Meet four women who play integral roles in the success of OU football
Football is a male-dominated sport, from the coaches who call the plays to the athletes taking the field to the administration overseeing the program. And Oklahoma is one of the elite football programs in the country. Coming off two College Football Playoff berths and a Sugar Bowl win in the past three years, the Sooners know how to win.
But behind all that success stands a group of women.
These women take care of many of the program’s and players’ needs — recruiting players, handling their nutritional needs, managing their day-to-day tasks and loving them unconditionally.
They help the program run efficiently and keep the players at their best. Their days are consumed by football, juggling meetings, practices and outreach. They care for and encourage the team, playing integral parts in the program.
“These are outstanding talented, passionate people who just happen to have chosen a profession in sports,” OU Athletic Director Joe Castiglione said. “And while it does still maybe surprise people a little because it’s such a male-dominated world, particularly when you’re talking about football, I think it’s wonderful and probably even more representative of who we are as an athletic program.”
The following are the stories of four women who work with or around the OU football program.
“I just feel so blessed to be at a place where the female professional is valued in a sense that allows us to thrive on a whole other level simply because of that concept being embraced.”
he second you meet Annie Hanson you feel like she’s your friend. She greets you with a wide smile and energetic handshake, exuding positivity. Her energy is contagious, and when she speaks it’s with purpose, kind yet authoritative. Her personality, vivacious and determined, has undoubtedly been a key to the Sooners’ recent success in recruiting, which has matched her personality. She welcomes recruits into the program with open arms, striving to ensure their comfort during their first time away from home.
Hanson has been OU’s executive director of recruiting for a little less than a year, but her impact has already been felt. Oklahoma’s 2019 class is currently ranked No. 1 by Rivals.com and No. 2 behind Alabama by 247sports.com.
Just one of two women in her position at Big 12 football programs, and one of 10 in Power Five conferences, Hanson’s job is to oversee everything from strategic communication to game day programming for recruits to official visits. She spends half her time trying to find creative ways to showcase the program’s successes to pull recruits in, then spends the other half keeping in contact with those recruits’ families after they’re on campus.
“I think the foundation is set when they’re recruited, but the biggest piece is being able to cyclically provide an opportunity that leaves them feeling like they’re a family for life, and I play a small part in that,” Hanson said.
1 of 2 in the Big 12
1 of 10 in the Power 5
In the 10 months that she’s been at Oklahoma, Hanson has made her presence known, with her youthful touch and attention to detail showing a difference from previous seasons’ recruiting efforts in both the way OU has gone about recruiting and the level of the class it has recruited.
On early National Signing Day Dec. 20, OU commits were announced via video of current and former OU players who are playing or have played in the NFL. Former Sooners like running back Adrian Peterson and wide receiver Kenny Stills were shown shuffling through trading cards until they revealed a card with a commit’s name and face on it. This was only one detail of the day though, with commits also receiving mini cereal boxes with their faces on them, as well as other personalized memorabilia.
Castiglione met Hanson when she transferred from Georgia Tech as a distance runner for track and field, then became further acquainted with her when she took his Ethical Decision Making class. She was always engaged, interested in learning as much as she could about whatever she was doing at the time. Castiglione saw that and began giving her the opportunity to polish her skills.
“I always had her in the development suite when we were entertaining prospective donors, and she always wanted to host the special guests coming in,” Castiglione said. “She’s a sponge for learning. She just wanted to be around and interact with them and try to just get perspectives on things.”
Months before when OU coach Lincoln called to say he needed a director of recruiting, Castiglione laughed. He knew the perfect person — the woman he had been sad to lose to the University of North Carolina in 2015, knowing the exceptional talent she was. Hanson accepted the job, knowing she would be part of an evolving program in ’s first year as head coach.
A day and a half before the Sooners’ annual spring game April 14, Hanson stood in a hallway of the football facilities directing the placement of furniture and equipment. When she was satisfied she walked toward her office, passing walls lined with gifts for recruits showing up that weekend.
