What could have been: OU site scout sheds light on what Sooners, fans miss with Army game canceled

John. E. Hoover

This was the week.

This was the week Oklahoma was supposed to travel to Army West Point. It was going to be a memorable game and an unforgettable trip, one of the rare Sooner ventures outside the traditional Power 5 home-and-home structure, and one of the rarer-still visits to a U.S. Military Academy.

Instead, the Coronavirus hit, and Sooner Nation gets a home game this week with Big 12 foe Kansas State on Saturday morning.

“Gosh,” said senior associate athletic director for internal operations Greg Tipton,
“we were really looking forward to it.”

Tipton speaks for OU, but his sentiments are shared by everyone — OU fans, coaches, players, even media. A late-September trip to New York City to take in an historic football game appeals to the masses.

Especially one that’s been on the schedule since 2009.

“Our Sooner Club, our fans, our student-athletes, we had a great experience planned for everyone,” Tipton told SI Sooners last month. “This just set us in a different direction.”

Tipton is OU football’s advance trip planner. As the long-contracted games draw near (usually the summer before), he flies out to that school, checks out the facilities, tours the campus and scouts the hotels. He plans the bus routes, arranges the meals and ensures the team and the entire OU travel party has a smooth trip. It’s a big task, made bigger this time by the logistics of chartering flights for everyone to New York and visiting a military academy.

On his visit to West Point, NY, in August 2019, Tipton even brought assistant AD for equipment operations Brad Camp because “there are just too many moving parts to this trip,” Tipton said.

This year’s game — part of a two-game contract that was announced on Aug. 4, 2009 — was officially canceled on Aug. 4, 2020, exactly 11 years to the day, after the Big 12 Conference announce that teams this year would play just one non-conference game due to the Coronavirus pandemic.

Tipton is disappointed for everyone who has had this date circled on their planners for the last 11 years. After all, back in 2019, he saw first-hand what those who made the trip would have experienced. He and Camp got a personal tour from Tipton’s Army counterpart, Shane Bell.

“We ended up spending like three hours there,” Tipton said. “He took us everywhere you could go, and it was just on the banks of the Hudson River — I’m just sitting here thinking of how our fans would have loved this.”

Not everyone was going to go. Michie Stadium (pronounced "Mikey) only has a capacity of 38,000. Athletic director Joe Castiglione said the demand from OU fans was unprecedented, but a lot of locals would surely have kept their tickets for an opponent like OU coming to town.  

Castiglione has said the game will be made up. There’s no indication yet when that will happen, as OU’s non-conference schedules are already largely filled: three games are set for 2021, 2022 already includes a road trip to Nebraska, 2023 and 2024 are filled and include road trips to Tulsa and Tennessee, and 2025 and 2026 have openings but already include road games to Temple and Michigan.

The earliest OU has a non-conference opening for a road game is 2027, when the Sooners are scheduled to play LSU.

“You may only get one chance in your life to be at any of those academies,” Tipton said.

Tipton was the team’s equipment manager when the Sooners played at Air Force in 2001. OU beat the Falcons 44-3 in Colorado Springs, but 10 days later, the country was shut down by the 9/11 terrorist attacks. He remembers the entire equipment staff waking up early, getting breakfast and then heading to the campus, wowed.

“You just kind of walk around and look at all of it,” he said. “It’s just amazing to see these academies.”

Tipton said the Sooners were going to fly into Stewart International Airport — it’s 15 minutes north of West Point and features the second-longest runway in the world as a backup landing spot for the Space Shuttle — and then probably do a walk-through at Michie Stadium. After that, the players and coaches likely would have gotten a tour of the historic campus.

Some of the architecture around campus, Tipton said, reminded him of the castle in the Harry Potter movies.

“I was just in awe,” he said. “It was just amazing.”

From there, the travel party would have departed for the team hotel in Mahwah Township, N.J., about 40 minutes south, spent the night, then arrived back at the stadium that Saturday for what probably would have been a day game. Tipton said he was just about to call the New Jersey State Police to arrange the standard police escort to the stadium when word came down that this year’s game had been canceled.

West Point Academy itself is located 45 minutes north of Manhattan, deep in the foliage on the banks of the Hudson River. Across the river is Constitution Island, which was the earliest Revolutionary War fortification on the Hudson and includes a newly restored museum and education center.

To the west of campus is a U.S. Mint. On the north side is West Point Cemetery, where historical U.S. Army figures like William Westmoreland, Norman Schwarzkopf, George Armstrong Custer, “Taps” composer Daniel Butterfield, submachine gun inventor John Thompson, astronaut Ed White, American Revolution heroine Margaret Corbin, Heisman winner Glenn Davis and football coach Earl “Red” Blaik are buried.

To the east, on the banks of the river, are the Great Chain and Chain Battery, historical monuments that feature period cannons and other armaments.

For food, many visitors are smitten by Grant Hall, where cadets hang out and grab a bite, while others prefer the more traditional deli feel of Thayer Gate Deli and Cafe.

Tipton had a couple of personal highlights from his visit. One was an invitation from former Sooner Reggie Willits to attend batting practice and that night’s home game between the Yankees and the Red Sox (“a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” Tipton said). The other was meeting a cab driver who was a retired diamond merchant, had clients from Oklahoma and knew the B.C. Clark Christmas jingle word for word (“we were dying, laughing,” Tipton said).

Another highlight was picturing the scene from the formal review stand where Castiglione and OU president Joe Harroz, as official visiting dignitaries, would have watched the Army Corps of Cadets enter Michie Stadium.

“We took it all in,” Tipton said.

Tipton acknowledges how great his job is. All the amazing stadiums and campuses OU plays at roughly every other year, he gets to go a year ahead of time. Places Ohio Stadium in Columbus, Neyland Stadium in Knoxville, TN, Bryant-Denny Stadium in Tuscaloosa, AL, Doak Campbell Stadium in Tallahassee, FL, Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend, IN, and others “have a special place in my heart.”

But he also realizes that the Air Force Academy and West Point are even more special because of what they stand for.

“What brought me back was the history and knowing what those student-athletes do upon their graduation to go serve our country,” he said. “You know, it’s just, you have so much respect for that and what they do.

“The whole thing is just disappointing. But we get it. One day soon we can reschedule that, but it would have been great for our fans and our staff and most importantly our players to be able to play in that atmosphere. It’s just so beautiful there.”

Many visitors say the same thing about the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, MD. OU has played Army four times in the past, including a thrilling contest OU won in Norman in 2017. Oklahoma and Army also met in 1946 (Army went undefeated and shared the national championship with Notre Dame that year), 1959 and 1961. OU has won the last three meetings.

The Sooners are 0-1 against the Navy Midshipmen, losing 10-0 in Norman in 1965. But OU has never played a game at Navy.

“Hopefully one day we’ll get to play at Navy,” Tipton said. “That would be kind of cool, too.”

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