TULSA, Okla. -- The chance to play in the AutoZone Liberty Bowl on
national television already is paying big dividends in recruiting --
particularly when it comes to recruiting fans, Tulsa coach Steve
Kragthorpe said Monday.
The team's success has the city buzzing. Tulsa had sold more
than 10,000 tickets by Monday to the New Year's Eve game more than
400 miles away in Memphis, Tenn.
But even Kragthorpe was taken aback when George Steinbrenner
expressed admiration for the Golden Hurricane.
Three days after Tulsa won the Conference USA title on Dec. 3,
Kragthorpe was in New York to see tight end Garrett Mills honored
as a Draddy Trophy finalist. When the he found himself in an
elevator with the New York Yankees owner, Kragthorpe introduced
himself as a big fan who also is head coach at Tulsa.
"He slaps me on the back and says, 'Tulsa! Hell of a year. I
saw your game,'" Kragthorpe recalled.
The kind of exposure that gets that kind of attention only
bolsters recruiting when it comes to players, too, he said.
The game against Fresno State is Tulsa's second bowl appearance
in three seasons. When Tulsa appeared in the 2004 Humanitarian
Bowl, then first-year coach Kragthorpe had pulled off the nation's
biggest turnaround with a team coming off of back-to-back one-win
But the euphoria may be greater this time, he said, because far
more fans are expected to make the trip.
"Obviously we're excited," he said, before the team's final
practice in Tulsa. "At the same time we're very cautious in making
sure the euphoria doesn't take over the preparation we need from
today through Saturday to get ready to play."
Tulsa and Fresno State are old Western Athletic Conference foes.
But because of scheduling changes, the teams didn't play each other
in 2003 or 2004. Tulsa joined Conference USA this season.
Both teams are 8-4 for the season and 6-2 in conference play.
Despite the fact the Bulldogs lost their last three regular season
games, Kragthorpe expects a formidable challenge from coach Pat
"From a fundamental and technical standpoint, Pat and his staff
are always going to do a great job of making sure those guys are
where they're supposed to be," he said. "And from a game-breaking
explosiveness standpoint, they've got it all."
Much of Tulsa's success on offense has come on Mills'
receptions. The versatile tight end has caught 83 passes for 1,183
yards this season, the most by a tight end in a single season. His
3.91 grade-point average earned him the Draddy honor.
Sophomore quarterback Paul Smith has passed the 200-yard mark
eight times this season, completing 62 percent of his pass
But on Saturday, Smith faces a Fresno State defense that ranks
19th in the nation in quarterback sacks with 2.92 per game. Fifteen
different Bulldogs contributed to that number.
Kragthorpe expressed confidence in Smith's resolve and
resiliency under pressure.
"Paul has been a guy that, as the old Timex commercial would
say, has taken a licking and kept on ticking throughout the course
of the season," Kragthorpe said.
Tulsa hasn't won a bowl game since its 1991 Freedom Bowl
victory. Getting another chance to play in the spotlight isn't
enough, Kragthorpe said.
"As coaches, players, competitors, I don't think we're ever
satisfied," he said. "You're putting one high to bed and looking
for the next one."