Stoops wasted no time making Oklahoma good again

Saturday, October 21st 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

NORMAN, Okla. (AP) _ When Bob Stoops arrived at Oklahoma in December 1998, he found a program that was demoralized and desperate for change.

Now Oklahoma is ranked No. 3 and in the race for a national championship, something that was once a routine occurrence but hadn't happened in more than a decade.

He has his team at 6-0 heading into its next game, against top-ranked Nebraska at home Oct. 28.

The turnaround has been remarkable _ Oklahoma had won 12 games in the three years before Stoops arrived _ and is a testament to his insistence on hard work, discipline and no excuses.

``Our confidence here wasn't high, let me say that,'' Stoops said, adding that the media ``helped assure them that they weren't too good before we got here.''

They weren't.

The Sooners were 6-6 in 1994, Gary Gibbs' final season, and 5-5-1 the next year, Howard Schnellenberger's only one with the Sooners. John Blake, who had built a reputation as a good recruiter while an assistant at Oklahoma, followed.

Blake did attract some good recruits, several of whom are starters now. He was liked by his players, but his lack of organization showed itself nearly every week on the field _ in 1998, his final season, Oklahoma tried five players at quarterback.

``At first, some guys missed coach Blake,'' safety Roy Williams said. ``But once we got under coach Stoops' wing, everybody started believing in the system.''

Stoops said the program lacked structure and discipline when he arrived.

``We had several players who thought each of them had their way of doing things and that ought to be OK. Guys thought they were bigger than the program,'' he said. ``You had a lot of different factors that you see in a lot of programs that are struggling.''

Stoops, who had been a part of the impressive rebuilding job at Kansas State under Bill Snyder, set out to change players' attitudes and work habits.

``He came in here and never once said, 'We're not very talented, it's going to take us four or five years,''' said Merv Johnson, who was an assistant coach on the previous four staffs and now is director of football operations.

``I think he truly believes that if you play smart and you play well and believe you can and you play together, upsets can happen, that you can do a lot more than you might ever think you can do.''

With several young players in the lineup, the Sooners went 7-4 in 1999 and played in a bowl game for the first time in five years. About 25,000 Oklahoma fans made the trip to the Independence Bowl in Shreveport, La.

That excitement carried over to this season, when 63,000 season tickets were sold, the most since 1988 _ Barry Switzer's final season. Oklahoma started the season ranked No. 19 and moved up slowly by winning its first four games, all at home.

Then came a 63-14 victory over No. 11 Texas in Dallas and a 41-31 defeat of No. 2 Kansas State on the road.

``We haven't done a whole lot yet,'' Stoops said. ``We still have five games to go. I feel great about our chemistry and the way we're going. I understand we have had a measure of success.''

A large part of that success is thanks to quarterback Josh Heupel. A senior who arrived last year from Snow Junior College in Utah, Heupel has rewritten the school's passing records. But he stands out because of his poise and leadership.

Against Kansas State, Heupel got knocked down repeatedly and still completed 29 of 37 passes for 374 yards.

``Up to this point I haven't seen anybody better,'' Snyder said. ``Although I know there's a lot of great players out there, that was as fine a performance as I've seen in an awful long time.''

The Sooners are still young _ there are 10 seniors among the top 44 players on the depth chart, and 21 freshmen or sophomores played against Texas. Stoops and his coaches look for players who play hard, who are disciplined, tough and can run, and who are willing to put the program first.

He and his coaches take it from there.

``I like to think we've instilled toughness and work ethic and a positive way of approaching every day,'' Stoops said. ``I try and do my best, and the coaches do, to operate positively and confidently in everything we do. 'Positive' and 'confident' are two words you hear a lot around here, and I think it helps.''