Category Archives: Oklahoma Sooners

Blake Griffin – Before He Was World Famous

The NBA Playoffs have just begun and Blake Griffin of the LA Clippers is being mentioned as one of the top three candidates for league MVP (of course we all know who’s number one).  Even though he is now public enemy #2 to OKC Thunder fans (how could I forget Patrick Beverley), there was a time when Blake Griffin was considered to be the savior of the Oklahoma Sooners basketball fortunes. Let’s go back to 2006, just before Blake’s senior season in high school and before anyone knew exactly how good he would turn out to be.

In high school, Blake Griffin had a chance to go against another future NBA player, Daniel Orton of McGuinness
In high school, Blake Griffin had a chance to go against another future NBA player, Daniel Orton of McGuinness

New Oklahoma basketball coach Jeff Capel was in need of some good news in early May, shortly after taking over the reins of the Sooner program. After all, in the month after his arrival, he had seen three top ranked recruits bolt from the program and had the NCAA ruling on his predecessor’s indiscretions looming over his head.

Then, Capel got the word that would suddenly change the mood of all Oklahoma basketball fans.  He received an early oral commitment from the top junior in the state and one of the top players in the nation – 6-9 power forward Blake Griffin from Oklahoma Christian Schools.

Griffin’s commitment immediately gave Capel’s regime credibility and with the commitment of 6-5 Cade Davis of Elk City following closely behind, it showed that the new coach was serious about protecting his home turf – something the OU basketball program had problems doing for the past few years.

For his part, the happy-go-lucky Griffin didn’t think much about the impact he had on making a statement for the new coach.  He was just excited about becoming a Sooner and about ending the recruiting process.

“I had planned on waiting and taking a few visits during September and just kind of wait it out a little bit, but I really felt like once I got to know coach Capel a lot better, I knew that OU was the place for me”,  said Griffin.  “I just kind of wanted to get it out of the way and play my senior year and not worry about it.  I just wanted to go out and have a fun summer.”

But the importance of the commitment was not lost on one current Sooner player – Blake’s older brother, Taylor, a 6-7 sophomore-to-be who will be counted on to emerge as a major factor on this year’s team.  He knew that Blake’s decision was a huge boost to Capel, as well as the entire OU program, and that it put the focus back on the future of Sooner basketball instead of on the recent unsettled past.

“I think it was all those things you said.  It was huge for Coach Capel”, Taylor said. “He had a lot of trouble with the recruits that were leaving and I think that was a big commitment right there. Blake was getting tired of all of this and he was ready to get it settled.  I was tired of hearing about all of the negative stuff.  It’s nice to get everything down and out of the way so he can look forward to his senior season and I can look forward to our season here.”

The commitment also will reunite the Griffin brothers, who teamed for two state championships at OCS while playing for their dad, Tommy, who is one of the most successful coaches in Oklahoma high school history, winning seven state titles at OKC Classen, OKC John Marshall and OCS.

Blake Griffin got to realize one dream when he was reunited with brother Taylor at OU
Blake Griffin got to realize one dream when he was reunited with brother Taylor at OU

The elder Griffin says the two sons are totally distinct personalities – Taylor is more quiet and laid back, while Blake is outspoken and more of a cut-up.  But on the basketball court, the younger Griffin is all business.

“He’s always had dreams and aspirations of doing well in whatever he’s doing and when he was younger, his favorite sport was whatever he was playing at the time” said Tommy Griffin.”  He played football and basketball when he started high school but after his ninth grade year, he decided he didn’t just want to come in and be that far behind in basketball.  But he loved football.”

“His abilities – it’s a God-gift.  He has the ability to do so many good things and he has done a lot of things for our team. I mean, when it’s tight, he’ll take the ball – he can handle the ball well.  The only thing we’re working on right now in terms of improving would be his outside shot, because that’s important to him.  And when I say outside, I’m talking about a three-pointer.  His sophomore year he shot 31 per cent.  This past year he shot right around 29 per cent.  But normally those shots were at the end of the game, because he’s never afraid to take a shot.”

“His potential level hasn’t been reached yet.  I think when he gets to college and he can focus on one thing and one thing only, instead of getting to play all the positions, he will really start to blossom.”

For his part, Taylor was in somewhat of an awkward position in Blake’s recruiting process.  Some people just assumed little brother would go to the same school as big brother, while many others thought that was exactly the reason Blake would not go to OU.  Taylor was there to offer advice only if it was requested.

