2020 Vision: OU is on an Unprecedented Run, but a Legend Asks: is a National Championship out of Reach?
John. E. Hoover
This is the first in a series in 2020 exploring the origins of Oklahoma’s 2000 national championship and its significance two decades later.
Although Sooner Nation has been stung over and over by losses in both national championship games and playoff games, it’s also become easy for the fan base to take for granted all of Oklahoma’s success during the last two decades.
When the 2020 college football season does finally get underway, it will mark 20 years since OU’s last national championship.
That is infamously the longest drought in school history since Bud Wilkinson won the first one in 1950.
But there’s another side of that coin: it’s also the longest stretch of sustained success the program has had.
Twenty consecutive seasons with at least eight wins has never been done before at OU. In fact, the previous mark for most years in a row with eight wins or more: 11, set from 1948-58. Barry Switzer’s wishbone squads in the 1970s did it nine times from 1971-80.
Of course, at a place like Oklahoma, eight wins is no measuring stick.
But in the current two-decade run of excellence, the Sooners have won 10 games or more 17 times. That’s never happened before, either.
Even Wilkinson and Switzer didn’t maintain the pace this long — and it all started 20 years ago when Bob Stoops and the 2000 Sooners refused to lose.
“When coach Stoops got hired, and his crew, it was kind of a feeling out process,” All-American Roy Williams told SI Sooners. “We didn’t know what to expect.”
Williams played for John Blake as a true freshman in 1998 before getting hurt, then took a medical redshirt. The coaching change cast a pall on the program, and in Williams’ offseason — his aunt used to work in the cafeteria — “we ate good,” he said, “and I ballooned up.”
That led to his first confrontation with new defensive coordinator Mike Stoops.
“He used to tell me, when he first got there in ’99, that I was out of shape. He called me a pear-shaped,” Williams said. “Like a fruit. A pear. And he said, ‘You will never be a great safety.’ ”
Williams said he started out the 1999 season as the Sooners’ third-string safety before others ahead of him got hurt.
Williams eventually found his way because — after their freshman season, after the coaching change, after Bob Stoops’ big to-do press conference on the steps of Evans Hall — the freshman class of 1998 vowed to turn things around.
“I remember being at that conference, and I remember there was a big group of the freshmen there,” Williams said. “We were living in the Bud, and we had a conversation.”
After Stoops’ introduction, guys like Rocky Calmus, Curtis Fagan, Damian Mackey, Josh Norman, Frank Romero, Trent Smith and Andre Woolfolk got together and decided the immediate fate of the program.
“I got contacted, right when the news got brought up when the coaches were being let go,” Williams said. “I did get contacted by some universities and some guys that played at some universities that I visited with, and they let me know, ‘Hey, they got an open spot for you.’
“So a lot of the guys met and said, ‘Hey, who’s gonna stay and who’s gonna leave?’ So the whole purpose of that meeting was just to find out where they were at and who was really committed and who wasn’t. I said, ‘I don’t know. I’m gonna see what everybody else decides.’ And one by one, everybody said, ‘I’m staying. I’m staying.’
“So everybody stayed, and we were like, ‘You know what? We don’t know what’s gonna happen, but it’s on us to get this ship steered in the right direction.’ Honestly, that ’98 class played a big part in turning the program around and what the program is today, just with the decision that we made when we decided to stay.”
Stoops talked that day at length about a place like Oklahoma having “no excuses” for losing, “no excuses” for where the program had slid during the previous five seasons (10 games under .500).
Players bought in, Williams said, but it was anything but easy.
“When Stoops got there, it was a little love-hate, for sure,” Williams said. “They were young, energetic coaches that wanted to win. Then they wanted to prove their worth and their coaching abilities. So they had almost a lot of fights between coaches and players. I won’t say a lot. But they sometimes overstepped on their method in trying to get people to play better.
“I know Jackie Shipp got in a couple guys’ faces and a couple guys did not back down. They were ready to fight coach Shipp. Mike Stoops got in my face a couple of times."
After going 7-5 in 1999, the Sooners started their current run of excellence in 2000 by going 13-0 and winning the program’s seventh national championship. OU went 24-2 in Williams’ final two seasons, and during the five-year stretch from 2000-04, Stoops’ teams were 60-7 with three Big 12 titles, two BCS title game losses and one national championship.
“So, it was awesome, man,” Williams said. “I’d do it all over again.”
Williams turns 40 in August, so forgive him if he sounds like the proverbial “back in my day” guy.
But “his day” was pretty spectacular (he won the Thorpe Award as college football's best defensive back and the Nagurski Award as the game's best overall defender) and you’d better believe he has some thoughts about the program he loves so dearly and where it has gone since he played.
The stretch from 2011 to 2014, he said, was especially painful to watch. OU was the consensus No. 1 team in the nation in 2011 but lost three games, including one at home as a 31-point favorite. The 2014 Sooners lost five games, including a 34-point home loss to Baylor, an overtime home loss to 5-6 Oklahoma State and a 34-point bowl loss, after which Bob Stoops contemplated stepping down.
“The sad thing about it is, and no disrespect to anybody, but they lost their way,” Williams said. “ … They lost the work ethic and what it really means to be at that level and win.”
Stoops got serious again and made wholesale changes to his staff after 2015. Stoops’ hire of Lincoln Riley in 2015 and Riley’s promotion to head coach in 2017 were huge steps in the right direction. But Williams fears the national championship-or-bust attitude that drove his coaches and teammates may have plateaued years ago.
Winning at least eight games 20 years in a row is amazing. Winning 13 Big 12 Conference trophies in 20 years is incredible. But going 20 years without a national championship at Oklahoma is getting harder and harder to accept, Williams said.
“This is gonna sound so wrong. I get it,” Williams said. “I mean, Big 12 championships are great, and that’s a great feat.
“But at what point are you gonna get tired of winning Big 12 championships and going to the College Football Playoff and laying an egg and getting embarrassed on national TV? You know? At what point is enough going to be enough?”
Lincoln Riley and his staff, Williams said, can only do so much. Like Stoops and his crew in 2000, they can only put players in position to win.
Actual winning has to happen on the field.
“At what point,” Williams asks, “is somebody gonna step up and say, ‘You know what? Let’s be the change. Let’s be the difference,’ like in 2000?”
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