ARLINGTON, Texas — Much about the scene on Ballpark Way seemed a bit strange.
Preparations were being made for a football game on a baseball field, in February, as The Dallas Renegades swept out the corners before their XFL debut on a soggy Sunday afternoon.
A referee beneath Globe Life Park conferred with league staffers. Other workers scurried through last-second touches.
Shoulder pads and helmets bobbed onto the field via the stairwell from what was once the Texas Rangers visiting dugout.
Out from those shadows, about an hour from kickoff, walked Bob Stoops for his first game as a coach since leading Oklahoma in the 2016 Sugar Bowl.
This wasn’t Stoops at midfield in 2000 at Miami Gardens or on the Cotton Bowl floor. This wasn’t Stoops running through the tunnel at Owen Field.
This was Stoops with a graying beard — in a black visor, not crimson and cream — walking onto a field in relative anonymity, at least briefly.
Some things never stay the same.
But some things never change.
“It was great … It didn’t feel much different,” said the Renegades head coach in his XFL debut.
“I hadn’t forgotten.”
St. Louis beat Dallas 15-9 on a day the Renegades failed to score a touchdown. So, Stoops didn’t win. And he knew well why that was the case afterward as he went through the laundry list.
Dallas kicked three field goals: “I said it and lived it my whole life as a coach,” Stoops said. “Field goals get you beat.”
While this was Stoops minus the pomp, circumstance and intense interest level that he stoked around the OU football program while winning 190 games there from 1999-2016, a fire still burned inside him.
While he wasn’t noticeably animated on the sidelines during the game, sans a few of his classic poses — hands on tilted hips with his headset turned up, or hands on his knees and bent at the waist — Stoops genuinely looked disappointed afterward in the result.
Dallas was a 9.5-point favorite. Vegas had tapped his coaching opponent, St. Louis’ Jonathan Hayes, who is a former teammate of Stoops’ at Iowa under Hayden Fry, as the odds-on favorite to become the first fired XFL head coach.
Stoops had been the league’s first hire and its prized recruit in many ways.
If any fans among the announced 17,206 fans in attendance wondered while they walked in if the XFL was legitimate, it seemed afterward that Stoops will treat it as such — as long as he’s part of it.
“I’m back for a lot of games,” he reassured.
Some are curious how he’s going about his business these days.
Stoops has retained some of the hands-on coaching tactics he used in college. Those aren’t typical for professional football, where more experienced players are less likely to absorb instruction.
“He's not going to sugarcoat it,” said Dallas defensive end Frank Alexander, who played for the Sooners from 2008-11. “He's not going to beat around the bush. He's going to be straight up.”
But Stoops has also shed some his old ways.
Jeff Badet didn’t know how Stoops coached in college, because after committing to OU in late May of 2017, Stoops retired less than a month later. For Badet, that’s what made Dallas such an enticing place — to play for someone he just missed a few years ago.
“See, the wonderful, great thing about Coach Stoops was he actually came in with that kind of college mindset, but he's such a player's coach that he kind of was asking us — he kind of transferred it to pro coach,” Badet said. “At first it was kind of like a college atmosphere, but he knows that we all grown men at the end of the day.”
A lot of the coaching is the same, Stoops said. Some things are different.
“These guys want to keep learning but they already know a ton of football,” he said. “So really the biggest job is getting them to play as a team and to want to compete with one another. To me that's the big challenge, getting them to gel as a team. They know a ton of football already. So it's to work together is the big deal.”
There’s a lot of work to do, and the spotlight remains on Stoops.
Many people from his Sooner circle were interested about his re-entry into coaching. Heisman Trophy winner and Arizona Cardinal quarterback Kyler Murray showed up in-person to watch Sunday’s game.
OU head coach Lincoln Riley, Adrian Peterson, Tommie Harris, former assistants Kevin Sumlin and Mike Leach, and former rival Mack Brown, among others, wished him well on a pre-made video shown at kickoff.
Interest in the XFL, a start-up league that has already failed once in 2001, is at an infant stage. Stoops must manually crank his handle of the marketing machine, which explains his fury of tweets over the past few months; a number of those are advertisements.
Stoops alone may have been the reason Troy Aikman was on the sidelines Sunday. The two have become friends over the past year, Stoops said, and it’s simple to understand the benefit of the former Dallas Cowboys star and current broadcaster being shown on national TV during an XFL opener.
In-game interviews of coaches and players are also a regular part of the XFL. That kind of access wouldn’t have gotten Stoops’ endorsement in the past.
“I was ready for it,” Stoops said among a few laughs. “Hey, I’m here to do my part to help the league in any way I can. That means participating differently than I have before.”
Some things never stay the same.
Some things never change.
“I came all-in, expecting to win” he said. “I want to win and win big.”