“When he was first being recruited hard by all the schools because I’d gone through the process just two years earlier, I told him whenever you have questions, whenever you don’t know what to do or what to ask or what to talk about with a coach, just talk to me and I’ll tell you what I did or what I think the best situation”, Taylor said. “Early on we didn’t really talk about it a lot, like the whole recruiting process. But then, as it came down to I guess this past summer, we did.”

“You know, there was a point when Duke came calling and North Carolina, UConn, some of those schools, came into the picture, I wasn’t for sure what he was going to do, because those are some good schools.  But I kind of stood up and stayed out of the picture for the most part until the last few weeks or so before he committed.  I told him that I would love to play with him again, Coach Capel’s got a great thing started up and I just told him that OU is a good school to play at.  Also, it’s your home state which is a big plus, I think.”

In the end, that point won out over the marquee schools and ensured that the brothers would have a chance to play together again.  That prospect has Blake wishing he could come to OU right away, but he is also realistic about where he is in his development.

“It really does, it makes me want to get to college a little quicker”, Blake admitted. “But I know I have to wait another year and that’s good, because I need to take a little more time to mature.”

Some worry that Blake Griffin won’t be tested night in and night out by the competition at his high school level. OCS dropped from 3A to 2A last season, but the result remained the same as they won the state title for the third straight season, with Blake averaging 21 points and 14 rebounds per contest. While observes expect a 6-9, 230 player to dominate at that level, his father says he never worried that playing at a smaller school would hinder either of his sons.

“To be totally honest with you, I was never ever concerned with whether they played on a larger stage or a smaller stage.  I think basketball is basketball.  There are so many good talents on that lower level”, said Coach Griffin. “But I never worried about whether they were playing 5A or 6A because every summer they’re playing against some of the best in the nation in AAU ball.  So there’s a combination of everything involved there. As far as the class is concerned, I don’t think there’s that much of a difference.  You’re still going to run into some pretty good teams and pretty good individuals.”

Blake has drawn most of his attention the past two summers playing for Athletes First, an Oklahoma AAU team that also includes his fellow OU recruit Davis. It was during the tough summer competition against the top players in the nation that the younger Griffin realized he belonged at that level.

Griffin caught the attention of college recruiters while playing for Athletes First in AAU competition
Griffin caught the attention of college recruiters while playing for Athletes First in AAU competition

“There were two tournaments last summer that just kind of built a lot of confidence for me.  One was the tournament over Memorial Day and I went up against a couple of seven footers and players like Greg Monroe a couple of games in a row and felt like I did a decent job against them”, Blake said. ‘That just gave me some extra confidence and we made it to the final four of that tournament.  That kind of gave me a boost and also the Nike Peach Jam in Atlanta, I started playing a little bit better offensively.  That just kind of put me over the edge to where I felt like I could play with more of these guys.”

After a summer of banging against the nation’s elite high school players, Blake returns to OCS to play for his dad one last time.  And he has some definite goals for his senior season.

“Just coming out and having a great year and coming back and winning another state championship and then hopefully making the McDonald’s All American Team”, said Blake. “Definitely want to get a state championship first, but it’s been another big dream of mine to play in that game.”

And another dream has been to play in the NBA.  Now that he has made a college choice and is preparing for the next step, that dream is starting to come into focus.  For his father, the thought of have a son – or possibly two- play professionally – is not foremost in his thoughts right now.

“I hadn’t really thought about it.  The most important thing to me is that they get their education.  And if they can stay and get their four year education, everything else is just going to be a matter of adding something better to the pot”, said Tommy Griffin.  “I know Taylor definitely understands that he wants to get his degree and I think he still wants to be in medicine, he still wants to be an orthopedic surgeon.  I believe Blake has always had a dream of playing in the NBA. Taylor would love it, but Blake has a dream for it.”

First, Oklahoma fans would like to see him put his talents on display in Norman for a few years.  They’re hoping, along with Coach Capel, that the brothers’ reunion will bring the kind of prosperity to the Sooners program that it has to the family’s basketball fortunes.

Griffin electrified college crowds with his dunks
Griffin electrified college crowds with his dunks

In two seasons, Griffin turned the college basketball world on its ear, making tremendous improvement and bringing an explosive energy that hadn’t been seen in recent years. Oklahoma would make it to the Elite Eight in his sophomore year, before Griffin decided to turn pro.  He became the number one overall pick in the NBA draft, missed his first season due to injury, and then grabbed Rookie of the Year honors when he returned.  Now he has the Clippers in position to challenge for the NBA title and we wait for the next chapter of Blake Griffin’s story to be written. 