On one of the biggest weekends of the year for recruiting, Hanson had her hands full planning every last detail of five events and various other aspects of the three-day event. The dry erase calendar hanging in her office was full, with various colors denoting different tasks, while one side of her office was overrun with recruiting packets.
Her OU track uniform hangs in a frame behind her desk. It wasn’t too long ago that she was the one receiving calls from recruiters, which is part of why the chaos surrounding the weekend hasn’t diminished her spirit. She’s been where these players are, she’s gone through this process, and she’s confident she knows what she’s doing.
“You’ve got to be a good people person. You have to be able to read people,” Hanson said. “It’s not just about football. It’s not just about the recruiting process. That’s why it’s so important to connect with them on other levels outside of the game because at the end of the day that’s not why we’re recruiting. It’s not just because they can play football. It’s because of all the other intangible items too.”
“So as far as being a female, is that a challenge to me? No, not at all. I embrace it. I feel like I’m a pretty tough person, pretty thick-skinned, pretty resilient. I don’t think that it hinders me at all.”
iffany Byrd walks around a grocery store pointing out healthy options to football players, explaining how to effectively shop and eat for their goals, whether they be to gain, lose or maintain weight. Some have never shopped for themselves, reliant on their mothers or McDonald’s until they meet the Sooners’ director of sports nutrition.
Oftentimes players make it to college without giving thought to how the food they eat impacts their performance. They’re worried about practice and weight lifting and the rest they’ll hopefully find time for afterward. This is where Byrd comes in. She explains the importance of fueling before practices and games and recovering afterward.
“It’s a day-to-day process, honestly,” Byrd said. “It’s very similar to raising kids. It’s a day-to-day education of letting them know, and sometimes you get those light bulb moments that you cling to. You’ve got to constantly reinforce, you’ve got to be a constant presence.”
Byrd is nothing if not a constant presence, eating with the team and helping players choose what to put on their plates. For the players who come in used to eating certain food, like former Sooner Dede Westbrook’s attachment to McDonald’s, Byrd asks them to take healthy eating in steps. She’ll ask if they can put one green food on their plate — down to a single green bean if that’s what it takes — then begins trying to increase that over the course of the time they’re at the university. She’s kind, yet persistent, pushing the players to strive for their best.
Junior wide receiver Marquise Brown knows just how effective Byrd’s persistence can be. Brown came in at 144 lbs and has put on 22 more thanks to weightlifting and Byrd’s eating schedule. Struggling with keeping weight on, Brown was instructed to eat healthier meals in more frequent increments throughout the day, which has allowed him to keep his calorie intake high enough to help him gain a healthy amount of weight.
“Her role is very important,” Brown, who became a standout star for the Sooners last season, said. “It’s very pivotal because she keeps us fueled between practice, before practice and after practice. She makes sure your body is always full of energy and it’s really injury prevention.”
As players walk from the practice field into the football facilities Byrd stands by a table boasting an array of smoothies. She watches as players choose which flavor they want, handing some slices of watermelon from an ice chest as they go. Byrd attempts to attend every practice to ensure the players properly refuel, and has done so since she was hired in 2013.
Byrd came to OU from Baylor when the position of director of sports nutrition was created within the program. She is one of five women in her position, or the equivalent, at a Big 12 school and one of 34 in the Power 5, which boasts 65 schools. While Byrd has strong bonds with the players, she understands being a woman in an athletic department is rare and not everyone has the same experience as her. She feels strongly about the way her mentors helped her navigate the position and become confident in her role. Now she aspires to do the same for others, coaching her female interns on how to act and speak around players and coaches.
“I want them to feel comfortable walking into a group of men and speaking and being heard,” Byrd said.
1 of 5 in the Big 12
1 of 34 in the Power 5
Byrd not only watches over the nutritional needs of the football program, but also every other sport in the athletic department.
