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Norman Conquerer
Austin Murphy
December 25, 2000
Led by well-traveled Josh Heupel, an undersized but unflappable quarterback from South Dakota, Oklahoma will play for its first national championship in 15 years
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December 25, 2000

Norman Conquerer

Led by well-traveled Josh Heupel, an undersized but unflappable quarterback from South Dakota, Oklahoma will play for its first national championship in 15 years

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In the hard-working, God-fearing community of Norman, Josh, a management major, and his sister, Andrea, an Oklahoma freshman, fit right in. They attend Bible study on Tuesday nights. Two days before Thanksgiving 1999, Josh distributed food baskets to needy families. This season he spearheaded a food drive. (His first words to his father after the Texas Tech game: "How much food did we get?") "I'm happy for Josh that he's set goals and attained them on the football field," says Cindy, "but I'm more impressed by the kind of person he is."

Sooners wideout Josh Norman wasn't the least bit impressed by the physically unimposing Heupel, the player, when he first set eyes on him. He took one look at the new quarterback and said, "That's him?" Norman was even more skeptical after seeing Heupel throw.

His concern was understandable. Heupel's strengths include his ability to make decisions quickly and his uncanny anticipation and accuracy. He doesn't throw a pretty ball. One of the football-throwing machines his receivers use in drills is slightly flawed: "It can't throw a spiral," says Smith, the tight end, "so it's perfect for simulating Josh's passes."

Heupel's teammates tease him because they know he realizes that he has their utmost respect. Center Bubba Burcham describes him as a kind of human thermostat: "He's cool and calm regardless of the situation, and that helps keep the rest of us cool, too."

Heupel broke a slew of school and conference records in 1999 while leading the Sooners to their first winning season in six years. He was just warming up. At a team meeting before this season he said, "I don't know how we're going to do it, but we're going to me Orange Bowl."

He and the Sooners got there by putting together the finest October in Oklahoma's history. In successive wins over 11th-ranked Texas, No. 2 Kansas State and No. 1 Nebraska, Heupel completed 66 of his 98 passes, for 949 yards with one interception. Dallas Cowboys director of college and pro scouting Larry Lacewell was at all those games. He's reluctant to predict the round in which Heupel might be drafted. When Lacewell is finished listing the pros and cons, Heupel sounds like a middle-rounder, a guy teams will be afraid to pick and afraid not to pick.

"He's not the physical model we're all looking for—not 6'4", 220, with a rocket arm," says Lacewell, "but he has a quick release, and that can make up for [a lack of] speed on the ball. He's a better scrambler than he gets credit for, and frankly, at his size, he'd better be. Then you throw in the obvious: intelligence, wonderful attitude, coach's son, hung around a tape machine his entire life. All that helps."

A week after winning their 12th straight game to earn a trip to the Orange Bowl, the Oklahoma coaches and players gathered in Memorial Stadium's Jack Santee Lounge for a Heisman Watch Party. On the big-screen TV, there was Heupel in New York City, sitting alongside Weinke. The time came to announce the winner. When they heard the word "Chris," the Sooners headed for the doors. "It was like a fire drill," says Norman.

Thus did most of them miss Weinke's acceptance speech, which one Oklahoma player snidely dubbed his "State of the Union Address." In it he promised that the Orange Bowl would be "a battle." The oddsmakers, having installed Florida Slate as a 12-point favorite, would appear to disagree. Forgive me Sooners if they find that spread laughable. Josh Heupel in the role of underdog is like Brer Rabbit in the briar patch. He could not feel more at home. His poise and faith have infected his teammates. These guys think they can win every game.

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