was the point where OU’s fortunes were doomed.  Or maybe, the 2001 Holiday Bowl comeback, when UT sealed a top 5 finish for the first time in almost 20 years was the point where UT re-launched the slow ascent to the top of college football, and dislodging of OU.

 6. Attrition and bad luck.  Per Phil Steele’s review of recruiting rankings, the only teams to out-recruit OU from 2000 to 20004 were USC, Texas, and Michigan, and many others only had USC surpassing OU.  Definitely, OU has a lot more raw potential talent than would be expected for an 8 – 4 team.  However, a lot of that talent is gone, especially at QB and OL.  The OU staff takes pride in being tough guys, and believe that their tough, demanding techniques build a winner (“Only the strong will survive”).

 Unfortunately, when so many OL run away that you only have five scholarship non-freshman left, there is no competition for positions.  The players have essentially self-selected.  This also limits what can be done in practice, because a spate of injuries can cripple the line.

 A similar situation happened at QB.  For some reason, the QBs recruited to OU (Rawls, Wall, Allen, Bomar) ended up being idiots.  Or maybe they are just typical 20 year old knuckleheads, and Stoops had no interest in guiding them.  It doesn’t matter, since the outcome was the same- mediocre talent at the most important position on the field, with a mediocre line to block for them.

 OU’s recruiting class in 2003 was one of the top ranked in the nation.  It had horrible attrition, and these are the guys who would have been seniors and juniors in 2006.  The 2006 roster was instead dominated by freshmen and sophomores.  In prior years, OU had a lot of seniors on the field.  In 2006 they didn’t.

 OU also missed on some players they evaluated.  Both OU and UT wanted Bomar, Peterson, Holmes, and Cade.  Right now, Peterson looks like the only keeper of that bunch.  If you buy this theory, you have to discount the idea that Bob Stoops can make a winner out of any scrapheap of players.  Right now, that looks like a good assessment.  For this explanation of OU’s slipping, the inflection point would be the 2005 Orange Bowl.  After that game, White, Cody, Brown, Strait, and Clayton were gone to be replaced by a bunch of young guys you’ve never heard of and won’t remember.

 7. Cycles.  Stoops teams ran hot and cold during the season.  They would be up for the biggest games, winning impressively, and down for other games, sometimes being upset by teams with losing records (2001 OSU, 2002 TAMU).  Perhaps the program has that kind of volatility.  After all, nobody can stay on top forever, can they?  If that’s the case, a fall was inevitable after the 2005 Orange Bowl.

 Whereas he was once a 39 year old with a MNC, sought by the NFL, now he is a 46 year old with a team that is barely ranked (and could finish with a losing record if a couple of key players had to miss time).  This is a tough situation that has worn out many coaches before him.  Royal was 52 when he had enough.  Wilkinson was 46 when he retired from OU, disillusioned of ever beating Texas again.  Switzer was 51 when he was retired.  It’s hard to imagine him fighting through a few more years of this and emerging unscathed.  He is at an existential crossroads as a coach, and has to decide what he wants to do- stay at OU (and ride out the NCAA investigation), go to another school (Miami would offer an exciting opportunity, but wouldn’t pay more than OU), or go to the NFL (if the NFL is interested in him as a head coach).

 While he ponders that question, I wonder if he ever remembers how it felt that dreary day in Dallas in 2004, when he had just shut out Texas (UT’s first since 1978) 12 – 0 to set up another championship run.  His QB was the Heisman winner from 2003, and his RB was the most exciting freshman in the nation.  Local sportswriters openly pined for him to take over the Dallas Cowboys.  Was there anyone that day who would have predicted that Stoops had won his last big game (unless you count the B12 CG against CU) for a while, and that UT was about to embark on a 25 – 1 run?

 A lot of these explanations point to the 2005 Orange Bowl as the inflection point.  If OU had not quit in that game, if they had even won it by some miracle, would things be different now?  Would fewer OL have quit?  Would the 2005 transition have worked better?  I don’t know.  Is there any event of the last few years that could have saved OU from the descent to their current status, where “Oklahoma is OK”?

This is all I had on my PC.  I remember having some more speculation on when the actual "inflection point" was, but by now you have probably guessed that "inflection point" was only used to fashion speculation around without having to use the worn-out "Tipping point" phrase.

Here we are.  Let's talk about the relative states of the program.  In Brown's last 25 games, Texas is 23 - 2 (92.0%).  Stoops is 19 - 6 (76.0%).  In his last 50 games, Brown is 43 - 7 (86.0%).  Stoops is 39 - 11 (78.0%).  In Brown's last 100 games, Texas is 86 - 14, and Stoops is 80 - 20.

Since this was written, UT had given back some of its gains from the MNC year, in late 2006 and 2007, but then started to surge back.   OU had marshalled its forces for one more great MNC charge, fallen short, and convinced key players to return in 2009 for another go at it that's not working out.

Right now, Bob Stoops is 48, about the same age that Brown was when he took the Texas job.  There is no NFL future for him - that train left a few years ago, and Saban and Petrino tore up the tracks.  He's staying at OU.  I imagine the Sooner fans are hoping that he can have the growth as a coach in his 50s that Mack Brown had.  I wonder if he can.

I see one more chink in the armor that I didn't notice before.  I like to post that when a coach hires an OC, he hires him for his offense.  He's looking for a strategist, knowing that all offenses have shelf lives and eventually go stale.  Stoops seems to understand that, and was one of the first movers with the spread, and has always kept his updated.  However, on defense (Stoops' specialty), you want a tactician.  A unique strategy defense will get you killed (see Chizik - 2006).  Is Stoops' defense, honed at KSU and Florida in the '90s, too "strategic"?  Does it surrender fundamental coverages and make gambles (gambles that may have been great bets with the offenses of 10 years ago, but not those of today)?  I'm starting to think so.  Thoughts?