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Hello and Goodbye – Greg Pruitt, The First Wishbone Star

Several years ago, I was commissioned to write profiles on a number of players for inclusion in a book on the 50 Greatest Players in Oklahoma Football History.  Here is the story on Greg Pruitt, the first great wishbone halfback.

The football fortunes of Greg Pruitt may have been determined by a phone call to his mother during his sophomore season at Oklahoma.

Pruitt had been a starting wide receiver at the beginning of the 1970 season, but when OU made the decision to change to the wishbone prior to the Texas game, he suddenly became a backup at running back, because there was now only one wide receiver on the field. Pruitt had worked hard to gain a first team spot as a receiver and the change had him thinking about leaving the Sooners – until he phoned home.

“My mother would usually rant and rave if you said something that didn’t make sense”, said Pruitt. “But when I told her I was thinking about transferring, she just calmly asked me if I had a pencil and paper.”

When Pruitt told her he did, she told him to write down a phone number. It was in the 713 area code, the area of Houston where Pruitt grew up.

“I asked her whose number it was and she told me it was my uncle,” remembers Pruitt. “She said ‘I didn’t raise any quitters and if you can’t stay with him, you’d better find someplace to go, because you can’t stay here when you come home’.”

Pruitt quickly decided to reconsider and remain at OU. Three weeks later, starting halfback Everett Marshall was injured against Iowa State, Pruitt took over his spot and never looked back, becoming a two-time All-American and a member of the College Football Hall of Fame in 1999.

Greg Pruitt became the first true star in the Oklahoma wishbone backfield
Greg Pruitt became the first true star in the Oklahoma wishbone backfield

With a sprinter’s speed and the ability to make tacklers miss, it was a wise decision to get the ball in Pruitt’s hands in the open field. And the wishbone offense accomplished that.

“What intrigued me about the wishbone is that if you wrote it down on a piece of paper, it looked easy to defend”, said Pruitt. “But the mistake people made is that if you take a quarterback, fullback and halfbacks that are running 4.4. and 4.5, the wishbone is very difficult to stop. Most people realized that too late.”

“What really made it work for running backs is that you really didn’t need a lot of carries to make a lot of yards. Even though we had what amounted to four runners in the game, it reduced the number of carries they needed because we were ripping off big gains once you broke the line of scrimmage. You don’t see many guys complain about how much they’re getting the ball if you’re able to make 125 to 150 yards a game.”

Early in the 1971 season, Pruitt gained notoriety for a t-shirt that he began sporting that said “Hello” on the front and “Goodbye” on the back. Flashy and fun loving, most people assumed Pruitt had come up with the idea himself as a way to taunt opponents. But he claims it was actually the young offensive coordinator, Barry Switzer, who originated the idea.

“Coach Switzer gave me the shirt the week prior to the USC game. On my way to the dorm, some reporters with cameras stopped me and took a picture of the shirt. I’m sure Switzer set that up,” laughed Pruitt. “In the locker room, he told the team about the shirt and said the story would be on the Trojans bulletin board the next day. He said it better be hello and goodbye on Saturday – and it was.”

The Sooners knocked off #1 ranked USC 33-20 in Norman, and after that, Pruitt wore the t-shirt under his shoulder pads from then on.

During the 1971 season, Pruitt rushed for 294 yards against Kansas State, still a school record. He finished with 1,665 yards that season, averaging an NCAA record 9.1 yards per carry and finished third in the Heisman Trophy balloting, as Auburn quarterback Pat Sullivan won. Pruitt then got a measure of satisfaction as the Sooners beat Auburn, 40-22 in the Sugar Bowl.

In 1972, Pruitt seemed destined for another 1,000-yard season and a shot at the Heisman, but he was injured late in the year and finished with 938. Still, he finished second in the Heisman voting to Nebraska’s Johnny Rodgers and was named the Player of the Year by the Pigskin Club of Washington, D.C.

“Individually, what I accomplished as a player, I did it against the best teams in the best conference at the time and against teams that were ranked in the top five”, Pruitt said. “We had great talent and we were beating a lot of people badly, but we knew in big games we felt the pressure to perform. We knew we couldn’t just show up and win.”

