Fans, funds rising along with football team

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

NORMAN, Okla. – The Monday after Oklahoma defeated Kansas State, OU ticket-office personnel were deluged with telephone calls. More than 500 names were added to the season-ticket waiting list, which already had more than 300 on it.

"That's a pretty tangible example of interest," said athletic director Joe Castiglione, who cut off season-ticket sales this year at 63,000 for the 72,762-seat stadium.

Oklahomans definitely have gone bonkers over the Sooners.

With the football team poised to play No. 1 Nebraska on Saturday, Oklahoma will kick off a $100 million fund-raising campaign Friday for the enhancement of athletic facilities, with about half designated toward the renovation of Owen Field.

The dovetailing of the team's ascent and the start of the fund-raising campaign can be described only as fortunate.

Successful fund-raising, Castiglione said, "has to do with people wanting to give to something that makes them feel good."

If that's the case, Castiglione and staff need only put baskets on the floor and watch them fill with money. There is nothing of more interest in Oklahoma these days than Sooners football.

Bob Stoops' team popped the cork from the genie's bottle with a 63-14 blowout of No. 11 Texas. Last week's 41-31 taming of No. 2 Kansas State, which ended a 25-game winning streak by the Wildcats in KSU Stadium, and the subsequent vault to the No. 3 ranking (up from No. 19 at season's start) only served to heighten the shrill.

Though there are plenty of scares ahead – a Nov. 11 date at Texas A&M and possibly the Big 12 title game come after the Nebraska game – fans have the scent of a national championship, something they haven't sniffed since Barry Switzer left after the 1988 season.

Stoops is not wasting so much as a second of his time on such thoughts. Still, the coach has projected an optimistic attitude from the start.

"Teams that win the most are those with expectations and confidence, more so than talent," Stoops said before he had coached a game at OU. "I really believe we have a chance to win every game. We just need to make the key plays and play strong in the fourth quarter of tight games."

The Oklahoma Board of Regents anticipated raids on its coaching staff long before the current successes. Stoops received a $25,000 raise, which increased his annual package to $635,000, before last year's bowl game, the school's first since 1994.

Only a month ago, Stoops' package was increased to $900,000-plus, and his contract was extended through 2005. The top end of the bonus provisions include staying five more years, being named Big 12 coach of the year and winning a national championship.

Additionally, total expenditure on the assistant coaches' salaries was elevated from $810,000 to $895,000. All nine assistants received substantial raises in August.

Stoops' approach is simple: organization, preparedness and attention to detail.

Stoops' ability to focus on the job at hand seems to have spilled over to his players, too.

After the K-State victory, a TV reporter gushed to quarterback Josh Heupel, "Just how much better can this offense get?"

Responded Heupel: "How many times did we punt?"

Switzer's presence on the sideline was noted by TV cameras and further excited OU supporters.

"That brought a lot of people down memory lane again," said Tulsa radio-talk host Al Jerkens. "Before I walked in the door Monday morning, the [phone] lines were already filled up – all OU."

While last year's 7-5 record and the return of Heupel created a lot of optimism, absolutely no one outside the football offices expected Oklahoma to make a national championship run this season. OU lost three starting defensive backs and three stellar offensive linemen off last year's team.

Additionally, this is a program only two seasons removed from a streak of five straight non-winning seasons. Only three years ago, OU was plundered by Nebraska, 69-7, and Texas A&M, 51-7.

A lot has gone right at Oklahoma this past year, and that includes non-football fortunes. The Sooners' softball team won the NCAA Women's College World Series last May, and only recently the university's Reach for Excellence campaign raised more than $508 million, more than doubling the original $200 million goal. Additionally, the university was given an art collection, including paintings by Vincent Van Gogh, Claude Monet and Paul Gauguin, that has been valued at anywhere from $50 million to $200 million.

"One thing is helping the other," Castiglione said. "We have some momentum now, and we just want to build on it."

Plans for the football stadium, which has been sold out for every game since Stoops arrived, are a closely held secret. OU officials were weighing their options between adding a second deck on the east side and enclosing the horseshoe on the south end. The decision will be revealed this weekend.

The football team, however, is where attention is focused.

Castiglione plucked Stoops from the defensive coordinator's job at Florida and announced his hiring Dec. 1, 1998.

"I stood on the steps of Evans Hall that day and talked about how well-prepared Bob was for this job," Castiglione said.

He had been aware of Stoops since the latter was a player at Iowa, and he followed his progress as defensive coordinator at Kansas State during Bill Snyder's miraculous turnaround. Stoops was the only assistant coach on Castiglione's short list of candidates.

"He made a great move from K-State to defensive coordinator at the University of Florida," said Castiglione. "The very next year, Florida won the national championship. How can you not take notice in the vast improvement Florida made defensively?"

Another who stood on the Evans Hall steps that day was Switzer, who has been welcomed back into the OU fold by Stoops.

"I love having Coach Switzer around," says Stoops. "The players love having him around. He's like all of us Sooners – all fighting for the same thing."

Switzer liked what he saw at K-State.

"It's the coaching staff and that quarterback. Heupel gives you a chance. If you protect him, he'll get 30 points against anyone. That gives you a chance to win a lot of games."