OU, Notre Dame rekindle rivalry

NORMAN, Okla. -- Thirteen years ago, in Bob Stoops' first season, upstart Oklahoma traveled to South Bend, Ind., and took a commanding 30-14 lead over Notre Dame into the third quarter.

But after turning around and seeing many of his players "laughing and giggling," Stoops realized his program still had a ways to go.

"I'm like, shoot, these guys have no idea how to win and how to finish a game out," Stoops remembered Monday. "Sure enough, they came back and beat us."

This weekend, Oklahoma and Notre Dame will rekindle their storied series for the first time since that 1999 meeting.

The Fighting Irish went on to rally from the 16-point deficit to defeat Oklahoma, 34-30. But after five consecutive non-winning seasons, it was the Sooners who came away believing they were on the verge of putting together something special.

"If anything, that game showed Coach Stoops was for real," recalled former safety Roy Williams, who was recruited by Stoops' predecessor, John Blake. "Even though we didn't win the game, we knew after that we eventually were going to win.

"You saw that the following year."

Oklahoma would squander several more leads that '99 season, including a 17-point first-half advantage over Texas the following week. The Sooners, in fact, would hold second-half leads in all but one game that season. But eventually through a 7-5 record, they would learn how to finish games.

"Those guys were beaten down and for five straight years had losing records. Nobody believed in them," Stoops said. "I told my staff when we got home from [the Notre Dame game], our guys hadn't ever been up on anyone by [16] points.

"We had to teach and get our players to learn how to win. They hadn't won."

The Sooners still had to learn to win. But the Notre Dame game was the first time they believed they could win games against the top programs in college football again.

"We obviously weren't happy we didn't win, but the fact is our guys started to believe in the program, us as coaches, the system -- you could tell they began to really buy in," said Bobby Jack Wright, an Oklahoma assistant since '99. "The confidence they gained from that carried over into next season, and from all of that experience, our guys said, 'You know what, we're capable of winning every one of these games.'

"That's the mindset the players took into the next season."

Out of the heartbreaking losses, like the one to Notre Dame, arose a battle-tested, mentally tough team in 2000. Oklahoma outlasted second-ranked Kansas State on the road, rallied from two touchdowns down to defeat top-ranked Nebraska and squeaked out fourth-quarter victories at Texas A&M and Oklahoma State with heroic defensive plays.

Then the Sooners bested heavily-favored Florida State in the Orange Bowl to capture the school's seventh national championship.

Ever since, Oklahoma has remained one of the best programs in the country.

"I don't know if that Notre Dame game was a turning point," Williams said. "But it was the first spark that showed what we could be.

"And even though we lost, we realized that if we pushed a little harder, worked a little harder. … We would find ways to win."