By George Schroeder
October 02, 2009

Turns out, this whole thing -- the snickers, the heckling, the growing cult phenomenon -- resulted from a character flaw. Landry Jones' mustache?

"The only reason he had it," said Jones' girlfriend, Whitney Hand, "is he was too lazy to shave it. He didn't think he was going to get all that TV time."

Really, who did? We thought Oklahoma would play BYU, and Sam Bradford would show everyone why he won the Heisman Trophy. Except the Cougars kept blitzing, and Bradford went down, and here came ... check your programs ... Landry Jones.

And hey, check out that 'stache!

You're wondering, of course, why the scraggly growth on a backup quarterback's upper lip matters. Because Jones matters, at least for now. On Saturday night against Miami, he'll start in place of Bradford for the third straight game.

Bradford is practicing again, not quite four weeks after suffering a separated right shoulder. Last weekend, when the Sooners were idle, he visited Dr.James Andrews, the renowned orthopedic surgeon. He threw well this week, and took snaps with the first team. At least, that's what we're led to believe.

Sooners coach Bob Stoops doesn't allow his quarterbacks to be interviewed, and his players not to say much (which, let's be honest, is apparently a standing order), but a few snippets of information leaked out.

"Landry said Sam looked good in practice, looked sharp, was doing things well," said Kevin Jones, Landry's father. "I guess Sam's shoulder didn't respond the way they wanted."

Bradford won't start, and he probably won't be in uniform against the 'Canes. Which means Oklahoma's national title hopes -- despite the BYU loss, the Sooners remain in serious contention -- ride on Jones for at least one more game.

Yeah, Fear the 'Stache.

That's the message printed on the T-shirts they're wearing these days in Norman, Okla., where part of the student section has transformed into the "Mustache Mafia." A local TV station polled viewers -- Keep it? Shave it? The margin was, well, razor-thin, but "Keep It" won, 52 to 48 percent. In an online video roundtable, sportswriters from The Oklahoman of Oklahoma City wore fake mustaches (think Groucho Marx) as they weighed in on the merits (and demerits) of the quarterback's growth.

The American Mustache Institute has been consulted, which is only proper: "We are inspired by Landry and appreciate everything he's doing," Aaron Perlut, the AMI's chairman, told The Oklahoman. "He is a shining beacon of freedom for all the young people out there who wear mustaches."

All this for a guy who'll gladly head back to the bench when Oklahoma deems Bradford healthy enough to play. That could happen next week. Baylor would make a nice tune-up for Bradford before facing Texas on Oct. 17 in Dallas. Or perhaps Bradford will rest the arm until that date with the Longhorns, which figures to be fairly important.

As does Saturday's game against the No. 17 Hurricanes.

"We love what Landry's been able to do," Stoops told ESPN on Thursday. "We have a lot of confidence in him. We feel this is the way to go for this game."

Sometime soon, Jones will be the backup again, and the mustache will fade into the background. He could shave it. But he probably won't.

"I had the same goofy mustache in college," Kevin Jones said -- and though he was on the other end of a cell connection, you could see his head shaking. "It was so cheesy."

It's the mustache you grew just because you could (sort of). But it's become so much more, and "taken on a life of its own," said Hand, who called all the cult followers "enablers."

"Whitney hates it," Landry Jones recently told reporters. "She thinks I look ugly with it."

But Hand, an Oklahoma basketball player who's no stranger to this media thing -- she was the Big 12's freshman of the year and helped lead the Sooners to the Women's Final Four last season -- isn't having any of it. She's been misquoted. By her boyfriend.

"I did not say he looked ugly," she said. "I obviously don't prefer it. But obviously, he has to keep it."

Yeah, Fear the 'Stache. Fun stuff. But here's the thing: There might be good reason for opponents to fear the guy with the growth, too.

In two-and-a-half games since the injury, Jones has thrown for 673 yards and nine touchdowns, completing 60.5 percent of his passes. Bradford's heir apparent has shown off a big, accurate arm and hasn't seemed fazed by the pressure of leading a team facing enormous expectations.

Jones didn't look overwhelmed against BYU. Although the Sooners sputtered, he moved the offense at least as well as Bradford had before his injury. The next week, Jones rolled against Idaho State (yeah, we know). And then he threw a school-record six touchdown passes against Tulsa (again, we know).

"I'm really not surprised," said Cooper Henderson, Jones' high school coach. "His poise and confidence are two of his strongest traits."

Even after last week's 31-7 deflating loss to Virginia Tech, Miami remains a giant step up in competition. Playing on the road, at Land Shark Stadium, will be a new experience for the redshirt freshman.

But at this point, we should probably do a little research on the kid, dig into his past, back before he needed to shave. It might well be that Jones was born for this job. He's named after former Dallas Cowboys coach Tom Landry. And long before the mustache, Jones was starring at Artesia High, a perennial power in a small, southeastern New Mexico town where football reigns supreme.

Artesia, population almost 11,000, is in real life what the fictional Dillon, Texas, of TV's Friday Night Lights is supposed to be. It's 40 miles south of Roswell, 40 miles north of Carlsbad, about as close to El Paso as Albuquerque -- and about as devoted to high school football as any town, anywhere.

Kids grow up wanting to play football for the Bulldogs, who have won 26 state championships in 52 years -- most recently, in 2006 and 2007, Jones' junior and senior seasons, when he threw for more than 7,000 yards. Oh, and he regularly took his offensive linemen to lunch. What's not to like?VAULT: Call Artesia City of Champions

Also, and we cannot emphasize this enough: Jones did not have a mustache when he was a Bulldog. Henderson's team has fairly strict rules on dress and grooming.

"If they need to shave, we'll give 'em a disposable razor before first period," Henderson said. "So I told him I wouldn't be a part of that fan club -- but if it's working, keep up the good work."

After weighing offers from everywhere, and piling up almost 70,000 air miles visiting colleges, Jones returned from a trip to Oklahoma certain he'd found the right place. He'd hit it off with Josh Heupel, the former Heisman runner-up who is now Oklahoma's quarterbacks coach, and he liked the laidback environment in Norman.

He enrolled early, went through spring practice in 2008, then redshirted last season, watching Bradford lead the Sooners to the national championship game.

"It's about the best situation he could have had," Henderson said.

And this situation? The plan was to spend another year as the understudy, then take over. Instead, Jones is headed for national TV, primetime and a starring role for the 'stache.

It's hard to know what might happen on Saturday night, but we can bank on two things. The Sooners have reason to feel good about Jones. And the mustache isn't going anywhere.

"It belongs," Jones told Hand, "to the Sooner Nation."

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