FORT WORTH, Texas -- On Thursday, Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops gathered his team and informed the players that if they beat TCU on Saturday, they would be receiving championship rings and hats, regardless of what happened later in the evening.
Stoops, fresh off coaching the Sooners to a 24-17 win to clinch at least a share of the Big 12 title, received the customary Gatorade shower as time expired.
"Man, I never won a championship anywhere!" exclaimed Fresno State transfer receiver Jalen Saunders as he jogged into the locker room to grab his shirt and hat.
"That's why you came to school here!" running backs coach Cale Gundy responded.
The Sooners gathered their shirts and hats and went back onto the field at Amon G. Carter Stadium to celebrate the school's eighth Big 12 title and 11th 10-win season since 2000 under Stoops. They snapped a team photo like they had so many times at Big 12 championship games past. They celebrated on the field and in the locker room with a crystal bowl trophy made and delivered by the Big 12.
Oklahoma's win gives the Sooners an 8-1 record in Big 12 play, which will be the same record as Kansas State if the Wildcats beat Texas later tonight. The problem? Kansas State beat Oklahoma on the Sooners' home field in September. Oklahoma State won the Big 12 title outright in 2011, the first season without a championship game. If Kansas State wins tonight, it will be the first shared title in Big 12 history, despite Kansas State having a better overall record, a higher ranking in the BCS and a win against Oklahoma in Norman.
"Big 12 champs or co-champs, either way, they're recognized as champions," Stoops said. "There seemed to be a little confusion about it, but there isn't. ... Nobody here made those rules. At the present time, that's where we're at."
I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but there is a little confusion, and you don't have to go back far to see it. A year ago, Oklahoma trekked to Stillwater with the chance to beat Oklahoma State and celebrate a shared Big 12 title with the rival Cowboys.
"There will be one [champion]. That's just how I see it," Stoops told reporters before that game. "Again, I don't know any other way to look at it. If you're all going to play each other, it pretty well sets up that way."
So pardon me if I'm confused. The Sooners celebrated their eighth Big 12 title just like the first seven, but there's no doubt that it'll be much different if Kansas State holds serve and beats Texas.
"You end the season with a championship, however controversial you want to make it. It's the conference rules," offensive lineman Gabe Ikard said.
But even Ikard admitted there was a difference between the Sooners' 2010 title, won by many of these same players, and the possibility of a shared title -- and the backlash that would come from celebrating it like any other, as the Sooners did.
"It would be better for us, and we'd probably catch less, uh, stuff for it," Ikard said of an outright title. "But when it comes down to it, we put together a season that our conference recognizes us as the champions. Whether people don't like that, it's not our fault. We came to the games and played them."
Ikard is right. It's not his fault.
"I didn't make the rules on how the league was set up, right? Nor did you. Just read what they say about the rules," Stoops said of the possibility of sharing the title.
Stoops is right. You can't blame the Sooners for celebrating a hard-earned title that came after winning eight consecutive Big 12 games in a league with nine bowl-eligible teams. That's no small accomplishment.
You can, however, blame a conference that trimmed to 10 teams, eliminated a championship game and trumpeted that it would crown "one true champion" in its new round-robin schedule.
The Big 12 did have a championship game this year. It was played Sept. 22 and Kansas State won it, as long as the Wildcats finish off the Longhorns tonight.
You can't blame Oklahoma, but you can blame the Big 12. The answer isn't bringing back the championship game. The answer is to change the rules.
Even if Kansas State coughs up a painful loss to Texas later today and the Sooners claim an outright title, having a shared title even for discussion is silly and disingenuous. In the middle of it all are coaches like Stoops, who change their argument from year to year based on how it suits their interests. He is not going to lessen what's truly an impressive accomplishment for his team, but it's impossible for Stoops to stand at a microphone this year and give his team rings when he was critical of the league recognizing an additional champion a year earlier.
Offensive coordinator Josh Heupel said his team celebrated like it had won a title in the same manner it had previously. Fellow OC Jay Norvell said his team had a record that says it has a share of the title and that the accomplishment was "extremely satisfying."
"It's a championship. It's a great feeling," safety Tony Jefferson said. "Regardless if [Kansas State] wins or not, we're still Big 12 champions."
You can't blame the Sooners for feeling that way, but you can blame the league for giving them the right to do so.