By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa – Bob Stoops and Bob Sanders actually have a lot more in common than their first name.
That sort of dawned on me as I attended FryFest on Friday where each was an honorary guest.
Stoops and Sanders both played safety for the Iowa football team and were key factors in two of the most successful rebuilding projects in program history.
They both were known for their aggressive playing style and for their bone-jarring hits despite both being undersized.
And they both were mostly ignored during the recruiting process for either being too small or too slow or this or that.
“It was the only Big Ten school to recruit me, so it was a pretty easy decision,” Stoops said of why he picked Iowa in 1978.
Sanders picked Iowa over one other scholarship offer from Ohio.
And in both cases, the decision to play football at Iowa was a life-changing event in which Stoops and Sanders both ultimately became celebrities, Stoops as a college head coach and Sanders as a college and NFL player.
Stoops’ physical limitations finally caught up with him when it came to playing in the NFL. He just wasn’t big or fast enough to make it at that level, so he followed in his father’s footsteps and became a football coach.
The 57-year old Stoops was in Iowa City on Thursday and Friday as a part of Hayden Fry’s legendary 1983 coaching staff that was honored at FryFest. Stoops was a graduate assistant on the 1983 staff, and just one year removed from being Iowa’s All-Big Ten safety.
Little did he know it at the time, but Stoops was just starting a journey in 1983 that would lead him to greatness as a head coach.
And to this day, Stoops still gives thanks to the late Bob Commings for believing in him enough to offer a scholarship. Commings saw qualities in Stoops that apparently nobody else did.
Commings made it possible for Stoops to be a Hawkeye and then Fry made it possible for Stoops to soar to great heights as a Hawkeye and beyond.
“It’s the biggest break I ever got in my life,” said Stoops, who was a member of Commings’ final recruiting class at Iowa in 1978. “And it’s led to everything that’s happened to me, from meeting my wife here to having the career I have. So I'll be forever grateful that coach Commmings gave me a chance and then coach Fry and his staff came in and gave me an opportunity, too."
A lot has happened to Stoops since he left his hometown of Youngstown, Ohio in 1978 to be a Hawkeye.
Commings was fired as the Iowa head coach after Stoops’ freshman year and replaced by Hayden Fry, who would go on to direct one of the greatest turnarounds in college football history, with help from a bunch victory-starved and tough-minded players like Stoops.
Fry also introduced Stoops to coaching at the collegiate level, and to say that Stoops seized the opportunity would be an understatement.
Stoops quickly climbed the coaching ladder and was among the five finalists to replace Fry at Iowa in 1998. But for reasons that still aren’t entirely clear to this day, talks between Stoops and his alma mater unraveled and Stoops took the Oklahoma job instead, while Iowa hired Kirk Ferentz.
Stoops was asked on Friday what the days leading up to him taking the Oklahoma job were like.
“Just busy,” he said. “You’ve got some opportunities coming that you think fit you that you’ve got a chance at, so just work your way through it.”
Part of the Iowa fan base was upset that Stoops wasn’t hired. The frustration grew when Stoops led Oklahoma to the 2000 national title, while Iowa was just 4-19 in Ferentz’s first two seasons as head coach in 1999 and 2000.
But then Ferentz led his own resurgence, with help from players like Sanders, and Ferentz is now just one victory from surpassing Fry as Iowa’s time winningest football coach.
It could happen on Saturday when Iowa faces Northern Illinois in the season opener at Kinnick Stadium as a 10-point favorite.
And it’s only fitting that Sanders will be watching on Saturday because no player changed the culture more under Kirk Ferentz than Sanders.
“I think it was just attitude and just the love for the game,” Sanders said when asked what he brought to the program. “I wasn’t playing football for the money. I didn’t play for the NFL. I didn’t play to win defensive player of the year. I didn’t play to win a Super Bowl. I played because I loved the game and I loved my teammates.”
But the fact that Sanders did win a Super Bowl with the Indianapolis Colts and was named the NFL Defensive Player of Year in 2007 made a good story that much better.
Sanders praised Kirk Ferentz for changing the course of his life by offering him a scholarship.
“He didn’t have to do it,” Sanders said “I was going to walk-on, actually. But he offered to give me a scholarship and he gave me a chance. He put me on the field.
“So that changed my life and changed my whole career. So I am forever indebted to him, and that’s what I want him to know.”
Sanders and Stoops are both shining examples that it only takes the belief of one head coach to change the course of your life. For Stoops, it was actually two head coaches because you can't tell his story without mentioning both Commings and Fry.
Stoops was asked on Friday if there was one specific thing he learned from Fry that he then used as a coach, and Stoops responded by saying that Fry taught him to coach with swagger.
Stoops was the first of three brothers to play for Fry at Iowa. His two younger brothers also followed Bob into coaching, and Mark Stoops is now the head coach for Kentucky.
Bob Stoops turned down a chance to be Iowa's honorary captain for Saturday's game because he wants to watch his son, Oklahoma freshman receiver Drake Stoops, make his debut for the Sooners that same day.
Sanders grew up in Erie, Pa., and now lives in Arizona where he is raising his four children. He still follows his alma mater closely and takes pride in being one of the key players in Kirk Ferentz’s initial rebuild at Iowa.
Sanders was honored at FryFest as part of the 2018 University of Iowa Athletics Hall of Fame class.
“To be here from the beginning and now be at this point where (coach Ferentz) is breaking records and he’s going on twenty years, that’s amazing for him to still be coaching the way he is and the caliber of guys that he has constantly put in the NFL is just amazing,” said the 37-year old Sanders, whose real first name is Demond, but he prefers to be called Bob.
Amazing is a word that fits perfectly for both Sanders and Stoops because what each has accomplished from being a Hawkeye truly is amazing.