One woman. Six hundred athletes.
“There’s not a guy that steps on our campus that I have not already met multiple times,” Byrd said.
Despite the number of athletes, Byrd still believes in individualized nutrition plans. A former gymnast at Nebraska and Alabama, she understands how personal food can be for athletes whether it’s dependent on their sport or where they grew up. This is why she doesn’t push for athletes to drop all fast food immediately — she knows food isn’t just food.
“Food is very personal and how you’ve grown up and the culture you’ve grown up in are what dictates how you eat,” Byrd said.
The last game of the season is always bittersweet for Byrd, win or lose. She’s been with these players for four or five years, watched them sustain injuries, overcome obstacles, felt the pain of defeat and the joy of victory. Then, she watches them leave.
“When they graduate, when they get drafted, when they finish wherever our finish is, I’m always sad,” Byrd said. “I’m super excited for our team and for their next step, but it’s gut wrenching. It’s always hard for me to let go.”
Over the years Byrd spends with players, a bond forms and she becomes like a second mom to them. She believes they need a female presence, someone who isn’t going to be as hard on them as their coaches — someone who is tough, but fair and loving.
“I think it’s more prominent in a lot of programs now, not just ours, to have more females around and it’s great. It’s great for our players to have those female influences here.”
ulie Watson’s phone rang six times in the past 15 minutes. She’s gotten multiple texts in the same time period. Her Google calendar is booked solid and color coded for efficiency.
This has been Watson’s life for the past nine years — the life of the assistant to OU’s head football coach.
She manages ’s life, scheduling his events, reminding him about his daughter’s soccer games, helping him remember the last time he made an appearance for a group. A head coach who is also a playcaller and key figure in recruiting, as well as a husband and father, has a lot he needs help managing.
The phone calls and emails are constant, as are the requests for ’s presence at events. When requests conflict, Watson is there to tell when he last helped out with each event so he can prioritize. While has a million tasks pulling him in different directions, Watson keeps him on track.
“It’s just a matter of trying to keep him organized and help him prioritize what he needs to do and where he needs to be because there are so many hats he has to wear,” Watson said. “It’s not only recruiting, it’s Sooner Club, it’s public appearances, it’s public relations, it’s media, it’s all kinds of different things.”
Watson works closely with ’s wife, Caitlin, to keep up with all family events and non-work obligations. The goal is always the same: Get him home in time to say good night to his daughters.
“She’s amazing,” Caitlin said. “She keeps everything organized and on task and she does it all. She makes everything so much simpler for Lincoln and I.”
Watson’s life in the athletic department started years before the Rileys made it to Norman. Watson was the first person Carol Stoops met when she stepped inside Oklahoma’s football facilities for the first time 1999. Carol, in the process of moving from Florida to Oklahoma, wanted to know where to buy her 2-year-old daughter a coat. Watson, a student assistant at the time, promptly directed her to Dillard’s, not knowing that it was the beginning of a lifelong relationship between herself and head coach Bob Stoops’ wife.
When the Stoops’ made the move to Norman, Watson became their first babysitter. She watched the Stoops’ three children grow up while the Stoops’ watched her grow up. When she graduated from OU she was kept on in the recruiting department.
In 2008, the position of Stoops’ assistant became available and Watson made the move. It was a perfect fit, and Watson had a natural ability for it, Stoops said.
“Bobby and I say Julie is a master,” Carol Stoops said. “She’s a master at finding these openings, these perfect moments to address important things.”
Though Stoops is retired and she’s now ’s assistant, Watson continues to manage his schedule, too. With retirement comes more free time, which means the same amount of requests or more funneling through Watson’s office.
“That girl,” Carol Stoops said. “She can do anything.”
Watson sits in her office and glances at the game balls filling multiple shelves. A ball from the 2000 win over Nebraska that pushed OU to No. 1. Another from Stoops’ 100th win. One from the Sugar Bowl win over Alabama. A shelf full of memories from the time she spent working for Stoops.
