Castiglione stays the course to change OU's athletic culture

Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin

Even today, it remains as one of the most vivid memories in Big 12 history for me.

It happened in 1998, only three years into the conference's short on-the-field history.

As Missouri was in the process of thumping Oklahoma, 20-6, I still can remember a photograph of delirious Missouri fans celebrating their triumph over the Sooners in the stands at Faurot Field.

I still can't shake the memory of seven bare-chested Missouri male students who had spelled out a message to new Oklahoma athletic director Joe Castiglione, who had previously worked as Missouri's athletic director.

It read simply: "Hey Joe, you left us for that?"

Castiglione must have been sharing similar thoughts at the time. He was dealing with a messy transformation of an Oklahoma athletic department that was beset with much more debt than he would have imagined upon his arrival. The Sooners' once-proud football program was in tatters with John Blake running the ship. And those Missouri fans probably had a point as Castiglione headed back to his new job and contemplated all of the work that would be needed to change the Sooners' athletic program.

Fast forward a little more than 10 years and things have changed remarkably for Castiglione, who is now running one of the nation's most productive athletic departments at Oklahoma. He was honored last month in New York City when he was named the athletic director of the year at the Sports Business Awards.

Obviously, Castiglione has received a couple of huge breaks along the way.

The biggest might have been when Iowa was looking for a replacement for Hayden Fry, the Hawkeyes' search committee dawdled just long enough to enable Castiglione to convince Bob Stoops to come to Norman. That opening has proven to be the key move that has enabled the Sooners to return to their previous status as one of the nation's elite football programs.

Castiglione took a chance on little-known Virginia Commonwealth coach Jeff Capel when his popular predecessor, Kelvin Sampson, left for Indiana. Capel now is judged as one of the brightest stars in college coaching.

And he helped nurture women's basketball coach Sherri Coale, a former high school coach who had produced a 13-41 record in her two previous seasons before Castiglione's arrival. Since then, Coale has produced 11 straight winning seasons, including 10 consecutive trips to the NCAA tournament.

Veteran Tulsa World columnist Dave Sittler remembers where Oklahoma was when Castiglione arrived. In his column this morning, Sittler remembers asking Castiglione several months after his hiring if he wondered what he had gotten himself into after taking the Sooners' job.

Castiglione more than doubled his salary when he arrived at Oklahoma. But it was more than just money.

His boss, Oklahoma president David Boren, realizes that athletics truly serves as a front porch for a university and might be the most effective public relations tool to help sell a university.

"I spent a great deal of time [talking] with president [David] Boren," Castiglione told Sittler 11 years ago. "He's a visionary. And a lot of his vision is similar to mine in the basic fundamental aspects."

Sittler reports that Castiglione has been tempted over the years when schools like Tennessee, Notre Dame, Ohio State and Michigan have talked with him about their athletic director's jobs.

But his words in that interview with Sittler still resonate when I think if he would ever leave Norman.

"I will be strong enough to stay the course [at OU]," Castiglione said back then. "And I will do everything within my power to get it done the right way."

He has, making those Missouri students eat the words they had emblazoned on their chests so long ago.