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Out of nowhere, with little to work with, Josh Heupel has made himself a Sooners great.
By BOB HARIG
© St. Petersburg Times, published January 1, 2001
MIAMI -- The journey to South Beach is a long one when it begins in Aberdeen, S.D. The trip seems never-ending when a detour through Utah is taken. But Josh Heupel arrived. And he's glad to be here.
The Oklahoma quarterback took the road less traveled to college football stardom, winding through obscure outposts before landing at a storied program that will play for its seventh national championship when the No. 1 Sooners take on third-ranked Florida State on Wednesday night in the Orange Bowl.
"I've enjoyed every step of the way," said Heupel, sitting Sunday in Orange Bowl Stadium, where many Sooners have experienced success. "I'm glad I've been to all those places. I learned a lot everywhere I've been, and it's helped me today."
Heupel threw for 3,392 yards and 20 touchdowns and rushed for seven scores this season a year after he seemingly came out of nowhere to pass for 3,460 yards and 30 touchdowns to lead Oklahoma to its first bowl game in five seasons and once again put OU on the map.
And that's what is necessary to figure out exactly where Heupel has been in his college career, which will end with the Orange Bowl.
When Heupel signed with the Sooners in early 1999, it sure appeared to be an unusual match -- Heupel, a prolific passer who would be the runner-up for the 2000 Heisman Trophy, going to a school with a reputation built on its ground game, specifically the wishbone.
"I don't think there's any question he'll go down as one of the great all-time Sooner players," Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops said. "And that's saying a lot. There are a great number of them. How do you rank them all? There are probably about 50 you could bunch together. That's how many great ones there are.
"He's obviously in there with the best of them. I think people recognize that. He's the major reason why, in a short period of time, a program that may have been faltering a bit is 12-0 and competing for a national championship. Certainly, everyone across the state of Oklahoma knows that."
But there's no way they were sold when Heupel arrived. Not with his resume.
As a senior in high school, Heupel was South Dakota's player of the year. But the scholarship offers were not overwhelming, so the left-hander headed to Weber State in Ogden, Utah. After a redshirt season followed by a knee injury, Heupel played in four games, then decided to follow his coach to Utah State.
Instead of transferring immediately, Heupel enrolled at Snow College, a junior college in Ephraim, Utah. Despite sharing time with another quarterback (Heupel played the first half of games), he threw for 2,308 yards and 28 touchdowns, with five interceptions.
In 1998, Stoops had just been hired as Oklahoma's coach, and he had hired offensive coordinator Mike Leach from Kentucky. Leach was brought in to install the spread offense, one nobody in the Sooners program could run.
Leach, now head coach at Texas Tech, had watched film of Heupel and didn't have much time to recruit a quarterback who would be his starter in 1999. The two clicked on a recruiting visit, spending hours watching film. It wasn't the typical wine-and-dine trip, but it suited Heupel.
His father, Ken, is a Division II coach who let his son tag along when Josh was young. He got used to hanging around players, studying the game.
"As soon as I could walk, I spent time with my dad," Heupel said. "It wasn't so much about football, but it was an opportunity to spend time with my father. Naturally, you soak up knowledge. I was watching film with him. When it was time for him to go to the office at 6 a.m. during two-a-days, you're going to pick up things."
Heupel obviously picked up a lot. Despite average speed and quickness, and being an unimposing 6 feet 2, 208 pounds, Heupel gets the job done. He reads blitzes, gets rid of the ball before being drilled, doesn't crumble. As former Oklahoma coach Barry Switzer said, "He's the best average quarterback I've ever seen."
No question, Heupel does not have the eye-popping numbers posted by Heisman Trophy winner and Florida State quarterback Chris Weinke. Nor is he the physical specimen pro scouts covet. His arm is average -- and seemingly hampered by a shoulder injury late in the season -- and his throwing motion is far from textbook. But he excels.
"He's got this way about him," Oklahoma receiver Josh Norman said. "It's an inner peace, I think."
Heupel was especially effective in Oklahoma's big games this season.
During a three-game stretch in October when the Sooners defeated Texas, Kansas State and Nebraska (when the latter two were ranked Nos. 2 and 1, respectively), Heupel completed 66 of 108 passes for 1,049 yards, 4 touchdowns and 1 interception.
Those victories vaulted the Sooners to the No. 1 spot. Oklahoma was not nearly as impressive in winning its final three games, but Heupel rallied his team in the fourth quarter to defeat Texas A&M and threw two touchdowns passes in the Big 12 title game against Kansas State.
That put the Sooners in the Orange Bowl, where they will attempt to win their first national championship since 1985.
It is a long way from Aberdeen and Ephraim, places that make him "appreciate so much more and never take anything for granted."
Heupel pauses. "You couldn't sit down and plan this," he said.
HOMETOWN: Aberdeen, S.D.
HT/WT: 6-2, 208.
STATS: Leads the nation in passing percentage (.658) by hitting 256-of-389 for 18 touchdowns and 11 interceptions; has thrown for 300 yards or more 14 times in 24 career games; has thrown for 200 or more yards in 22 of 24 games.
MAJOR AWARDS: Heisman Trophy runner-up; Associated Press player of the year; Walter Camp player of the year; Sporting News player of the year; CBS Sports player of the year; first-team All-American, Football Writers, Walter Camp.