Nearly a year after becoming ’s assistant, she looks at the large cardboard box by the door. She opened it earlier, unsure of its contents, and now Baker Mayfield’s Walter Camp Player of the Year trophy sits on her coffee table — a new memory for a new era of the program and her life within it.
Now, the man who’s sitting in the office next to hers is , and the transition he and the program have undergone in the past 11 months have been with her help and guidance.
already knew some ways in which the office worked from being offensive coordinator, but Watson simplified the process for him as much as possible to make the transition easy. When the news was announced and the hectic months that followed it ensued as attempted to find his bearings in his new position ahead of fall camp and the season, Watson was of constant assistance.
“Julie is a saint,” Caitlin said. “She made the transition from offensive coordinator to head coach as seamless as it could be.”
“The role that females play in our university and in the football program is vital. They’re very respected and valued.”
n June 7, Carol Stoops stood in Lincoln’s office trying to impart the wisdom experience had given her as she passed the torch to Caitlin as first lady of OU football.
“They’re going to want to know everything about you,” Carol Stoops told Caitlin . “You can decline everything. These first few months are going to be crazy.”
had been at Andy Alligator’s with her daughters when she got the call that the press conference announcing Stoops’ retirement and her husband’s promotion had been moved up to that day. Now, she stood just minutes away from the announcement telling Stoops she would need advice in the future about her new role. Stoops didn’t agree, though. She knew from the minute she met that she had what it takes to be the wife of a head coach at such a prestigious program.
“It takes a strong, independent woman,” Carol Stoops said. “She already has it within her. She has everything it takes and more.”
Nearly a year later, has found her place among the program. She’s the matriarch, giving constant support and encouragement to her family while seeing that it runs with family values.
is at football functions on a regular basis, and at the football facility nearly every day as part of her mission to maintain and encourage the program’s family atmosphere, and on any given day ’s daughters Sloan and Stella can be found at the stadium receiving sweaty hugs from players while giggling.
“We try to have our family involved and around the facility so the boys can see Lincoln as a father and us as a married couple as an example,” Caitlin said. “We try to include all of the other wives and families, too. We think it’s really important that this is a family.”
As a way to get all the families and players involved, the team had an Easter egg hunt. Players spent time setting out all the eggs, watching the kids hunt for them and even joining in occasionally. The event was just one in a long list of things the Rileys have done to try to make players, coaches and families feel like OU is home. For Brown, one of OU’s star receivers, it worked, bringing back fond memories of his childhood.
“It was fun watching the little kids run around and get eggs,” Brown said. “It brought you back to when you were young and did the same thing.”
It’s the Monday after the spring game and is headed to the football facility to drop off a box of things recruits left at her house. She and Lincoln hosted recruits and their families over the weekend. Things like this don’t bother at all, as she adores being around the players and making them feel welcome.
has developed a bond with the players, treasuring the time she spends with them at her home, and referring to them as “my boys.”
“It’s truly my favorite thing when they’re all at my house in a big pile and we get to visit about their siblings or birthdays or parents,” said.
has embraced the transition to head coach’s wife, finding her own way of being supportive and encouraging while making an impact within the program that hasn’t gone unnoticed. Castiglione said he is continually impressed by the grace and humility has possessed while going through such a whirlwind.
“She’s not just the coach’s wife, she’s the head coach’s wife,” Castiglione said. “And she’s not just that. She’s a mother of two very young children. I can’t say enough about what a positive impact she’s made just because of the way she’s handled the enormous transition in somewhat of an unexpected fashion.”
Now that the transition is over, is focused on continuing to grow and develop the family atmosphere of the program, as well as give support in times of joy and disappointment.
“(My goal is) just constant support and love and appreciation to what they put into it no matter what,”said. “I just want to be a constant smile and hug.”