Norman Conquerer Led by well-traveled Josh Heupel, an undersized but unflappable quarterback from South Dakota, Oklahoma will play for its first national championship in 15 years

December 25, 2000

Don't expect a free pass when you stroll by the tight ends'
meeting room at Oklahoma. Not when you've pulled the kind of
stunt Josh Heupel pulled a few days before the Big 12 title game,
in which the Sooners defeated Kansas State 27-24 to earn a berth
in the Orange Bowl national championship game. Heupel, the
unquestioned leader of the Sooners, the lefty quarterback who
threw for 3,392 yards and 20 touchdowns as a senior second-team
All-America this season, lay motionless on the practice field.
His feet had become tangled while he was executing a bootleg
pass, and down he'd gone. "The first thing to make contact with
the ground was his face mask," says tight end Trent Smith. A hush
fell over the squad. From his prone position, Heupel grinned, and
a hundred Sooners exhaled.

When Heupel walked past the tight ends' meeting room the next
day, they happened to be reviewing video of his Gerald Ford
moment. "Hype, get in here!" came the cry. While good-natured
abuse rained down on him, Heupel was forced to look on as he
repeatedly sacked himself. "He laughed with us," says Smith.

No surprise there. Has any player in the country taken more
abuse--or shown more resilience--than the 6'2", 210-pound Heupel?
We're not only talking about the innumerable shots he has taken
after releasing the ball. We're talking about the detours and
disappointments he has endured in his journey to the national
title game.

Rent a car at this time of year at the Aberdeen (S.Dak.) Regional
Airport, and you're likely to be handed what looks like an
extension cord. "It's a block heater, for the battery," the Hertz
agent told a recent visitor. "If it gets colder than 15 below
tonight--and it's supposed to--plug it in."

People in this part of the country must be tougher than people
elsewhere, otherwise they'd have left by now. (Josh's father,
Ken, has always called the Dakotas home. Josh's mother, Cindy,
relocated from Oregon after marrying Ken in 1976.) "This is just
a little Alberta Clipper," said Gene Brownell of the bitter cold
blanketing the Great Plains in early December. Brownell is the
athletic director at Aberdeen Central High. His office is down
the hall from that of Cindy, who's both the school's principal
and the mother of its most famous alumnus.

Early in the morning of June 13, 1988, Cindy, then 33, woke up
with a terrible headache. Within hours she could not walk or
talk. She was hospitalized and then flown to Minneapolis. For
reasons unknown to her doctors--she neither smoked nor drank and
was in great shape--a blood clot had formed on the right side of
her brain. "I didn't have a real strong chance of surviving," she
says. After surgery at the University of Minnesota, and three
months of therapy and rehabilitation, she was back at work as an
assistant principal.

Since then Cindy hasn't had any further troubles with
clotting--but she hasn't exactly led a cosseted existence. For
each of the Sooners home games over the past two seasons, she
has driven the 1,890-mile round trip from Aberdeen to Norman,
Okla. She leaves after work on Friday and travels through the
night, arriving around 5 a.m. She hits the road again by five on
Sunday morning to be home by evening.

In his third year as head football coach at Aberdeen's Northern
State University, a Division II school with an enrollment of
3,000, Ken makes it to fewer of Josh's games. Earlier this month
he returned a phone call from the recruiting trail. He was in
Rochester, Minn. How cold was it? "Four degrees--short-sleeves
weather," he said, joking (we think). Josh says he started
sitting in on his father's meetings and film sessions "as soon as
I was old enough to shut up, and that was pretty early." Says
Ken, who at the time was an assistant coach at Aberdeen Central
(he would move to Northern State in 1987), "He was four or five.
He could've been playing with trucks, but he loved being around
the team."

Ken reminisces in this cordial vein until a reporter offers
condolences on Josh's Heisman Trophy disappointment. (In a tight
race the award went to Florida State quarterback Chris Weinke.)
Now Ken gets a little worked up. "What people who don't know him
don't understand is that, for Josh, individual goals aren't the
ultimate," says Ken. "Team goals are the ultimate."

