NORMAN, Okla. -- Coming off the 1995 season, the primary obstacle standing between Florida and the school’s first national championship was finding the right defensive mind.
That offseason, coach Steve Spurrier turned to a 30-something coordinator named Bob Stoops to provide the Gators with a defensive identity they so craved. The result for Florida the next season was a national title.
Almost two decades later at Oklahoma, Stoops has mirrored the move his mentor once made, tabbing 31-year-old Lincoln Riley to restore offensive excellence in Norman. Stoops hopes Riley will spark the Sooners the way he did the Gators as a young coordinator 19 years ago.
"It was a wonderful opportunity for Bobby, to get with our team, our program," recalled Spurrier, now the coach at South Carolina. "Of course, he did an excellent job, and his first year we won it all."
Under Stoops, Florida’s defensive turnaround was stark.
In 1995, the Gators featured one of the best offenses in college football behind the arm of record-setting quarterback Danny Wuerffel. But in the Fiesta Bowl, Florida’s defense collapsed, surrendering 62 points in a blowout loss to Nebraska, which captured the national championship.
After the season, defensive coordinator Bob Pruett bolted to take the head-coaching job at Marshall, giving Spurrier the opportunity to reshape his defense. Spurrier asked Florida athletic director Jeremy Foley for a list of possible candidates who had done well as defensive coordinators elsewhere. The 35-year-old Stoops, who had been instrumental in Bill Snyder’s miraculous turnaround at Kansas State, was among the names Foley provided.
"I didn’t know Bobby," Spurrier said; but Florida tight ends coach Lawson Holland did from his time in the Big Eight as an assistant at Oklahoma State. "Lawson said that Bobby Stoops was a young, sharp guy."
With Holland's endorsement, Spurrier called Kansas State and asked for Stoops, telling the secretary that it was Holland calling.
"I didn’t want to tip him off too much," Spurrier said. "As soon as he answered, I said, 'This is not Lawson Holland; this is Steve Spurrier.'"
That was the first time the two had ever spoken. But Spurrier and Stoops hit it off immediately, prompting the Gators to make the hire.
"We had good players, so I walked into a great situation," Stoops said. "They were all really good guys that bought in immediately to what we wanted to do."
By Week 4, the buy-in was evident to everyone. The Gators jumped to a 35-0 lead at second-ranked Tennessee, intercepting Peyton Manning four times in the first half alone. Spurred by an improved defense to complement another high-powered offense, Florida went on to defeat Florida State 52-20 in the Sugar Bowl, earning the Gators the national title.
"I just wanted to establish a toughness and identity in being a tough, physical defense," Stoops said. "The principles of our defense were solid and good, and they held true there, and helped the guys improve. It was nothing magical, other than that."
The Sooners are hoping Riley can bring a little magic to Oklahoma.
Like Spurrier when he first began to vet Stoops, Stoops had never talked with Riley before interviewing him in the winter. But the more people he spoke with, the more Stoops became enamored with Riley and what the East Carolina offensive whiz could bring to Oklahoma by reinstalling the air-raid attack Stoops first introduced to the Big 12 to smashing success in 1999 with Mike Leach as offensive coordinator.
"You can tell the confidence he has," Stoops said of Riley, who coordinated the fifth-best scoring offense in the country last season. "Because he’s had such success."
While getting to know Stoops, Riley became enamored, too.
"I didn't know Bob personally, but from all the guys I had worked with that had worked with Bob, I knew what I was getting into as far as the quality of the guy," said Riley, who played for and coached under Leach at Texas Tech. "I was anxious and excited because I knew this program, having been in the Big 12 before.
"I knew what we could be capable of here, which is a lot."
Last season, the Sooners fell well short of their capability in the most disappointing season of Stoops’ tenure. Yet, like the '96 Gators, Oklahoma still has the talent in place to ignite a turnaround after ranking just fifth in the Big 12 in total offense last season.
"I do feel confident we’ll be successful moving the ball, and more consistent moving the ball," Stoops said. "And I believe we have more players that can make plays to give us a chance to do that."
Running back Samaje Perine is coming off a spectacular true freshman season in which he topped the conference with more than 1,700 rushing yards and 21 touchdowns. Senior Sterling Shepard is one of the most proven wide receivers in college football. And the Sooners have added a pair of potential difference-makers to the fray in former blue-chip running back Joe Mixon and junior-college receiver Dede Westbrook.
"It’s a little different situation there [at Oklahoma]," Spurrier said. "But timing in life is important for all of us. It worked super for me and super for Bobby."
In Riley, Stoops is banking such a move can work super once again.