OKLAHOMA, NOT O.K.
There stood Billy Sims last Saturday afternoon, the autumn
sunlight glinting brilliantly off his 1978 Heisman ring as he
displayed it for fans behind the Sooners bench in Norman. Not
more than 50 yards away was Brian Bosworth. The Boz, an
intimidator only on B movie sets these days, hoisted children on
his shoulders and gave them pregame walking tours of the
sidelines. Tony Casillas was there, too, and Joe Washington and
Cedric Jones. And for the first time in many years, Oklahoma's
Memorial Stadium seemed a warm, reassuring place, a stadium
built for something more promising than a winless start.
At the very least this gathering of past Oklahoma greats offered
a diversion from the game that soon unfolded. By afternoon's end
the scoreboard read Kansas 52, Oklahoma 24, marking the Sooners'
fourth consecutive loss this season and seventh straight dating
back to last fall. Most disturbing is that this year, besides
losing to Texas Christian and San Diego State, Oklahoma was
beaten by Tulsa, meaning that with Oklahoma State currently a
respectable 3-2, the Sooners have sunk to being the third-best
team in Oklahoma. "It can't get any worse," said first-year
Sooners coach John Blake after the Kansas game. "Or maybe it can."
It can. Fears of Oklahoma's first losing season in 31 years have
yielded to a darker dread that the Sooners could go winless for
the first time since they went 0-1 in 1895. This at a school
that won a national title as recently as 1985, that lost fewer
games in the '80s than any school but Nebraska and Miami.
Oklahoma's six national championships since 1950 surpass the
total of any other team during that period.
Much of the blame for the Sooners' demise is directed at Howard
Schnellenberger, who was hired as the Sooners' coach in December
1994 and lasted just one season. Promising to restore the
on-field glory that had dissipated under his predecessor, Gary
Gibbs, Schnellenberger made several ill-advised boasts, most
notably that "books and movies would be written about the Sooner
Nation." Last December, Schnellenberger was forced out after a
5-5-1 season in which Oklahoma did not score a point in its last
10 quarters or hold a lead in its last three games. Senior
middle linebacker Tyrell Peters, who grew up in Norman and has
two uncles who played for the Sooners, says of last season's
performance, "It hurt. Even when I got here [in 1993], 8-3 was
considered a bad year. Then we go what last year? I don't even
It is unfair, though, to saddle Schnellenberger with all the
blame. The Sooners' talent pool has long been in decline,
largely because of the three-year probation the NCAA handed down
in December 1988 for numerous rules violations under then coach
Barry Switzer, who ultimately resigned after 16 years on the
job. The school has since raised its academic standards and
abandoned Switzer's practice of recruiting "athletes who were
too good not to recruit"--i.e., blue-chip athletes of dubious
character or academic background. In the 1994-95 academic year
the program's graduation rate was 57%, best in the Big Eight.
"Probation did what it was supposed to do," says Steve Owens,
the Sooners' 1969 Heisman winner who took over as Oklahoma's
athletic director in September. "The program suffered. What you
see today did not happen overnight."
Left to pick up the pieces is the 34-year-old Blake, who spent
the last three years as a Dallas Cowboys assistant, one under
Jimmy Johnson and two under Switzer. Blake played for Switzer at
Oklahoma from 1979 to '82 and later did a three-year turn as a
Sooners assistant before leaving Norman in 1988 to become the
wide receivers and tight ends coach at Tulsa. That school year
off-the-field chaos consumed the Oklahoma program, culminating
in a gang rape and the shooting of a player in January 1989 and
the drug bust of quarterback Charles Thompson in February. In
June, with his program collapsing around him, Switzer asked
Blake to return as an assistant and help him clean up the mess.
But the day after Blake returned to Norman, Switzer quit.
During Blake's first few months as the Sooners' head coach, his
most visible contribution has been his compassionate yet firm
handling of players. "He cares deeply about his players," says
standout junior tight end Stephen Alexander. "But he'll also lay
down the law." Indeed, the new coach has moved quickly to
eliminate potential sources of embarrassment. In February he
heard that Derek Wallace, a junior college transfer who was
projected as a starter in the Sooners secondary, had slapped a
female Oklahoma student. After hearing the accounts of several
eyewitnesses to the incident, Blake kicked Wallace off the team.
There are questions about Blake's acumen on the sidelines.
Before taking the Sooners job, he had never been a coordinator
at any level of the game. Before Johnson resigned from the
Cowboys in March 1994, he reportedly was on the verge of firing
Blake. Regardless, the school probably has no choice but to give
Blake time to rebuild. Three coaches in three years created a
climate of instability that shooed away top recruits in alarming
numbers. "I just read that 17 players from Oklahoma are playing
in Top 25 programs," Switzer said last week. "Those are the
players we always got."
Rather than train their eyes on national titles, Oklahoma fans
appear content to see their team become a Big 12 contender by
the millennium. On Saturday these fans needed only to
contemplate the recent success of Kansas to conclude that that
goal is realistic. "You look at Oklahoma's roster and see
three-deep," says Jayhawks coach Glen Mason, whose program
didn't have a winning season from 1988 to '90 but has had four
since and is 3-1 in '96. "That's a lot deeper than Kansas and
Kansas State when we were in the dumps."
Blake has gone out of his way to make former players feel at
home at Memorial Stadium. Sims, who stayed away "because a lot
of former Sooners weren't welcome after the probation,"
regularly worked out with current players last summer. Bosworth,
who had attended only a handful of home games in the decade
since he left the school, has been to all four Oklahoma games
Nearly an hour after Saturday's game, Bosworth stood in a
corridor inside the cramped brick compound that houses the
Sooners' football offices. "Maybe the only people who believe in
this program are those of us standing under this roof right
now," he said. "But that's enough to build this thing back up
CINDERELLA IS BACK
After playing Cinderella last season, Northwestern was
determined to prove that its gridiron resurgence is genuine, not
the stuff of fairy tales. Still, there was something charmed
about their latest comeback, which resulted in a 17-16 win over
Michigan in Evanston, Ill., last Saturday. Trailing 16-0
entering the fourth quarter, the Wildcats scored on their last
four drives, winning with 13 seconds remaining when junior
placekicker Brian Gowins booted a 39-yard field goal--not once
but twice. (The referee ruled that he made the first attempt
while time was out.) "I've coached a lot of big games,"
Northwestern coach Gary Barnett said after the game. "But right
now there doesn't seem like there's one that's bigger or better
or sweeter than this one."
Although Wildcats players and coaches are loath to admit it,
beating Michigan has become their obsession. It was last
season's 19-13 win over the Wolverines in Ann Arbor--not the
season-opening 17-15 upset of Notre Dame--that they feel
established them as a major power. Barnett, not given to
inordinate displays of emotion after a victory, confessed in his
book, High Hopes, to "briefly dancing with [former center] Rob
Johnson" after last year's win in Ann Arbor.
Northwestern (4-1) pulled off this latest stunner using
basically the same formula it did last season, when it emerged
from the depths to win the Big Ten title and finish 10-2: the
gritty running of Darnell Autry, who rushed for 107 yards, his
18th straight 100-plus-yards game; the concise,
interception-free passing of Steve Schnur; and an opportunistic
defense that caused a crucial fumble and held Michigan to 28
yards in the fourth quarter. "If [the Wolverines don't] respect
us now," said senior linebacker Pat Fitzgerald, "I don't know
what else they need us to do to them."