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Oklahoma's return to glory is overdue

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© St. Petersburg Times, published November 1, 2000

For 40 years, through the coaching splendors of Bud Wilkinson / Chuck Fairbanks / Barry Switzer, the Oklahoma Sooners strode with Alabama, Notre Dame, Southern California and Nebraska as college football's long-haul kings.

Dynasties aren't forever.

Alabama's not feeling too well, now victimized by non-Daunte Culpepper Central Florida. Nebraska has a sudden, piercing pain, for which the Sooners can be blamed.

It's become a scramble for the Irish to hang on in the Top 25. USC, with John McKay long gone, is a flamboyant has-been. But none of these Saturday royals had plunged so low, crashed so disgustingly, as the Sooners who sadly quit booming.

For a lot of underachieving, troubling years, when you heard "Sooners" on the news, you expected it was another drug bust, abuse case or academic calamity.

Where had all the Sooner heroes gone? Oklahoma was running low on character and almost dry on extraordinary players. No more Billy Sims, J.C. Watts, Billy Vessels, Tommy McDonald and those tough, loveable Selmon brothers, Lee Roy, Dewey and Lucious, All-Americans all.

Howard Schnellenberger was hired as coach in 1995, and I figured surely he would succeed there, knowing what the man with the bass-gravel voice had achieved against mighty, early 1980s odds at the University of Miami. But that, too, was an OU chapter that became ashes of failure.

John Blake followed.

Bad became worse.

But now the pride, glory and bravado are back in Norman. From the Florida Gators, after he helped them win the 1996 national championship, the Sooners hired Bob Stoops as coach.

Winning was back.

Reputation was polished.

Then, from the Utah salt mines of junior-college football, there came a sweet, unknown kid who throws footballs with his left hand, and by now Josh Heupel is the 2000 collegian most deserving of a Heisman Trophy.

You may choose to argue.

They don't, of course, hand over awards on the first day of November. "Our goal isn't to be No. 1 in the middle of the season," Stoops said.

But the polls tell us Oklahoma (8-0), after consecutive celebrity clobberings of Texas-Kansas State-Nebraska, ranks above all. Ten months ago the Sooners finished their 1999 season 7-5 and were delighted with a lukewarm New Year's thrill, being in Shreveport, La., to play the Independence Bowl.

Then there's Josh.

It's my eyes, my head, Heupel's feats and my affection for underdog-makes-good stories that make me think the 22-year-old senior from Aberdeen, S.D., deserves the Heisman edge over quarterbacks Michael Vick of Virginia Tech and Drew Brees of Purdue.

"Something is wrong if Josh is not up there," Stoops said. "Above all, he's a winner. Josh is everything you could ask in a quarterback. So smart. So cool. So accurate. So exceptional. It isn't the Oklahoma system that makes Josh Heupel so good; he is the system."

Listening to Stoops, he could be talking about Danny Wuerffel, the cleaner-than-soap quarterback at Florida when the Gators ruled the world. Josh and Danny are devout Christians, low on ego and high in unselfishness. Wuerffel won the Heisman Trophy.

Assessing these Sooners, you find many intriguing ties. Stoops took one UF assistant when he left Gainesville: receivers coach Steve Spurrier Jr., son of the old Heisman Trophy quarterback who coaches the Gators.

"It was perfect for Bubba," said Papa Spurrier. "He needed to get out on his own, and there was nobody better to join up with than Bobby Stoops. My first interest on Saturday is our Gators, but then I can't wait to see how the Sooners did."

Florida is 7-1, leading the SEC East and ranked nationally in the top six. Soon the world will have three more Spurriers. Junior's wife is expecting triplets.

Further connections ...

Stoops, before his Gators stay, was at Kansas State. He was co-defensive coordinator, a term I'd never heard. He shared the role, as K-State became America's top-ranked defensive team, with Jim Leavitt, who fled Manhattan to become South Florida's first football coach.

With the Sooners, Stoops has co-defensive coordinators, his brother Mike along with Brent Venables. Both of them remained at K-State after Stoops/Leavitt left.

When his OU opportunity came, Bob swung a huge net over Manhattan, snagging not only Mike and Brent from the Wildcats staff but Mark Mangino, who became the Sooners' offensive coordinator. Stoops now is frequently mentioned in the same heated K-State breaths with Jesse James, who used to rob banks in the neighborhood.

Let's get to Heupel. He's related neither to Stoops nor Spurrier and never enlisted at Kansas State. Josh's dad, Ken, is coach at Northern State, a Division II football program in Aberdeen. From the crib, Josh was schooled by Ken on the art of quarterbacking.

Every opponent OU plays tries to blitz Heupel out of his left-handed mind. Josh slices them up with dump-offs and little flicks over the middle. Since he was 8, the South Dakotan has been studying blitzes on Dad's videotapes. Josh could be Oklahoma's offensive coordinator.

His talents in high school drew no powerhouse NCAA scouts, so it seemed Heupel would be doing his pitching at Division I-AA Weber State. But in the spring of 1997 he tore a knee ACL. After rehab, Josh wasn't in Weber's plans and wound up playing at Snow J.C. in Ephraim, Utah.

The big time was so far away.

Josh paid his JUCO tuition and shared an apartment with seven other athletes. Somehow word of the Heupel attributes reached Stoops, who was desperate for quarterbacks who could turn the Sooners, who used to run relentlessly, into a pass academy. That was two years ago. Today Josh is OU captain, field marshal of the country's No. 1 team and has a real chance to get a Heisman Trophy.

You've got to love his story.

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