Sooner fans getting that air back

Wednesday, October 25th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

By Kevin Sherrington/Dallas Morning News

NORMAN, Okla. – A couple days after Oklahoma beat Kansas State, a columnist from the Wichita Eagle wrote about his unfortunate prediction that the Wildcats would win fairly easily.

His Oklahoma readers did not overlook the error. The first two days, he received 59 e-mails of various degrees of civility.

He returned in kind. In his opening paragraph on the e-mails, he noted the reappearance of "the most obnoxious fans in the country."

Welcome back, Sooner fans.

You've been a long time gone.

"Remember that bumper sticker, 'It's hard to be humble if you're a Sooner?' " asked Al Eschbach, host of a popular Norman sports talk show. "That bumper sticker disappeared around here 12 years ago.

"The fans aren't arrogant like they used to be. But, if they keep winning, they will be."

And why not? The Sooners are ranked third in the country and second in the all-important BCS rankings. They've got No. 1 Nebraska this week at home, where the Sooners under head coach Bob Stoops have outscored opponents by an average score of 44-8.

Still, "arrogant" or "obnoxious" aren't the terms to describe their fans just yet.

"Shocked" might be a better word.

"I've not had one call from someone who said he knew the Sooners would be undefeated at this point in the season," Eschbach said. "And if someone did say that, I'd tell him he was crazy."

How could you predict 6-0? Who would have thought Oklahoma would beat Texas by 49 points, then put up 41 in Manhattan on the top-ranked defense in the country?

The Sooners believed, of course. "I thought we were gonna win all our games," defensive tackle Ryan Fisher said.

You could say he has to believe that. But Fisher, a fifth-year senior from Arlington, is no gullible kid. A veteran of the dubious John Blake era, he survived the Sooners' last two games against Nebraska, macabre tales with horrific endings like 73-21 and 69-7.

You live through games like that, you don't spook easy. But Fisher said the team has responded well to the work ethic, expertise and energy of Stoops' staff, surely one of the youngest in college football.

"The coaches are juiced," he said, "and it flows over to the players."

And slops over on the fans. On the local sports talk show Tuesday, a host kept trying to steer the conversation to the World Series or the Jets' incredible comeback over the Dolphins or the Oklahoma State radio show, looming in a half-hour.

All anyone could talk about was the Sooners. One caller worried about an animated discussion during the Kansas State game between Mike Stoops and Brent Venables, the Sooners' excitable co-defensive coordinators.

Assured there wasn't a problem, the caller all but apologized. "You know I'm huntin' boogers," he said, "cuz I know they're doin' great."

How great are the Sooners going over in Oklahoma, where a victory over Texas elicited a university holiday?

"Right now, they're more important than the presidential election," Eschbach said, "and that's the way it used to be here."

Bob Stoops is counting on it. He shamelessly solicited their fanaticism Tuesday, asking that they make it so loud for the Cornhuskers at Owen Field that "maybe they'd have a chance to influence the game and make it difficult for them."

Over the last few years, it was difficult to have an influence from across the street at O'Connell's, a neighborhood bar and grill. Fans would walk over for a libation at halftime.

More often than not, they'd find no really good reason to go back for the second half.

"Now," said J.T. Thatcher, another senior, "I don't know if they even leave the stadium."

Prediction: At some point Saturday, something has to give, whether it's the Sooners' undefeated record or the inhibitions of their long-suffering fans.

They know better than to celebrate too much, too early. Besides the last few debacles against Nebraska, Oklahoma has played a No. 1 team five times at Owen Field and lost all five.

But Eschbach, who has been in Oklahoma since 1969, said he hasn't seen or felt so much excitement building around a home game since the '71 Game of the Century against Nebraska. "The fans were so spoiled here," he said, "they weren't excited about games."

Quarterback Josh Heupel, the Sooner perhaps most responsible for the revival, said fans see Oklahoma returning to "a championship level, and it's a level it needs to be at."

On some other level, Heupel identifies with the Sooner faithful. Growing up in Aberdeen, S.D., the heart of Cornhusker country, he wasn't necessarily an Oklahoma fan.

But he wore an OU cap.

"You're surrounded by Nebraska fans, and everybody is wearing Nebraska stuff," he said, shrugging. "You buy Oklahoma stuff just to go against it."

Obnoxious, some might say. In Norman, it's starting to feel like old times