Confidence led Sooners to top
Updated: Saturday December 30, 2000 11:57 PM
By Stewart Mandel, CNNSI.com
MIAMI -- Here in South Florida, most visitors can be found lounging poolside, taking advantage of one of the few locales in North America where the sun is still shining.
This intrepid reporter, however, has sacrificed the rays (for now) in search of an answer to what many of you are surely wondering: How did the Oklahoma Sooners get here?
If you recall, as recently as 15 months ago, Oklahoma was not considered a contender of any sorts, not even in its own division of the Big 12. The only place to watch the Sooners compete for a championship was on Classic Sports.
And in college football, where the pool of elite contenders is fairly entrenched from year to year, for a team to reach the national championship game after a decade of mediocrity -- last season's 7-5 campaign included -- merits a reasonable explanation.
So go ahead fellas. Spill.
"As far back as summer workouts, you could tell we were going to compete for a national championship," insists senior co-captain J.T. Thatcher. "We had 98 percent of the players here every day, sweating to death, throwing up together, bleeding together. By the first day of practice, we were talking about winning a lot of games."
Nice story, J.T., but try finding another team in the country that doesn't tell summer war stories of dry heaves, climbing a hill in 100-degree weather and pushing a truck with their bare backs. Your blood, sweat and tears act doesn't play here.
So come on, tell us: What boosted you not only over the hump, but well past it?
"There's a fine line between Top 25 teams and the next 25," senior defensive tackle Ryan Fisher muses. "If you look at our defense, a lot of the players are the same guys that were playing for us when we were going 3-8 or 5-6."
Point taken, Ryan. And that certainly goes lengths to explaining last year's Independence Bowl season. Bob Stoops arrives on his white horse, plucks Josh Heupel from hiding in Utah, and installs that wacky passing game. You guys gain a couple Big 12 wins on pure shock value alone.
But that doesn't justify this season's five-game improvement and out-and-out dominance of every member of the conference's recent upper echelon. Or how a defense that, as safety Roy Williams puts it, "gave up like 500 yards almost every other game" a year ago, could suddenly bottle up Nebraska's power running game or Kansas State's acclaimed receivers.
Give us something we can use, something we can tell the folks back home in Norman. The ones with the commemorative newspapers and several hundred dollars' worth of merchandise toting Oklahoma's 2000 "dream season." It's a dream for them because they had to endure that nightmare you claimed as football during the John Blake and Howard Schnellenberger days.
What's that, you say? You mean, it was the nightmare itself?
"Before, we kind of all wished we would be good, but didn't actually think we could be good," said Fisher. "Our summers weren't as grueling as they are now.
"If you look around at our players, especially our seniors, what we've been through, you don't go through that without getting some calluses," said Fisher. "We're definitely a special team. But there are probably other teams out there that, if they made a change or two here or there, could do the same thing."
The players universally attribute that newfound confidence to the 40-year-old Stoops and his energetic young staff.
Stoops is no dummy. He figured the Sooner name still carried enough lore that the athletes recruited by his predecessor could not possibly be that bad. They just need coaxing.
"He let us know that we were here to regroup, not rebuild," says linebacker Rocky Calmus. "Even though we didn't have that winning discipline, he believed we could have a winning season with the group we had at the time. I think that meant a lot, especially to the juniors and seniors."
Stoops did such a good job on that building-confidence thing, the Sooners exceeded even his own expectations. He recently confided that, upon assessing his roster after his arrival, Stoops had penciled in a rebuilding season for year two. Too many key seniors graduating, he said.
But on the first Saturday in October, it became pretty clear that wasn't going happen.
It was the second quarter of Oklahoma's annual October showdown with Texas, and running back Quentin Griffin had just scored his second touchdown to put then 4-0 OU ahead 21-0. But based on his prior Sooner experience, Thatcher knew the lead wasn't safe yet.
Just the year before, Oklahoma, this time 3-1, had led the Longhorns 17-0 before falling 38-28. If that would have happened again, would not the Sooners have been sent sliding toward another 7-5 type finish?
Thatcher laid down the law. "I told them our defense is just going to go out there and stop them, not let that happen again."
The Sooners, of course, did more than stop UT that day. They dug in on both sides of the ball for a landmark 63-14 win. Within a couple weeks, OU went from an afterthought to the top of the polls, stuns Kansas State and Nebraska, and voila -- Orange Bowl.
Of course, if it were that easy, Fisher and company wouldn't have all those calluses.