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Bust to Boom
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Two thick coats of snow cover Memorial Stadium like a pie crust, and yet Oklahoma center Bubba Burcham can show you exactly where he sat at Sooner games 15 years ago. That was back when the bootlegger's boy, Barry Switzer, was winning another national championship, and, as corny as it sounds, little boys such as Burcham dreamed of playing at the Sparta of college football. "Some people are raised to go to a certain church, some people are raised to go to a certain school," says Burcham. "I grew up on OU."

So the pride and joy of Mustang, Okla., walked on in 1996 and was so lightly regarded the equipment manager assigned him the same jersey number as another Sooner player. Didn't matter. By 1997 the redshirt freshman had earned a handful of snaps. In 1998 Burcham earned honorable mention All-Big 12 honors. He had his dream and his letter jacket, but after three wins in 1996, four the next year and five the year after that, Burcham hardly recognized the OU program.

"I wore the uniform, played on that field," says Burcham. "But I didn't feel like I was playing for OU." Nobody did. Laughter filled the team bus after road losses. In the cafeteria, 10 players sat at eight tables. Screaming sessions disrupted huddles. It was a fully dysfunctional nightmare.

No one was more surprised at the dynasty's collapse than fullback Seth Littrell, whose father, Jim, played on the '74 and '75 OU national championship teams. As a kid, Littrell watched old Sooners game film in a family den that displayed game balls won by his dad. On occasion his old man would take him into the OU locker room after a game, and an awestruck Littrell would say to himself, "One of these days."

Be careful what you wish for. During Seth's first season (1997), OU lost to archrival Oklahoma State, and it did so again the following year. Against Texas A&M in 1998, the Sooners didn't gain a first down until the third quarter. "We were setting records, bad records," says Littrell. "I'm thinking, 'I'm on one of the worst teams in OU history.'"

Of course, all of this was BB -- Before Bob. Before Oklahoma athletic director Joe Castiglione ended the three-year John Blake Error after the 1998 season, and flew then-Florida defensive coordinator Bob Stoops to the Dallas-Fort Worth Airport for a face-to-face with OU president David Boren and several university trustees. Ten minutes into the interview Boren knew there was no need to speak to other candidates. Once Stoops was escorted to another room, one of the giddy OU officials asked, "Who's going to give up their seat on the plane so we can take him back to Norman?"

Oklahoma didn't have a moment to lose. Blake was a fine person, big into weekly Bible study and well-liked by his players, but the former Sooner noseguard and assistant was in so far over his head he needed a periscope to catch a glimpse of mediocrity. His 12-22 record came on the heels of Howard Schnellenberger's bizarre 5-5-1 reign in 1995, which followed Gary Gibbs' 6-6 record his final season in Norman. "We needed an attitude adjustment," says Burcham, "and that's what we got."

What they got was Stoops, who had been a knock-your-jock-into-Row Z safety at Iowa, a worker-bee assistant for Bill Snyder at Kansas State and a head coach-in-waiting on Steve Spurrier's staff at Florida. He was introduced on the steps of OU's Evans Hall, but didn't say a peep about a five-year plan or ask for patience and prayers. Instead, Stoops said the Sooners needed only to regroup, not to rebuild. "They thought he was a little crazy at first," says Spurrier, who knows the feeling. "He said he had the players to win, and he's done it."

In just two seasons, Oklahoma has gone from the John Blake Country Club to 12-0, a No.1 ranking and a national championship appointment with Florida State in the Orange Bowl. Boren counted on a turnaround, but he figured it would take at least three, probably four years. Even Stoops' wife, Carol, who makes Tony Robbins look like a doomsayer, is amazed at the before-and-after-Bob effect. "I'd love to say I expected this," she says. "But who expected this?"

Bob did. Maybe not 12-0, but close -- and fast, too. Blake may not have been much of a head coach, but he did a commendable recruiting job. Problem was, he kept changing coordinators and playbooks and couldn't recite the names of opposing stars if you paid him, which OU did. "When I first got here I'd run through a brick wall for Coach Blake," says free safety J.T. Thatcher, born in Oklahoma City and raised in Norman. "But then..."

But then Blake slowly lost his team and quickly lost games. When Stoops arrived, morale was lower than John Blutarsky's GPA. So he met with the team on Dec. 1 and let his players in on his plan. "I'm not coming down here to get my own players and then win," Stoops told the Sooners that day. "I'm not waiting. We can win now. There will be no excuses."

This was a symphony to Scott Kempenich's ears. The offensive tackle has played at OU since 1996, when he was a redshirt freshman and the Sooners finished 3-8, losing by obscene scores like 51-31 to San Diego State, 52-24 to Kansas and 73-21 to Nebraska. He played parts of two seasons with a stress fracture in his right foot, an injury that would require two surgeries. He blew out his left knee in a 1998 loss to Colorado, returned the following summer, but then had to deal with the stress fracture again. Kempenich had listened to the laughter on the team bus during the 4-8 1997 season and fumed. He knew the Sooners had talent but no soul. Quitting or transferring was never an option for him ("My mama raised me not to quit"), but there were times when Kempenich wondered if he'd ever see the good side of .500.

At that first team meeting, Stoops took one look at his players and cringed. "I could not believe the condition of our athletes," he says. "I could not believe the lack of positive attitude and expectations." So the next day, he sicced a little ball of muscle named Jerry Schmidt on the unsuspecting Sooners. Schmidt started his career across OU's battle lines at Nebraska, his alma mater. Most recently he'd been the strength and conditioning director at Florida, and he now has the New Age title of OU's director of sports enhancement. "In the past we had workouts and it was hard," says Kempenich, "but it wasn't anything like this."

