In the early 50s, the University of Oklahoma’s then president, George Cross, was presenting a budget request to the state Senate and, in explaining why the school needed the money, said, “We want to build a university the football team can be proud of.” Which is an anecdote practically every OU student tells proudly to this day and which should tell you something about the sports centric culture in which I was raised and educated.
When Bob Stoops accepted the head coaching position at Oklahoma in the spring of 1999, I skipped class and stood on the lawn of the administration building with hundreds of my fellow students to hear him give his first official speech from the front steps. We’d had a string of dreadful coaches and losing seasons, which was incredibly disheartening for a school known for its football (when I’d told people in high school that I was planning to go to OU, many of my friends’ dads said, “Excellent! What’s happened to their football program, though??”), and Stoops was a breath of fresh air and hope. He told stories about watching some of our greatest coaches and players when he was growing up, which made us feel like he appreciated us, and we in turn appreciated him. And he did not disappoint. In his first season, he led us to a bowl game. In his second, we won the national championship. We became the Sooner Nation and Bob Stoops is our president.
And the thing is, it’s not just about football. It’s about morale. (And money for the school, which, not surprisingly, doesn’t hurt morale.) I was lucky enough to be a junior at OU when we won that championship in 2000, and I learned a lot about life and football that year. For starters, that there are lessons to be learned no matter what you’re focused on. You can say football doesn’t mean anything, but it means something to me because it’s what I pay attention to. I don’t learn life lessons from lacrosse because I’ve never seen a lacrosse game in my life, but when we went undefeated that year, I learned about perseverance and the darkest night being just before the dawn and the necessity of hard work for making progress and the value of teamwork and sportsmanship. I learned those things from watching our players rise above everyone’s expectations, accomplishing more than even they thought possible, and they learned those things because those are the values Bob Stoops instills. And Stoops’s integrity has only impressed me more since those early years.
I try not to put people on pedestals because I’ve learned that people are only ever just people and we all make big mistakes sooner or later, but Bob Stoops has had an impact on my life. He’s been a source of pride and encouragement and real inspiration, and I’ve never even met him. If you told me tomorrow that he’d knowingly allowed child rape to go on right under his nose, I’d be crushed. I’d be so disappointed and so discouraged and it wouldn’t have a thing to do with football. My point is that leaders like Joe Paterno do matter. (Which is precisely what makes his failure to lead in this situation so awful.) It’s not just about the football.
Again, to be clear, Paterno made a terrible choice and he had to go. I hope that all of Penn State’s students and fans will realize this eventually, as well as that, for reasons so numerous I shouldn’t even have to list any, there is no excuse for rioting over his firing. But maybe this explanation will shed some light on the intensity of emotion being displayed for those of you for whom college football is not, in fact, lyfe. Just think of the person you most admire, then imagine them utterly disgraced. That’s where the emotion, misdirected though it may be, is coming from.