Sooners' prestige restored by Castiglione, Stoops

Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin

It wasn't a surprise that Oklahoma was ranked as the No. 1 team in the ESPN Prestige Rankings. The Sooners have been a consistent, dominant program since the end of World War II.

Oklahoma's football history has been dotted by success crafted by larger-than-life characters and memorable teams. Hall of Famers like Bud Wilkinson, Bennie Owen and Barry Switzer roamed the sidelines en route to the College Football Hall of Fame. Legendary players like Tommy McDonald, Jerry Tubbs, Lee Roy Selmon, Billy Sims and Steve Owens all have been key Sooners over the years.

But the recent return of Sooner mystique has only come since Bob Stoops took over the program in 1999, which came about after the hiring of Joe Castiglione as athletic director a few months earlier.

Sure, the Oklahoma program has endured a run of big-game struggles in recent seasons. But it has gotten to the big game with more consistency than any other Big 12 program with an unprecedented current streak of three-straight conference championships. Oklahoma has won 39 conference championships -- seven more than any other program in the country.

That recent run is a startling transformation since the start of the Big 12 era, which marks the starting point of my own close inspection of the Oklahoma program. I had followed it from a distance, marveling at their blowout victories and cocksure attitude under the charmingly roguish Switzer.

And to say the least, I was shocked at where Oklahoma was in the mid-1990s. Owen Stadium wasn't nearly the palace I imagined. The Sooners were a conference laughing stock under the direction of a less-than-stellar array of coaches like Gary Gibbs, Howard Schnellenberger and John Blake who all had struggled to match Switzer's "Sooner Magic."

I remember when Schnellenberger bragged that they would write books and make movies about his time at the school. After a 5-5-1 record during his 1995 season, I'm still waiting.

And Blake, a popular former Oklahoma player and assistant coach, also struggled mightily during his run from 1996-98.

Blake's 12-22 record during his coaching tenure featured three-straight losing seasons in the Sooner program for the first time since 1922-24. Blake changed his offenses three times in 1998, his final season, as the Sooners limped to a 5-6 season.

Castiglione had been hired as the school's athletic director only a few months before. He made the difficult but necessary decision to jettison Blake in favor of a transformation after only one season.

Stoops was his first major hire and the rest has been history. Stoops has claimed six Big 12 titles over the last nine seasons, a period where no other conference rival has won more than one.

To see the Oklahoma program at its current level compared to where it was only 10 years ago, it has been a remarkable transformation.

It's been one where leaders of a prestigious program have seen change coming and been willing to embrace it, keeping the Sooners ensconced at the rarefied levels of the past.

And it's the biggest reason why the Sooners program has maintained its prestige over such a long period of time.