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Sooners soar with Stoops

The second-year coach has gone to the air to return Oklahoma to national prominence.


© St. Petersburg Times, published December 30, 2000

MIAMI -- Barry Switzer looked at the numbers and shook his head. At the same place, during another time, those numbers never would have added up. In fact, they would have equaled disappointment.

In Switzer's era, the forward pass was about as common as winter warmth in Oklahoma. Occasionally the sun peeks through the clouds in the Sooner State, and once in a while Switzer instructed one of his quarterbacks to throw.

Nobody argued. Not when he was winning three national championships and competing for conference titles. But times changed, Oklahoma found itself mired in mediocrity and a new coach arrived throwing the ball all over the sky. And it works. Beautifully.

"Maybe I don't understand the game anymore," Switzer said after Oklahoma's victory over Kansas State in October. "We just finished the game with 11 yards rushing. And we won."

Surprise, surprise. Gone are the days of the vaunted wishbone. Oklahoma employs a spread offense with multiple formations and numerous passing routes. Quarterback Josh Heupel made it happen, but only because coach Bob Stoops was brave enough to install an offense that figured to go over like an Oklahoma ice storm.

Stoops, coach of the No. 1 team in the country, is hearing few complaints.

"When we opened up the very first scrimmage, on the first play we hit our tight end over the middle for 80 yards and scored a touchdown," Stoops said. "The place went crazy. I think they'll embrace anything as long as it works."

And for so long, nothing went right in Norman. But the Sooners are 12-0 and poised for a return to their glory days, when they were annually counted on to contend for the national title. They play No. 3 Florida State on Wednesday in the Orange Bowl, where they last had a chance at the top spot in 1987 and last won it in 1985.

And Stoops is hailed as a hero, having revived the program in two years. OU was 17-27-1 in the four seasons before his arrival.

Oklahoma is the nation's lone unbeaten Division I team and defeated six ranked opponents in a span of eight weeks, including Nos. 1 and 2 in back-to-back games.

"This tells you how much we've turned around," former Oklahoma wishbone quarterback J.C. Watts said. "I remember sitting in the stands (this year for a game), we're down on the 3-yard line and we run the ball twice and didn't get the thing in there and I am standing there yelling, "Throw the ball.' I thought, "Man, we've come a long way.' "

Stoops, 40, landed his first head-coaching job after three years as Steve Spurrier's defensive coordinator at Florida. Before that, he worked several years under Bill Snyder at Kansas State.

"Bobby is a very confident guy," Spurrier said. "I think maybe after being here the three years he just said, "Hey, I don't have to do it like all those other coaches. There's another way to be a head coach.' And he sort of maybe liked the way I tried to do it here. But he certainly didn't copy me. He's doing his own thing his way. And in life, that's how we all have to do it to be successful, is to do it your own way. You can't really copy anybody."

Stoops didn't copy Spurrier, but he did recognize the need for an exciting, high-powered offense. He hired Mike Leech, the offensive coordinator at Kentucky, to run a scheme Stoops struggled with at Florida. (Leech has since become the coach at Texas Tech.) And he found Heupel at a junior college and let him throw until his arm hurt.

The result was an impressive 7-5 record in 1999, Oklahoma's first winning season since '93. But this season's 12-0 mark and a shot at the national title had to catch even the most optimistic of Sooners off guard.

"I guess it's surprising and shocking to most people to, in two years, come from virtually nowhere to being here," Stoops said. "But to say I'm surprised ... that would undersell our players and what they've achieved and what they've worked for.

"They've got great commitment and they've invested a lot to improving themselves athletically and as a team. We really have a solid all-around team and they've worked for that. We never set a timetable, we just try to improve week to week, month to month and we've been able to do that at a rapid rate."

From where the Sooners had fallen, however, it has been a remarkable rise. The malaise began under Gary Gibbs, Switzer's defensive coordinator who followed a man with a 157-29-4 record in 16 seasons starting in 1973.

Since Switzer lost to Miami in the 1988 Orange Bowl, the Sooners finished no better than 14th in the national polls under coaches Gibbs, Howard Schnellenberger and John Blake. Gibbs was plagued by probation early in his tenure and lost to Nebraska five of six times. Schnellenberger went 5-5-1, and Blake never had a winning record.

"The swiftness with which it has turned around has been enjoyable, but surprising as well," said Lee Roy Selmon, who played under Switzer and was on title teams in 1974-75 before a Hall of Fame career with the Tampa Bay Bucs. "Knowing Oklahoma is rich with tradition, and that if the pieces of the puzzle are put together properly and the chemistry works, things can happen. But the swiftness with which Coach Stoops and others have been able to pull it together has been quicker than we could have imagined."

Selmon points out Blake had to have brought in some good players for Stoops to succeed in his second year.

"In the final analysis in every game, it's those players who have to execute the schemes that have been taught to them by the coaching staff," Selmon said. "John Blake and his staff did a good job of recruiting talent. It's just putting it together and believing in what they are trying to accomplish. That's another story. Now they are playing with a lot of confidence.

"You can tell by the games they have played down the stretch. You have to have confidence all the way to the end to be successful. He's come in with the players who were there, brought them together, as well as drew on the tradition of Oklahoma football."

Stoops grew up in Youngstown, Ohio, and learned from his dad, Ron Stoops Sr., the defensive coordinator for 28 years at Cardinal Mooney High. Bob and his brothers -- Ron Jr., Mark and Mike -- played for their dad in high school and all coach today. Mike is Bob's defensive coordinator at Oklahoma.

Bob went to Iowa, where he played defensive back from 1979-82. He joined the Hawkeye staff as a graduate assistant in 1983 and stayed five years before leaving for Kent State in 1988. He was there nine months before Snyder hired him to coach Kansas State's secondary.

Stoops helped the Wildcats grow from a laughingstock to one of the nation's top programs. After Florida lost to Nebraska 62-28 in the Fiesta Bowl, Stoops joined the Gators, and they won the national title the next season. He quickly became a hot coaching candidate with interest from Minnesota, Arkansas and Iowa.

"He had a chance to go to his alma mater, but he chose Oklahoma," Selmon said. "He saw something, he saw potential."

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