The fun is back in a land of dust, oil, and football

Time was, the Oklahoma Sooners were the scourge of college football, including an NCAA record 47 straight wins between 1953 and 1957.

Three players won the Heisman Trophy, which goes to the best collegiate player each year. Six times between 1950 and 1985, they were the No. 1 team.

Then, all the wheels came off all the wagons. The Sooners ran afoul of NCAA rules, which prompted the departure of the brilliant head coach of 16 years, Barry Switzer; three coaches who followed failed spectacularly; the Oklahoma University team couldn't even finish among the Top 10 in the last 13 years.

Gloom was everywhere because OU was awful. In 1996, it opened the year with losses to lightly regarded Texas Christian University, San Diego State, Tulsa, and Kansas. Only two seasons ago, the Sooners were 5-6.

They learned one of life's truisms: You meet the same people going down that you did going up. Payback can be brutal.

However - drum roll, please - yesterday is dead and gone. The star-spangled future is now. Says second-year Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops, "We're a decent team."

And an undefeated (8-0) team. And the No. 1 team. And a team that so far this season has not even come close to losing, its average winning score being 46-15.

And a team that has its swagger back. Concedes Monty Beisel, a Kansas State defensive end, "They're real proud, and they should be proud." OU thumped then No. 2-ranked K-State, 41-31, after stunning the Wildcats with 17 unanswered points in the first half.

It is the swagger that makes it fun. Football, until recently, has always been the anchor in Norman and in the state. It was the personification of the lyrics in a children's song: "If you're happy and you know it, clap your hands." The noise had been deafening; it is again.

The thing about tradition is: Everybody remembers. OU followers never forgot the glorious era of legendary Bud Wilkinson and three national titles in the '50s, nor the incredible exploits of Heisman winners Billy Vessels, Steve Owens, and Billy Sims. Nor the exhilaration of victory.

Oklahoma originally was known nationally only for its dust. Then the surface was scratched, and there sat oil. And then the football Sooners erupted. It was Wilkinson who defined greatness, and Switzer who perpetuated it.

Switzer has been a party waiting to happen. If you can be around Switzer and not have an outrageously good time, the fault is yours, not his. His personal behavior has not always been ideal, but his larger-than-life swagger is the stuff of legend. He lights up a room when he enters like a rock star. Routinely, he would exhort his charges before a game, "Let's hang half a hundred on 'em in the first half, and then have ourselves some fun."

Critics suggest he might possibly be more style than substance. Switzer's record (157-29-4 and three national championships at OU) suggests otherwise. After a rocky and combative end to his tenure at Oklahoma, he landed on his feet again as head coach of the Dallas Cowboys, which he led to a Super Bowl triumph.

No question it is Switzer who symbolizes Sooner football. He knows football, and he knows fun, and he knows the two should go together. Best of all, coach Stoops understands Switzer's role in the OU scheme of things. He has welcomed the former coach back into the inner circle. The Sooner tent is plenty big enough for Stoops and Switzer.

So caught up in the football fever are the Board of Regents in Oklahoma that after the Sooners recently thumped arch rival Nebraska, 31-14, they ripped up Stoops's $675,000 annual contract and put in place a shiny new $1.4 million one. Remarkably, just three seasons ago Nebraska shellacked Oklahoma 69-7 in the most lopsided game ever in the long and storied series.

All this euphoria could end tomorrow, of course, when Oklahoma travels to College Station to play Texas A&M. The Aggies unquestionably are capable of an upset.

But for now, the players revel in their good fortune. Likely Heisman winner Josh Heupel - little regarded out of high school - is the quarterback extraordinary. And the team is young, with some 25 of the top players sophomores or younger. This could be the rebirth of a dynasty. Let the good times roll. Clap your hands.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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