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Stoops' legend grows, as does the list of suitors

In time, they will call him a living legend. Provided they don't first call him an ungrateful opportunist.

These are the choices Bob Stoops ponders from time to time. He is the most celebrated coach in college football, which means he is beloved by the few and beseeched by the many.

So a job is open at a major university? Gotta call Stoops. So an NFL owner is about to toss tens of millions at a coach? Start with Stoops. So you need to convince fans you're looking for the very best? Who else, but Stoops.

It's a wonder the man has time to coach. Issue a denial in the morning, dismiss a report in the afternoon and win a national championship before bed.

Yup, it's all in a day's work.

You have to believe these are heady times for the Oklahoma coach. He will never be more brilliant, he could not appear more marketable. And he seems to understand this as he stands on the field at Pro Player Stadium with sunglasses to cover his eyes and a grin to conceal his thoughts.

"Even with success, sometimes you might say it's time for something different," Stoops said. "These days, there's so much media coverage, your own people can get tired of you. I can see where that would happen."

The pause here is short, perhaps deliberate.

"Hopefully, it hasn't gotten to that point for me."

Will it ever? That is the question Oklahoma fans ask themselves daily. You can argue it is more important than whether the Sooners beat USC in the Orange Bowl tonight to win a national championship. There will, after all, be more championships. But, today, there is only one Bob Stoops.

This is not hyperbole. It is not an exaggeration. In a sport in which icons are dropping annually from sight, and phenoms are forever heading to the NFL, Stoops is the closest thing to a budding legend in the NCAA.

It took barely a season for Stoops to revive a program that had been in a 12-year decline. He has won, by a long shot, more games than any coach in the land since 2000. And should the Sooners beat the Trojans tonight, Stoops will have his second national championship by age 44.

Joe Paterno was 60 when he won his second title. Bobby Bowden was 70. Steve Spurrier, Phil Fulmer, Jim Tressel and Lloyd Carr haven't yet gotten around to their second one.

Want to know how good Stoops is? He could make a Florida fan wish Spurrier had gotten off his duff and left for the NFL a little sooner.

Had Spurrier bolted in 1999 instead of 2002, the Gators could have promoted their defensive coordinator before Oklahoma had a chance to hire him. Then, maybe, the Gators would be the ones playing tonight in their third national championship game in five years.

As it is, UF has tried twice to hire Stoops. Heck, the Gators preferred Stoops to Spurrier in this last go-round. Rumor has it, the Gators were willing to be the first school to break the $3-million salary barrier to get it done.

When the innuendo began, Stoops issued a statement saying he was not interested in Florida. When it continued, he issued a second statement. Later, a third would be necessary.

He laughs off the details. No, he won't say if he talked to UF. Yes, there have been other schools interested. No, he doesn't know how so many of these rumors get started.

"You guys want a statement from me," he said, "before I even know I'm a candidate."

Still, Stoops seems reluctant to stamp out the talk. You know, he says, the pressures today are different than in the past, and he wonders if any college coaches will stay in a place as long as Bowden and Paterno have. Later, Stoops says, he might one day have an interest in the NFL.

These might just be innocent musings. Answers as honest as he can give at the moment. It could also be a way to keep his marketability at a premium.

With stakes this high, love doesn't come easy. It doesn't come cheap, either. Oklahoma has paid dearly to keep Stoops in the state, and it will continue paying him a salary that dwarfs the university president.

He got a bonus last month. Then got a raise a few days ago. Should the Sooners win tonight, he'll have another bonus by Wednesday morning. His annual wages should be around $2.6-million.

"You appreciate people thinking you're worthy of consideration for another job," Stoops said. "But I'm fortunate where I am. I've got the best job in the country, and it'd be hard for anyone to argue that I don't."

Yes, but is there someone willing to make that argument? And, one day, will Stoops make it himself?

At least in the short-term, it would appear he is not going anywhere. He has rebuffed overtures from elsewhere and pledged his devotion to Oklahoma.

Should he wish, Stoops could be the legend that has become rare in the college ranks. Paterno and Bowden are nearing the end. Lou Holtz, Tom Osborne and LaVell Edwards have faded away. Others, from Butch Davis to Spurrier to Dennis Erickson to Nick Saban, have made pilgrimages to the NFL.

There are very few left untouched. Very few with the talent, and the opportunity to make it happen.

Stoops arrives at the Orange Bowl tonight, one victory away from making himself even more cherished in Oklahoma.

And more in demand everywhere else.