Interview: Jim "J.R." Ross of the WWE talks Oklahoma Sooners football
Famous wrestling announcer a big fan of OU, and of Dan Gable
Business is about to pick up here, as the subject of this post is fond of saying.
Jim Ross, who for the last two decades has been the primary television voice of World Wrestling Entertainment, generously gave me an hour of his time this week to talk by phone from his Norman, Okla., home to discuss University of Oklahoma football. Proof of Ross' national popularity is in the fact he has over 300,000 followers on Twitter.
But the purpose of my call to him wasn't to discuss his career in professional wrestling, which has brought him fame nationally and beyond. "Good Ol' J.R." is a passionate fan of Sooners football and a close friend of Sooners Coach Bob Stoops. Ross' entrance music at WWE events is "Boomer Sooner," OU's fight song. So for some OU talk in the week before the Iowa-Oklahoma Insight Bowl, I went to a well-known Sooners fan.
Here's a snippet from Ross' blog at the site where he sells J.R.'s Family Bar-B-Q products:
Excited to be attending OU vs. Iowa in the Insight Bowl on December 30 in Tempe, Arizona. Travel plans made. I always feel that I represent OU and WWE when I show up to a game donning my black hat. Sometimes that's a challenging proposition depending on how much those that I meet have been drinking and the outcome of the games.
Here are some of Ross' observations about his own devotion to OU football, about Bob and Mike Stoops, the Sooners' current team and their history, how OU fans are perceiving this season and the Insight Bowl, Iowa's contributions to the Oklahoma program via Hayden Fry, and Iowans he has come across, including amateur wrestling's Dan Gable:
"I grew up in Oklahoma. Like many kids, I grew up sports-minded. I played high school football in a small eastern Oklahoma town (he was a two-time all-conference player for the Westville High Yellowjackets). I followed Oklahoma on the radio. They were on TV maybe twice a year, when they played Texas and Nebraska. It was just part of the culture. Not having a major-league pro team in our state, it wasn't hard to gravitate to the success the Sooner program had over the years, from the Bud Wilkinson era forward."
"My grandfather loved it, my father loved it. It means a lot to my family. I've made lasting friendships with the coaching staff and players, including some who are in the NFL."
"The legacy of the program goes back so far to Bud Wilkinson in the '50s. He had a 47-game winning streak, and then a 31-game streak. That's where the foundation for greatness and building expectations of Sooner fans started. Fans grew up expecting the same level of greatness."
"Like many fans in Sooner Nation, I was reenergized in 1998 when OU hired Bob (Stoops). They always say you don't want to follow a legend. A few have been able to do that. I think Bill Cowher followed Chuck Noll pretty well with the Pittsburgh Steelers. But it's hard to do at a lot of places. We had three guys follow Barry Switzer, and they didn't do so well. They couldn't fit in his shoes. Now, the hierarchy of Oklahoma's coaching lore is the three 'B's, Bud, Barry and Bob. That's pretty well how you'd sum up how Bob Stoops is looked at in this part of the world."
"When I was traveling with WWE, and WCW (World Championship Wrestling) before that, it was challenging for me to get away on those Saturdays to see the Sooners. I was living in Dallas, Atlanta, Connecticut. But my schedule started becoming more compatible around the time Bob got the head coaching job here, and I could take time off to fly to the away and home games."
"I am a loyal fan, whether we win or lose. I only missed one game this year, when I was in Mexico City for a "Monday Night Raw" taping the night we played Kansas."
"I have six season-tickets at Oklahoma. I make every away game I can. The Kansas game this year was the first I missed since the 2006 Fiesta Bowl when we had a live Monday Night Raw that night. I'd been on airplanes 51 weeks a year for a quarter-century, so to me it was just another airplane trip to go to Sooners games. I've had a lot of crazy flights, driven ridiculous miles when flights got cancelled, gone with no sleep. I've done it so many times it's not an issue any longer. It's just the way it is."
