'No excuses' needed: Oklahoma back at top

It was an unlikely scene: The king of Florida State's dynasty, Bobby Bowden, scratching his head and tripping over his words, trying to explain his heavily favored team's 13-2 loss to Oklahoma in Miami's Orange Bowl.

But while the vanquished stumbled, the victor, Bob Stoops, exulted.

The beaming Oklahoma head coach wouldn't let his team accept its underdog status. Before the game he showed films of past great Oklahoma teams. He firmly believed all along that his Sooners would win. And above all, he injected that feeling into his players.

"Oklahoma is back!" said Stoops, while accepting the national championship trophy, the seventh for the Sooners, but its first in 15 years.

But is it? Is this the beginning of a new football dynasty in Norman, Okla.? Can it match the halcyon days of coaches Bud Wilkinson and Barry Switzer, and players like Brian Bozworth and Lee Roy Selmon?

Few people, even among close observers of the Sooners, were talking that way before the upset win Wednesday night. "I think it's a telltale sign [that Florida State was] a 12-point favorite. That would never have happened under the Wilkinson or Switzer teams," says Mike Trepps, who announced Sooner football games for 27 years.

The legendary Wilkinson started the dynasty. From 1947 to 1963 his teams won 14 league and three national championships - not to mention fashioning a 47-game winning streak in which the Sooners smashed opponents by an average score of 47 to 5. They so dominated the Big 8 Conference it became known as Oklahoma and the Seven Dwarfs.

Next came Barry Switzer, the good-ol'-boy coach who adopted the power-running wishbone offense that steamrolled opponents. He compiled a better winning percentage even than Wilkinson.

But then the team got floored by a scandal in 1988. The NCAA found that Oklahoma violated numerous NCAA rules, many of which had to do with improper recruiting practices. The dynasty was suddenly down for the count.

Three coaches cycled through the program after that, producing, for the most part, forgettable results. In the '90s, Oklahoma foundered in mediocrity, including five years with losing records, and no bowl games from 1993 until last season.

Even this year, Oklahoma is "not the most talented team in the country. I mean, they're not even close," says Clay Horning, a sportswriter for the Norman (Okla.) Transcript newspaper. "They're not the most talented team in the Big 12 [Conference].... But they just beat you."

Where does this unbeaten (13-0) team rank in Sooner history? "You're not going to know that answer for five to 10 years," says Kent Stephens, who worked on an exhibit that showcased the 12 greatest dynasties in college football at the College Football Hall of Fame in South Bend, Ind.

Notre Dame and Oklahoma are the only schools to have achieved dynasty status twice, according to Stephens's calculations. Oklahoma's dynasties ran from 1948 to 1958 and from 1971 to 1980.

Old or new, dynasties have one thing in common: They recruit talent. With it teams thrive; without it, they struggle.

"There's a very real way that [this could be a climb back into a dynasty]," Horning says. If Oklahoma's recruiting classes start to become among the Top 10 in the country, instead of the current Top 15, "you would assume it would only get better," he says. Already, a top-flight high school quarterback, Brent Rawls, has made a verbal commitment to Oklahoma.

One of the reasons for Florida State's success, experts agree, is the wealth of high school talent in Florida. Division I programs all over the country have Florida players on their rosters. But Florida State (as well as Florida and Miami) take the cream, feeding their winning programs.

Still, the arrival of coach Stoops at Oklahoma last year is arguably the biggest reason for its turnaround. When he showed up he told fans he would offer "no excuses" for not winning. Stoops had played football at Iowa as a hard-hitting defensive back. He stayed as an assistant and helped turn Iowa into a Big 10 contender. Later, as defensive coordinator at Florida, he developed the "stun-and-done" defense that led the SEC in rushing defense in 1997 and 1998. It was his defense that stopped Florida State 52-20 in the 1997 Sugar Bowl as Florida won the national championship.

Stoops's longtime friend, Florida coach Steve Spurrier, says simply: "He's a serious competitor. He hates losing."

Although Oklahoma will lose senior star quarterback Josh Heupel, a horde of underclassmen have played crucial roles for the new national champions this year, another good sign for the future.

"Oklahoma will have the opportunity to be competitive every single year," former Sooner announcer Trepps surmises. "But as far as dynasties, I don't think that will ever happen again in college football."

Trepps points to three perennial powerhouse teams - Southern Cal, Penn State, and Alabama - none of which went to a bowl game this year. It's a sign, he says, of increasing parity among the college ranks.

"You have this proliferation of bowl games and television exposure," Stephens says, giving more schools a national profile and letting them recruit elite athletes.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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