Stoops, Sooners welcome higher expectations

Tuesday, August 15th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

NORMAN, Okla. (AP) -- Bob Stoops and his staff didn't need much time to turn things around at Oklahoma.

Before Stoops led the Sooners to seven victories and a bowl game last year, they had won just 12 games in the previous three seasons and hadn't finished above .500 since 1993. Now more fans are buying season tickets, Big 12 media are predicting the Sooners to challenge No. 7 Texas for the South Division title and national reporters have put Oklahoma at No. 19 n the preseason Associated Press poll.

If Stoops is concerned about a sophomore jinx, it doesn't show. "I've asked all along for expectations to change," Stoops said. "I was offended last year when people didn't think we would win games or whether we'd be a bowl team. That's just how I am. I want our players to feel those expectations, and we do."

Like their coach, the players welcome seeing the bar raised. "My expectations last year were that we were going to go out and win every game. My expectations and the team's expectations haven't changed in that respect," quarterback Josh Heupel said. "I don't think our expectations have changed. I think the expectations of people who are outside the program have changed."

The clear change of direction got Oklahoma fans excited again, and has them revved up for this year. The 63,000 season tickets sold are the most since 1988, Barry Switzer's final year as coach.

The last of Oklahoma's six national titles came in 1985, and the Sooners are still a long way from that level. But they begin the year with a national ranking and, if Heupel is healthy all season, Oklahoma should have a chance to make some real noise in the conference for the first time in years.

The Sooners start season with soft September schedule at home against Texas-El Paso, Arkansas State and Rice. The Big 12 slate begins at home Sept. 30 against Kansas before the showdown against Texas in Dallas the first Saturday in October. Later, there are games against No. 1 Nebraska and eighth-ranked Kansas State, two teams that haven't been on the schedule the past two years.

Heupel's play will be crucial. A year ago, while directing the freewheeling offense installed by Mike Leach, Heupel set school and Big 12 records by completing 310 of 500 passes (62 percent) for 3,460 yards and 33 touchdowns.

Leach has moved on to become head coach at Texas Tech, but the Sooners don't expect to slow down with Mark Mangino, the offensive line coach promoted to offensive coordinator before the Independence Bowl. "The main thing about our offense right now is our kids all have a better understanding of it," said Mangino. "We're all on the same page. We feel it's an offense we can win with at Oklahoma."

The Sooners threw two-thirds of the time last year. The pass-to-run ratio doesn't matter to Mangino if the results are positive, but he knows Oklahoma must run more effectively than the106 yards per game that ranked last in the Big 12 in 1999.

Much of that running load may go to sophomore Quentin Griffin, who was expected to be redshirted last year but instead was called upon late in the season and played well. "We need him to be a factor this year, there's no question," Stoops said.

Oklahoma will need its defense to play more consistently as well. The Sooners gave up 344 yards per game during the regular season and were unable to hold leads against Texas, Notre Dame and Texas Tech. "I don't think I'll ever get rid of those feelings, letting the game at Notre Dame get away and losing to Texas after getting up 17points on them," Heupel said. "They eat at you and they should eat at you."

Heupel's attitude may best underscore the biggest change at Oklahoma under Stoops -- the players believe what the staff is preaching.

This summer, 95 players stayed in Norman to take part in the off season conditioning program. "We're still trying to get back to where Oklahoma was, which was winning conference championships and playing for national championships," linebacker Rocky Calmus said. "That's what we want."