|Wednesday, October 25
Stoops turns Sooners back into title contender
By Dan O'Kane
Special to ESPN.com
Barry Switzer stood outside Oklahoma's locker room after its 41-31 victory against Kansas State reading a stat sheet and shook his head.
"How the hell do you win a game with 11 yards rushing?" Switzer said.
All it takes is a passing attack that has yet to be stopped this year and a quarterback who doesn't make a mistake.
The trigger man is completely the opposite of Switzer's quarterbacks.
Josh Heupel isn't flashy and doesn't have the athleticism of a Thomas Lott, J.C. Watts, Danny Bradley or Jamelle Holieway. What Heupel possesses is an accurate arm, an ability to read defenses and make them pay for all out blitzes.
Heupel, from Aberdeen, S.D., is the holder of 21 school and Big 12 passing records and has emerged nationally into the Heisman Trophy race. His 68.6 passing percentage is the best in the country while his yards per attempt (9.02) is second and passing efficiency (157.8) is fifth.
The one thing that is similar to Switzer's wishbone teams is that the Sooners, under the leadership of second-year head coach Bob Stoops, are contending for a conference championship again. They are also a factor in the national-championship hunt for the first time since Switzer was coaching at OU.
In Stoops' 18 games, the Sooners have gone from three consecutive losing seasons and five consecutive nonwinning seasons to a 7-5 record last year and now a 6-0 start. OU takes a No. 3 ranking in both polls and a No. 2 ranking in the Bowl Championship Series standings into Saturday's nationally televised game against top-ranked Nebraska in Norman, Okla.
It is OU's best start and highest ranking since the days of Switzer, who led the Sooners to three national titles, 12 Big Eight championships and eight bowl victories in 13 appearances.
"It starts with coaching, and look at the job these guys have done," said Switzer, who lives in Norman again after getting out of the coaching business following his departure from the Dallas Cowboys after the 1997 season.
Before Stoops, three head coaches had come and gone since Switzer was pushed out after the turbulent winter of 1989 that included probation, a shooting in the dorm, a rape and the high-profile arrest of starting quarterback Charles Thompson on drug charges.
Gary Gibbs, who replaced Switzer, had a short stick. He was handcuffed due to scholarship reductions from probation and negative publicity. Although he had a 44-23-2 overall record, his 2-15-1 mark against Texas, Colorado and Nebraska led to his forced resignation after the 1994 season.
Howard Schnellenberger stepped in, but his tenure was doomed from the start. He and OU president David Boren clashed. His relationship with the players also was troubled with several of them telling recruits not to come to OU. The combination was fatal and led to his ouster after a 5-5-1 season.
The program hit bottom during John Blake's era. The Sooners' 12-22 record stands as the worst three-year period in school history. It was noted for indecision on offense, blocked kicks, too many and not enough men on the field penalties and general mismanagement. The sitcom-like situation mercifully came to an end with his firing, including the actual board of regents vote, being shown on live television throughout the state on a Sunday night during the November ratings period.
The thing that Gibbs, Schnellenberger and Blake had in common was problems on offense.
Gibbs went through three offensive coordinators and changed offenses nearly every year in his six seasons, including breaking away from Switzer's wishbone. Schnellenberger knew what he wanted to do offensively, but a quarterback controversy created internal strife. Blake took it to another level changing offenses midseason -- including an ill-fated attempt to bring back the wishbone -- and constantly shuffling quarterbacks.
Searching for an offensive identity, Stoops went out and got OU one.
"I pretty much knew it was going to be my career one way or another," Stoops said.
Those who attended the final interview with Stoops, held on the Sunday night in Dallas before he was hired, say the former Florida defensive coordinator talked about possibly hiring as offensive coordinator Nebraska quarterbacks coach Turner Gill or Syracuse offensive coordinator Kevin Rogers, who now is at Notre Dame.
Those run-option oriented offenses more closely resemble OU's past, but fate had a way of stepping in. Rogers had an offer from Notre Dame, while Gill issued a statement saying he was not interested. Afterward, Stoops remarked, "I don't know how you can turn down a job that wasn't offered."
Stoops hired Kentucky's Mike Leach to bring the spread offense to OU. Stoops said Leach was always under consideration because of Kentucky's offensive production. Stoops also believed that the offense could attract a quarterback.
"The quarterback position here wasn't a real strong one," Stoops said. "I'm not going to take anything away from the kids who were here, but it wasn't noted as being a strong position for our team. It is now."
Leach turned up Heupel at Snow College in Utah. His recruitment focused on watching video of the offense Tim Couch ran at Kentucky and would soon be what the Sooners operated.
Although Heupel would pull for OU to beat Nebraska as a kid growing up in South Dakota, if for no other reason than everyone else seemed to pull for the Huskers, he never had a desire to play for the wishbone Sooners.
"God did not give me the skills to run that offense," Heupel said joking.
Those skills, however, fit perfectly in what the Sooners are doing now. Heupel has thrown for 300 yards or more in 12 of his 18 games at OU. During that stretch, he has thrown at least one touchdown in each game. A year ago, he threw touchdown passes to 17 different receivers.
What's scary is he seems to be improving. In three Big 12 games, he has completed .701 percent of his passes (75-of-107) for 995 yards, four touchdowns, two rushing touchdowns and no interceptions.
The offense has evolved with Leach taking the head coaching job at Texas Tech. The Sooners have scaled back some of its elaborate formations and upgraded their rushing game even though the numbers at K-State belie that. OU's eight rushing touchdowns in the past two games is an example of it.
"There is too much made of these elaborate schemes," Stoops said. "Players win and lose for you. Like I said, there are a lot of ways to play offense and defense. It still gets down to blocking, tackling, protecting and covering. It's who executes the best."
Switzer says it is the combination of the right scheme with the right player that has led to the Sooners' dramatic turnaround.
"It's this coaching staff and that quarterback," Switzer said.
And while it sure looks different than anything Switzer ran, the results are the same. OU is back in the national title picture.
Dan O'Kane covers the Sooners for the Tulsa World.