He recalls a basketball tournament in Watertown, S.Dak., when
Josh was in fifth grade. "Josh scored three or four baskets in
the last few minutes," he says, "and his team won the
tournament." When it came time to hand out the awards, says Ken,
"they were one trophy short. Josh took his and gave it to a kid
who hardly ever played. He said, 'I'll get mine later.' For him,
it's always been about the team."

In high school Josh had the good fortune to have a football
coach, Steve Svendsen, who was uniquely qualified to harness
Josh's gifts as a passer. Svendsen had recently finished a
two-year stint as a graduate assistant at Houston, where coach
John Jenkins was minting NFL quarterback David Klingler with the
run-and-shoot offense. In the second half of the first game of
his sophomore season, Josh took over Aberdeen Central's
scaled-down run-and-shoot. "He was just a skinny little thing,"
says Svendsen, now the coach at Rapid City (S.Dak.) Central High,
"but he had a great understanding of what we were trying to do.
Even then he checked in and out of plays at the line."

Svendsen still has the "goal sheet" that Josh filled out before
his senior season. He could think of only 20 goals before
someone, perhaps his dad, said, "That's probably plenty, Josh."
Heupel's aims included: 40 at or below 4.75 (since arriving at
Oklahoma, he's dropped his 40 from 5.06 to 4.75); Improve long
ball (keep working, Josh); and Play great in big games (done
that). In an endearing flash of self-awareness he also wrote, as
his final goal, Learn to relax a bit.

As a senior he was named South Dakota's player of the year. He
got feelers from Houston, Minnesota, Wisconsin and Wyoming--"but
it seemed I was always the second or third guy on their list," he
says. That led to a three-year detour in Utah.

Approaching Ephraim, Utah, from the north, one can't help
noticing the profusion of squat structures on both sides of Route
89. They're turkey shacks. Ephraim, site of Snow College, is also
Utah's turkey capital, where the beauty of the surrounding
Wasatch Mountains is compromised, alas, by the ever-present funk
of turkey leavings. It was in this unlikely setting, sharing an
apartment with seven other guys and subsisting on dinners of rice
and gravy, that Heupel enjoyed, in his words, "one of the best
times of my life."

His Utah interlude had begun at Weber State, in Ogden, in '96.
The Wildcats' coach at the time, Dave Arslanian, had never
recruited a player out of South Dakota, but he saw one tape of
Heupel and called him. (This would become a pattern.) Heupel
redshirted his first season at Weber State and then, on the last
day of spring practice, tore an ACL. He played in four games the
following season, after which he learned that Arslanian was
leaving Ogden to coach at Utah State.

Not long after, Heupel announced that he intended to follow
Arslanian, but rather than transfer immediately to Utah State,
where he would have been required to sit out a season, he
enrolled at Snow in January 1998. After winning the Badgers'
starting job in the spring, Heupel was told that a former Snow
quarterback, Fred Salanoa, had decided to rejoin the team after
briefly transferring to Hawaii. Heupel, it was decided, would
play the first half of games, Salanoa the second. Cindy remembers
Josh trying to break the news gently to Ken: "There's one other
thing, Dad. Fred's brother is the offensive coordinator."

No matter. Even splitting time with Salanoa, Heupel flat-out tore
opponents up, throwing for 2,308 yards and 28 touchdowns with
only five interceptions and earning recognition as a junior
college All-America. This wasn't good news for Arslanian, who
expected Heupel to join him at Utah State. "What happened," says
Mike Leach, a former Oklahoma assistant and now the coach at
Texas Tech, "is that Josh went to Snow and did too well."

In the same week that Heupel finished that season at Snow,
Sooners coach Bob Stoops hired Leach to be his offensive
coordinator. When he arrived at Oklahoma, Leach discovered that
not a soul on campus was capable of running the spread offense
he'd been brought in to install. He saw one tape of Heupel and
got on the phone.

Heupel's was not the typical recruiting visit. Like two bears in
a cave, he and Leach holed up in Leach's office, ordering takeout
and watching tape. Strength coach Jerry Schmidt recalls being
introduced to Heupel. "He wanted to know how I could help him
increase his speed, his quickness on his drops," says Schmidt.
"Usually we interview the recruits, but Josh was the one asking
the questions."

