Stoops welcomes ties with past

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

NORMAN, Okla. (AP) _ The cover of Oklahoma's 1999 football media guide didn't have a picture of new coach Bob Stoops. Instead, at his suggestion, it prominently listed the Sooners' six national championship seasons.

This year's guide has two Sooners celebrating on the front. On the back is a collection of several conference, bowl and national championship rings the Sooners have won.

It's no accident. The guides are sent to recruits, and Stoops wants them to be aware of the program's lofty goals.

``I believe when you have got a great history and tradition like we have, you need to embrace it,'' Stoops said. ``I want our players to know that's what is expected of them. That's what they need to live up to.''

All those rings and banners were just fond memories for Oklahoma fans during the past 10 years or so. But in his two years in charge, Stoops has the Sooners back in the chase for a conference and national title. They are 6-0 and ranked No. 3 going into Saturday's game against top-ranked, 7-0 Nebraska.

The first two coaches who followed Barry Switzer _ Gary Gibbs and Howard Schnellenberger _ tried to distance themselves from him and his shadow. Former players found their access to the program restricted.

John Blake's hiring as coach was billed as a member of the family coming home, but he was ill at ease as a coach and with the program's expectations.

Not Stoops. On the day of his hiring, Switzer was there. Former players are welcome again, encouraged to share their stories and experiences.

``Truly, in my mind anyway, he's one of those guys who has respect for that tradition at Oklahoma,'' said Charlie Newton, head of the Football Letterman's Association.

``You would always think that former players would be very welcome. By and large they want to be as supportive as they can be. But it seemed like that for whatever reason, there just wasn't as much camaraderie, that kind of thing.''

Stoops grew up an Oklahoma fan in Youngstown, Ohio, and once painted a pair of his sneakers silver to emulate Joe Washington. He said the occasional visits from former coaches or players, and the reminders about the program's rich past, only make sense.

``Here, there is great, great tradition,'' he said. ``We've been in 16 Orange Bowls for goodness sake and have won 12 of them. There's 12 Orange Bowl trophies hanging around. You just don't neglect that.

``I believe when a coach and players have accomplished that for this school and this program, they should always be tied to it.''

It's impossible for Oklahoma's players not to see the history. On their way to practice or meetings each day, they walk through the Switzer Center, a shrine that features pictures, trophies, and mementos gathered since before the Bud Wilkinson era and before.

``You see the number of national championships, the conference championships, the bowl champions,'' quarterback Josh Heupel said. ``You see the wall of fame, all the All-Americans they've had, the great players they've had, and you understand they're not going to accept anything less than that.''

Not so long ago, the thought of actually approaching that level of excellence seemed far-fetched. Oklahoma's last conference title came in 1987, its last All-American played in 1991. Before Stoops arrived, the Sooners' last winning season had been 1993.

He insisted from the start that Oklahoma could win right away and eventually add new items to the trophy case. He asked his players to believe it, and to strive to live up to the program's past.

``Now our players embrace it,'' he said. ``They realize we're not going to hide from this anymore. This is what we need to. Whether we can do it this year or next year, whatever, we're going to go after it, and our players like it now.''