There stood Billy Sims last Saturday afternoon, the autumn sunlight glinting brilliantly off his 1978 Heisman ring as he displayed it for fans behind the Sooners bench in Norman. Not more than 50 yards away was Brian Bosworth. The Boz, an intimidator only on B movie sets these days, hoisted children on his shoulders and gave them pregame walking tours of the sidelines. Tony Casillas was there, too, and Joe Washington and Cedric Jones. And for the first time in many years, Oklahoma's Memorial Stadium seemed a warm, reassuring place, a stadium built for something more promising than a winless start.
At the very least this gathering of past Oklahoma greats offered a diversion from the game that soon unfolded. By afternoon's end the scoreboard read Kansas 52, Oklahoma 24, marking the Sooners' fourth consecutive loss this season and seventh straight dating back to last fall. Most disturbing is that this year, besides losing to Texas Christian and San Diego State, Oklahoma was beaten by Tulsa, meaning that with Oklahoma State currently a respectable 3-2, the Sooners have sunk to being the third-best team in Oklahoma. "It can't get any worse," said first-year Sooners coach John Blake after the Kansas game. "Or maybe it can."
It can. Fears of Oklahoma's first losing season in 31 years have yielded to a darker dread that the Sooners could go winless for the first time since they went 0-1 in 1895. This at a school that won a national title as recently as 1985, that lost fewer games in the '80s than any school but Nebraska and Miami. Oklahoma's six national championships since 1950 surpass the total of any other team during that period.
Much of the blame for the Sooners' demise is directed at Howard Schnellenberger, who was hired as the Sooners' coach in December 1994 and lasted just one season. Promising to restore the on-field glory that had dissipated under his predecessor, Gary Gibbs, Schnellenberger made several ill-advised boasts, most notably that "books and movies would be written about the Sooner Nation." Last December, Schnellenberger was forced out after a 5-5-1 season in which Oklahoma did not score a point in its last 10 quarters or hold a lead in its last three games. Senior middle linebacker Tyrell Peters, who grew up in Norman and has two uncles who played for the Sooners, says of last season's performance, "It hurt. Even when I got here [in 1993], 8-3 was considered a bad year. Then we go what last year? I don't even remember."
It is unfair, though, to saddle Schnellenberger with all the blame. The Sooners' talent pool has long been in decline, largely because of the three-year probation the NCAA handed down in December 1988 for numerous rules violations under then coach Barry Switzer, who ultimately resigned after 16 years on the job. The school has since raised its academic standards and abandoned Switzer's practice of recruiting "athletes who were too good not to recruit"—i.e., blue-chip athletes of dubious character or academic background. In the 1994-95 academic year the program's graduation rate was 57%, best in the Big Eight. "Probation did what it was supposed to do," says Steve Owens, the Sooners' 1969 Heisman winner who took over as Oklahoma's athletic director in September. "The program suffered. What you see today did not happen overnight."
Left to pick up the pieces is the 34-year-old Blake, who spent the last three years as a Dallas Cowboys assistant, one under Jimmy Johnson and two under Switzer. Blake played for Switzer at Oklahoma from 1979 to '82 and later did a three-year turn as a Sooners assistant before leaving Norman in 1988 to become the wide receivers and tight ends coach at Tulsa. That school year off-the-field chaos consumed the Oklahoma program, culminating in a gang rape and the shooting of a player in January 1989 and the drug bust of quarterback Charles Thompson in February. In June, with his program collapsing around him, Switzer asked Blake to return as an assistant and help him clean up the mess. But the day after Blake returned to Norman, Switzer quit.
During Blake's first few months as the Sooners' head coach, his most visible contribution has been his compassionate yet firm handling of players. "He cares deeply about his players," says standout junior tight end Stephen Alexander. "But he'll also lay down the law." Indeed, the new coach has moved quickly to eliminate potential sources of embarrassment. In February he heard that Derek Wallace, a junior college transfer who was projected as a starter in the Sooners secondary, had slapped a female Oklahoma student. After hearing the accounts of several eyewitnesses to the incident, Blake kicked Wallace off the team.
There are questions about Blake's acumen on the sidelines. Before taking the Sooners job, he had never been a coordinator at any level of the game. Before Johnson resigned from the Cowboys in March 1994, he reportedly was on the verge of firing Blake. Regardless, the school probably has no choice but to give Blake time to rebuild. Three coaches in three years created a climate of instability that shooed away top recruits in alarming numbers. "I just read that 17 players from Oklahoma are playing in Top 25 programs," Switzer said last week. "Those are the players we always got."
Rather than train their eyes on national titles, Oklahoma fans appear content to see their team become a Big 12 contender by the millennium. On Saturday these fans needed only to contemplate the recent success of Kansas to conclude that that goal is realistic. "You look at Oklahoma's roster and see three-deep," says Jay-hawks coach Glen Mason, whose program didn't have a winning season from 1988 to '90 but has had four since and is 3-1 in '96. "That's a lot deeper than Kansas and Kansas State when we were in the dumps."
Blake has gone out of his way to make former players feel at home at Memorial Stadium. Sims, who stayed away "because a lot of former Sooners weren't welcome after the probation," regularly worked out with current players last summer. Bosworth, who had attended only a handful of home games in the decade since he left the school, has been to all four Oklahoma games this fall.