Heupel broke the news to Arslanian: He was going to Oklahoma. "I
was crushed," says Arslanian, who was fired by Utah State after
the 1999 season. "I tried to change his mind. Seeing how it's
turned out for Josh, I'm thankful he didn't follow me."

In the hard-working, God-fearing community of Norman, Josh, a
management major, and his sister, Andrea, an Oklahoma freshman,
fit right in. They attend Bible study on Tuesday nights. Two days
before Thanksgiving 1999, Josh distributed food baskets to needy
families. This season he spearheaded a food drive. (His first
words to his father after the Texas Tech game: "How much food did
we get?") "I'm happy for Josh that he's set goals and attained
them on the football field," says Cindy, "but I'm more impressed
by the kind of person he is."

Sooners wideout Josh Norman wasn't the least bit impressed by the
physically unimposing Heupel, the player, when he first set eyes
on him. He took one look at the new quarterback and said, "That's
him?" Norman was even more skeptical after seeing Heupel throw.

His concern was understandable. Heupel's strengths include his
ability to make decisions quickly and his uncanny anticipation
and accuracy. He doesn't throw a pretty ball. One of the
football-throwing machines his receivers use in drills is
slightly flawed: "It can't throw a spiral," says Smith, the tight
end, "so it's perfect for simulating Josh's passes."

Heupel's teammates tease him because they know he realizes that
he has their utmost respect. Center Bubba Burcham describes him
as a kind of human thermostat: "He's cool and calm regardless of
the situation, and that helps keep the rest of us cool, too."

Heupel broke a slew of school and conference records in 1999
while leading the Sooners to their first winning season in six
years. He was just warming up. At a team meeting before this
season he said, "I don't know how we're going to do it, but we're
going to the Orange Bowl."

He and the Sooners got there by putting together the finest
October in Oklahoma's history. In successive wins over
11th-ranked Texas, No. 2 Kansas State and No. 1 Nebraska, Heupel
completed 66 of his 98 passes, for 949 yards with one
interception. Dallas Cowboys director of college and pro scouting
Larry Lacewell was at all those games. He's reluctant to predict
the round in which Heupel might be drafted. When Lacewell is
finished listing the pros and cons, Heupel sounds like a
middle-rounder, a guy teams will be afraid to pick and afraid not
to pick.

"He's not the physical model we're all looking for--not 6'4", 220,
with a rocket arm," says Lacewell, "but he has a quick release,
and that can make up for [a lack of] speed on the ball. He's a
better scrambler than he gets credit for, and frankly, at his
size, he'd better be. Then you throw in the obvious:
intelligence, wonderful attitude, coach's son, hung around a tape
machine his entire life. All that helps."

A week after winning their 12th straight game to earn a trip to
the Orange Bowl, the Oklahoma coaches and players gathered in
Memorial Stadium's Jack Santee Lounge for a Heisman Watch Party.
On the big-screen TV, there was Heupel in New York City, sitting
alongside Weinke. The time came to announce the winner. When they
heard the word "Chris," the Sooners headed for the doors. "It was
like a fire drill," says Norman.

Thus did most of them miss Weinke's acceptance speech, which one
Oklahoma player snidely dubbed his "State of the Union Address."
In it he promised that the Orange Bowl would be "a battle." The
oddsmakers, having installed Florida State as a 12-point
favorite, would appear to disagree. Forgive the Sooners if they
find that spread laughable. Josh Heupel in the role of underdog
is like Brer Rabbit in the briar patch. He could not feel more at
home. His poise and faith have infected his teammates. These guys
think they can win every game.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY JOHN BIEVER POCKET WATCH A master at picking apart blitzing defenses, Heupel threw for 3,392 yards and 20 touchdowns this season. COLOR PHOTO: DAMIAN STROHMEYER COLOR PHOTO: DAMIAN STROHMEYER

"He's a better scrambler than he gets credit for," says the
Cowboys' Lacewell of Heupel, "and frankly, at his size, he'd
better be."

"I'm happy Josh has set goals and attained them," says Cindy
(above, with Josh and Ken), "but I'm more impressed by the kind
of person he is."

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