"Bob makes sure I get a sideline pass for every game. I love going to away games and walking around the opposing team's tailgates. Not only do I get a free beer now and then, but some great food and good conversation. If people want a photograph to go with that, I'm honored to do that. I'm a sports fan, not a hater. I don't understand why our fans would hate Oklahoma State. The only game I want Oklahoma State fans to lose is Bedlam (against Oklahoma). I spend more of my energy and passion on positive issues. There's only so much gas in my tank, so I direct my engine to 'I love my Sooners.' "
"I'm not a recluse here. You're just as apt to see me at a grocery store, at a Sonic, at a barbecue place, as not. I don't don the (10-gallon cowboy) hat. I'm just Jim Ross, "J.R." to most people. I've never looked at myself as a celebrity. I fit in because I want to fit in. I don't put on any airs or travel with an entourage. I've driven the same vehicle since 2004."
Ross' friendship with Bob and Mike Stoops, the former Iowa football players who went on to make names for themselves as coaches, is something he speaks of warmly.
"My wife had never lived in Oklahoma. We bought a house here in 2002 to have a place to stay on football weekends. We made it our full-time home around 2005. My wife's first OU game was when we won the 2000 national-championship game in Miami against Florida State. To start your journey with that, it's kind of a hard act to follow."
"I met Mike Stoops socially on football weekends in Norman and we became great friends."
"The fans here by and large would love Mike (who was fired as Arizona's head coach in midseason) to return to the Oklahoma staff (as defensive coordinator, which he was before he went to Arizona). He brings a great width of knowledge and instills a fiery will to compete in whoever he coaches. It's a delicate situation. There are only so many coaches, and we don't have any openings right now. Many of us would love to have Mike back in the fold, of course. I think he's one of the best defensive minds in the game. But to my knowledge, Bob has never fired a coach. Guys do leave, but mostly to better their lots in life. I don't know how it will all work out."
"Through Mike I met Bob. Though the two of them have different personalities, like a lot of brothers do, I got along with both awesomely. I consider Bob one of my best friends in Norman. I have so much admiration for what he's done here, the kind of father and husband he is. I know what kind of friend he is. In all areas, he's stellar."
"I'm happy to be friends with the OU football coach, of course, but I'm happier to be friends with Bob Stoops, period."
"For many years we'd hear Coach Stoops was going to leave. People would ask what I thought of my buddy Bob leaving. There's never been any social setting when I've ever heard him discuss wanting to leave. He likes living here. His sons, this is about the only home they've ever known. He turned down Florida twice, didn't want to go to Notre Dame. The NFL, the Falcons, the Browns, the 49ers -- a lot of teams have made inquiries over the years. He never budged. But you know the football program is in pretty good shape when others want to hire your coach, no matter the record."
"We're happy about all the Iowa guys who have been here, Mike and Bob, Chuck Long, Bruce Kittle, Jay Norvell ... There's a lot of corn in these here Sooner hills. There's a lot of respect in Oklahoma for the Hawkeyes, simply because so many coaches here came from that program."
"I know Bob speaks very highly of Kirk Ferentz as a football guy and human being. We've had some fun talks about the Hayden Fry coaching tree. When I was a kid, Hayden Fry was the coach at SMU. He was a colorful character who always found a way to make his program relevant. He had a lot of sizzle, but he brought the steak to the table."
"That Bob Stoops would stay at Iowa City that long (two years as a graduate assistant and two more as what was then called a voluntary assistant) shows you the emotional attachment he had for that program, and has to this day. He's proud of his alma mater. He said this week there was no way he could match his experiences at Iowa."
"I know he was at the Insight Bowl last year wearing Iowa colors (a few days before Oklahoma played in the Fiesta Bowl). I thought that was pretty cool, supporting his alma mater. Iowa took care of business. That was a real good week for the Stoops family, with Iowa winning and then Oklahoma winning a BCS game."
