For a long time Joe Washington stayed away and watched the sad, steady decline of Oklahoma football. He once wore silver shoes and ran from the wishbone like prairie dust carried on an angry wind. He was Sooners football in the flesh, a blur that was often chased but rarely caught. In Washington's last two college years, 1974 and '75, Oklahoma won the national championship. Those teams were part of a crimson dynasty that lasted from Hall of Fame coach Bud Wilkinson's first title, in '50, until Barry Switzer's departure from the sidelines in '88. In those 38 years the Sooners won six national championships, more than any other team during that span, and took their place among the bastions of college football.
Then the dynasty fell swiftly into decay. Switzer left in a hail of NCAA sanctions—14 scholarships lost over a two-year period, among other penalties—and accusations that the Sooners had turned Norman into Dodge City. Switzer's successors, Gary Gibbs (1989 to '94), Howard Schnellenberger ('95) and John Blake ('96 to '98), ran the program downhill. Oklahoma bottomed out with 33 losses in 57 games from '94 through the '98 season. "When I left Oklahoma, I thought the strength of the program was etched in stone," says Washington, who played 10 years in the NFL with San Diego, Baltimore, Washington and Atlanta and now lives in Baltimore. "I found out that if you have a chisel, you can chip away at greatness. A lot of people have had chisels."
Last fall Washington, who couldn't recall the last time he'd been in Norman, accepted the invitation of first-year coach Bob Stoops to visit the campus on Oct. 23 and address the Sooners before that day's game with Texas A & M. Washington had been watching from afar and noticed that Oklahoma had won its first three games and then lost to Notre Dame 34-30 and Texas 38-28 after blowing big leads. During telecasts of those two games, he'd seen enthusiasm among Oklahoma players for the first time in a decade. He'd heard that Stoops had made contact with Switzer and other Sooners legends, such as 1971 All-America quarterback Jack Mildren. This Oklahoma team was worth checking out, Washington reasoned. "I came away with a great feeling of promise," he says. "Stoops knows what he's doing."
What Stoops had done was make the Sooners not just respectable but dangerous, one of the most surprising teams of the season. Inspired by Washington's pregame talk, they bounced back from their consecutive losses with a stunning 51-6 pasting of then No. 10 Texas A&M. It was the Aggies' worst defeat in 98 years. Oklahoma went on to finish the season 7-4 (5-3 in the Big 12 South) before losing to Mississippi 27-25 on Dec. 31 in the Independence Bowl in Shreveport, La. It was Oklahoma's first winning season since 1993 and first bowl appearance since '94.
"There's no doubt that Oklahoma will be very good, very soon," says Texas coach Mack Brown, who has undertaken a similar rebuilding project in Austin. Switzer predicts a parallel rise for the two schools and a restoration of their torrid rivalry on the field and in recruiting. " Oklahoma and Texas will dominate the Big 12 South," Switzer says. "Bobby Stoops has gotten everything pointed upward in Norman. You watch the guy work, and it's obvious he's got a plan."
No lie there. No surprise, either. Stoops developed a reputation as one of the best defensive minds in college football while helping Kansas State rise from running joke to national power. He was co-defensive coordinator and secondary coach for the Wildcats from 1989 to '95 and then spent three seasons as Steve Spurrier's defensive coordinator at Florida, where he helped the Gators win the '96 national championship. He was sure to become some school's no-brainer hire as head coach. "He's a competitive guy, hates losing and demands perfection," says Spurrier, who could have been describing himself. "Bobby made our defense outstanding. There was no doubt he'd get a chance to be a head coach."
Surprisingly, given Oklahoma's fast rise, the defensive genius's defense was only mediocre at best, yielding 344.4 yards per game, 39th best in the nation. The defense did improve as the season went on. On Nov. 13 the Sooners held Iowa State's Darren Davis, who came in averaging 140 rushing yards per game, to just 53 yards on 17 carries. In a season-ending, 44-7 win over Oklahoma State, Oklahoma held the Cowboys to 83 yards on the ground, barely half their season average.
In the meantime Stoops shook the blue-collar Big 12 to the tips of its steel-toed boots with a wide-open offense and gambling special teams play. He hired offensive coordinator Mike Leach from Kentucky, where Leach had helped orchestrate coach Hal Mumme's spread passing game, and told him to install that same Star Wars attack. Never mind that putting in a complex passing offense at Oklahoma is like the Backstreet Boys putting out a rap CD. "Simple reason," says Stoops when asked to explain this move. "In the three years I was at Florida, the one offense we could never stop was Kentucky's, even though it didn't have nearly the talent we did, except at quarterback [ Tim Couch]. That, plus I figured nobody in the Big 12 was used to seeing this style." It worked so well mat in early December, Texas Tech hired Leach as its new coach, replacing Spike Dykes, who had resigned.
Watching the Sooners carve up the conference through the air was a hoot. Quarterback Josh Heupel, a transfer from Snow Junior College in Ephraim, Utah, passed for 3,460 yards and 30 touchdowns, broke 13 school passing records and was named Big 12 Offensive Newcomer of the Year while attempting an average of 45.5 throws a game. Oklahoma's explosion led to much harrumphing around the conference. Before the Oct. 30 game at Colorado, Buffaloes coach Gary Barnett belittled the Sooners' offense by suggesting that all that was needed to shut it down was "a good defense." Even after his Aggies gave up 51 points to Oklahoma, Texas A&M coach R.C. Slocum said that "high winds" could stop the Sooners—a previously unexplored meteorological theory. The truth is that the spread offense took Florida to one national title and Miami to two; with talent, it's no gimmick.
To jazz things up further, Stoops had the Sooners run three fake field goals and two fake punts (yield: one TD, two first downs), which is more than some teams run in a decade. Stoops did all of this with a perfectly straight face while dispensing platitudes such as, "We haven't done anything yet." Clearly the joke was on Oklahoma's opponents, and the Sooners loved it. "I wish I had some more years of eligibility, because things are going to get better around here in a hurry," said senior safety Rodney Rideau.