The first conditioning session began at 6 a.m. By 5:40 there were already more than a dozen players lined up at the indoor practice facility. They were eager, but they were mulch for Schmidt. Halfway through the warmup -- the warmup -- players staggered toward the nearest wall to throw up. Schmidt and his assistants couldn't believe it, nor could OU's maintenance staff. "The janitors weren't that happy with us those first few days," says assistant strength coach Scott Bird. When the players reported for the next day's session, dozens of garbage cans lined the vomit wall, courtesy of those janitors. Players threw up after lifting weights. They threw up after agility drills. They threw up after sessions in the nearby sand pit. They threw up after sprinting down the field harnessed to weighted sleds. They threw up after running the 73 steps at Memorial Stadium.

When the team reported in the late summer of 1999, it was more of the same. "He broke us down," says Kempenich admiringly. "There was not a point in the summer when you didn't want to quit. But he was teaching us we had to count on one another." As the sessions became more demanding, Burcham noticed that the selfish malcontents of previous seasons took a pass. "Eventually you didn't see them around," he says. "They just disappeared."

Stoops and his staff had started to tinker with the 1999 OU roster. Celebrated Texas running back Josh Norman, who was signed by Blake and still can't explain why he came to Oklahoma (he decided while taking a shower on signing day), was switched from I-back to slot receiver. Norman, angry over Blake's dismissal and the surprise position change, called home. "Daddy, I don't want to be here," he said. "Son," said his old man, "there's a reason that you're there." Norman stayed to find out, but he had his doubts. He was the first to admit that OU's offense needed a new system -- but why a new running back? "You had to be skeptical," he says. "I was real critical of everything Coach Stoops was saying. I think I was a little bit rebellious at first, just like a lot of guys."

The new system was the spread-thread-and-shred passing offense used at Kentucky. "It's pretty simple," Stoops says. "We were dead last in scoring offense. You throw on some Kentucky tape, show it to the players, and they see everybody gets the ball, that you're going up and down the field. They realize it's going to be a lot of fun." Former UK assistant Mike Leach installed the attack, and it worked so well that OU finished 7-5 and Leach was hired as Texas Tech's new head coach. It was the one offense that had befuddled Stoops at Florida. Now Big 12 defensive coordinators would have to deal with it.

Stoops decided to shake up his defense, too. LB Rocky Calmus, an Oklahoma high school legend at famed Jenks, had lost only five games since fifth grade but lost six in his freshman year under Blake. Still, Calmus was tabbed an honorable mention All-Big 12 and was the Sooners' most dependable defender. So, naturally, Stoops decided to drop a small nuclear device by the name of Torrance Marshall on Calmus. Marshall, a junior college star who, like Calmus, happened to play in the middle, arrived just in time for a July 1999 seven-on-seven game at Memorial Stadium.

"Move on over," Marshall told Calmus.

"No, I don't think so," said Calmus.

Marshall persisted, Calmus resisted, and the two had to be separated. "He wasn't going to back down, and neither was I," says Calmus. Stoops and his staff put Marshall in the middle, which freed up Calmus at weakside linebacker. Last year, Marshall and Calmus emerged as potential stars, and this year Calmus was named a first-team All-America and Marshall a third-teamer. "That's Coach Stoops," Calmus says. "The athletes were here. He just exploited their skills."

Same thing happened with Thatcher, who had shared the OU backfield with fellow true freshman Littrell during the 69-7 loss to Nebraska in 1997. Thatcher was later moved to quarterback, then returned to running back before Stoops arrived and switched him to wide receiver and finally to free safety this spring. Guess what? After three years of special teams anonymity, Thatcher emerged with eight interceptions, 16 pass deflections, three touchdowns, a 15.8-yard punt return average and second-team All-America status.

Unlikely stories fill OU's locker room. Consider the offense. The line includes a former career convalescent (Kempenich), a onetime walk-on (Burcham) and an ex-defensive lineman (LT Frank Romero). Tailback Quentin Griffin (5'6", 190) is barely tall enough to ride Space Mountain. The slot receiver, Norman, was "two minutes away" from quitting last season. The fullback, Littrell, could have used depression therapy as a freshman and sophomore. And we haven't yet mentioned a last-resort juco QB named Josh Heupel. The defense has state landmark Calmus, who moved from inside to outside -- and loved it -- and Marshall literally getting off the bus and making an impact. Thatcher played roster pinball and ended up a star safety. Former walk-on Roger Steffen starts at strongside linebacker and former juco walk-on Corey Heinecke earned a starting job at left end. Somebody had to push the right buttons, and that somebody was Stoops.

Mention any of this to him and Stoops will do his best Spurrier aw-shucks while praising his assistants and crediting his players. He has already said he'll stick his AP Coach of the Year trophy in the football office hallway because, after all, it belongs to his entire staff. And Stoops gets positively mushy when he talks about his seniors and the program's turnaround. "Two years ago they had been battered in the media, around the state, around the country," he says. "To see those guys in this position, I feel more positive for them than anything about me."

This is how Oklahoma football is supposed to be -- no more home for the holidays or Shreveport in December. These days, if a player dared laugh after a loss, "they would probably get the crap kicked out of them," says Kempenich. Two years ago the Sooners couldn't stand themselves. Now they crowd the weight room, where a regulation Florida State helmet sits atop a boom box that blares hour after hour of Florida State's mind-numbing war chant. It's the sound of Bob Stoops' success -- a reminder that nowadays the Sooners' only enemy is the other team.

This article appears in the January 8 issue of ESPN The Magazine.

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