"I think Bob has really evolved into the role of CEO of the football program. He doesn't make grandiose promises to recruits. He's honest and straightforward. His background is Youngstown (Ohio), a coach's son. Though he's one of the highest-paid coaches in America and he's got the spotlight on him, he hasn't wavered."
About the Insight Bowl and the Sooners' unmet expectations as a 9-3 team:
"I live and die, figuratively speaking, with how well the Sooners do. But I'm an extreme loyalist. I don't like losing at anything, but it's not the end of the world if you beat me. Some Sooner fans are spoiled and unrealistic with their expectations. This season we were the preseason No. 1 team. That was all hype from the mighty ESPN monster. Everybody said we were going to run the table. But anybody who follows it knows that's a heck of a task. There are so many elements involved in the process that you can't control. In our situation, injuries were incurred."
"You just can't take a player off the field who was having as great a year at tailback as Dominique Whaley, who was headed to 1,000-plus yards. He brought to the table a toughness and physicality in our running game that is now sorely missing. He broke an ankle on the first play of the Kansas State game throwing a block, a freak thing. The next week, we lose a guy who's one of the top two or three receivers in the country, Ryan Broyles, to an ACL injury. I don't care what program you are, you can't replace guys like Ryan Broyles and Dominique Whaley. That really changed the complexion of the team. And Ryan Broyles -- who graduated a week ago, which is awesome -- his character is irreplaceable."
"We have three running backs now. We're hurting. We have Roy Finch, who's a buck-65. We have Brennan Clay, who's 190, maybe. And we have a big guy, (fullback) Trey Millard, a 255-pounder. We're really hurting on the receiving side, hurting on the running back side. It really poses a unique challenge."
"I think the point spread they put up for this bowl -- the last I looked it was 13 1/2 -- is somewhat ridiculous. With all the injuries we've had, I don't know why we're even favored."
"But it'll be a fun game. I know our coaching staff really wants to get a tenth win. It's very important to them. I do think many fans -- and I'm not speaking for the entire Sooner Nation -- but the talk radio and blogs have a lot of fans saying they're not excited about the Insight Bowl. That has nothing to do with Iowa, by the way. I don't think anyone here is disrespecting Iowa. If they are, they're extremely ignorant. I think the issue is that Oklahoma has gone to Arizona several times the last few years, played in three Fiesta Bowls. I think the fans in general aren't overwhelmed by going back to Arizona, period."
Last July, Ross was in Waterloo's National Wrestling Hall of Fame Dan Gable Museum to receive the Lou Thesz Award for taking the skills of professional wrestling into the realm of public service. Included are causes that support the U.S. military and children with life-threatening illnesses.
"I had a great visit with Dan Gable. He said he enjoyed my speech. It was really cool to get a handwritten letter from him later. That shows his class."
"I could see his intensity just as he watched me talk. It was a little intimidating. I know all about the legacy of Iowa wrestling. I have great respect for Iowa's athletic culture. I heard from a lot of Iowa fans on Twitter when they found out they were playing Oklahoma. It was all good-natured, nothing rude."
Ross no longer works weekly television shows for the WWE.
"I'm a senior advisor, like a consultant. I still play the "J.R." character on television. It's a recurring role on TV, just that. I'm a senior advisor in talent relations and talent-development. I'm actively engaged in recruiting, training and observing rookies in the system, the next generation of sports-entertainment performers that are trained in the WWE's facility in Tampa. I'll spend more time in that area than I did when I was executive vice president and the primary play-by-play voice of the brand."
"I'd be on the road and I'd tell a person about my OU passion. When they'd see my schedule, sometimes they'd be amazed that I got back there for games the way I did. They'd say I must really be committed to that school's program."
"I've always looked at it as joining a bigger family. Bob Stoops and his brother Mike were willing to allow me to join their football family. The relationships I've built go beyond a donor writing a check. It's an emotional investment I've made in this program. I don't know if I would have or could have if not for having such a great relationship with Coach Stoops."