Despite his collegiate acclaim, Pruitt wasn’t taken until the second round of the NFL draft by the Cleveland Browns. Ironically, he made the team as a kick returner – a job he was “fired” from at OU after he fumbled the first punt he attempted to return in a game against Texas. In fact, he made the Pro Bowl as a kick returner his first two seasons in the NFL before finally becoming the featured back in 1975.

Pruitt on his way to a big gain against the Los Angeles Rams
Pruitt on his way to a big gain against the Los Angeles Rams

For three straight seasons, Pruitt rushed for 1,000 yards and also served as a dangerous receiver out of the backfield. Two more Pro Bowl seasons came in 1976 and 1977, as he became one of the most popular players in Cleveland history. He eventually became a third-down pass catching specialist before being traded to the Raiders in 1982, reviving his career as a punt returner with another Pro Bowl season in 1983 and winning a Super Bowl championship before finishing his NFL career in 1984. In 12 seasons, he had amassed over 13,000 all-purpose yards.

“I think my style prolonged my career, because I never let people have good shots at me”, said Pruitt. “I didn’t have to take many hard hits. And the ability to adapt that he developed at OU also helped extend his value in the pros “I think at first, in college, and later in the pros, I just wanted the opportunity to handle the football. How I got it didn’t matter, whether it was running or catching a pass or running back kicks. “

Pruitt has returned to Ohio, running a residential construction firm that specializes in home inspections and repair for real estate transactions, and he keeps a close connection with the Cleveland franchise. He travels to road games with the Brown Backers organization, a fan club of the team, and he has participated in everything from salmon fishing to turkey hunting with them. For Pruitt, remembering fans’ loyalty is part of the obligation for a star athlete, even after retirement.

Greg Pruitt being honored by Cleveland fans
Greg Pruitt being honored by Cleveland fans

“I’ve always said I would have been anything without the fans”, said Pruitt. “I played in front of the greatest pro fans in the world in Cleveland and I played in front of the greatest college fans at OU. It made a difference in my career. I didn’t get to meet all of those people when I was playing, but now when I get to speak at the Brown Backers events, I truly enjoy it.”

Another thing Pruitt still enjoys is following the Sooners. His brother still lives in Choctaw and Pruitt attended two OU games last season. When Bob Stoops was hired to coach the Sooners, Pruitt drove from Houston to Norman to meet the new coach. And he immediately saw something familiar in the current Sooners leader.

“He is closest to what Barry (Switzer) could do. He has charisma, he can get players fired up, the fans love him and he can be a friend to the players but not get too close. I like him”, Pruitt said. “But I guess I refuse to believe I’ve gotten that old, because he doesn’t look old enough to be the coach.”

FIVE QUESTIONS WITH GREG PRUITT

What was your most memorable moment as a Sooner?

The first time I played against Texas in the Cotton Bowl in 1970.  One side red, one side orange, split right down the middle.  I still remember the preparation, the buildup, and the intense practices.  Our expectations were not high that first time, but even though it was overwhelming and intimidating, we were prepared.  Of course, the next two years had a much more satisfying experience, but the first time on that field was really electrifying.

What was the lowest point during your career as a Sooner?

Losing the 1971 Game of the Century to Nebraska.  Despite losing just one game all season, we lost at the wrong time.  It’s interesting that the game has become recognized as one of the greatest of all-time and every time I turn on ESPN Classic they’re playing it over and over.

Which former teammate means the most to you today?

Kenith Pope.  We were thrown together as roommates back then, and we have stayed in touch and remain good friends.  I talk to him quite a bit.   Really, there were a lot of great friends on those teams, but he is the one I’m closest to.

Who was the best teammate you played with as a Sooner?  What made him so good?

There were so many good ones, but offensively, it had to be Joe Washington.  He was just a freshman when I was a senior, but we were roommates on the road.  It was interesting to see the greatness in another player, how he prepared and performed.  He understood the game and paid attention to how the momentum of a game was going.

What attribute did you learn while playing at OU that made a difference in your life after leaving the university, whether it is as a pro athlete, in the business world, or just everyday living?

The difference in being good and great.  That you couldn’t just rely on natural ability.  You were taught a great work ethic that carries on to everything you do in life.

 

 

The Story of the REAL Dr. Death – A Man Who Lived Countless Lifetimes.

Steve Williams was one of the most amazing characters in OU sports and professional wrestling history. What you saw in the ring as Dr. Death was pretty much what you saw outside the ring with Steve Williams. In fact, at some point, Steve Williams basically ceased to exist and there was only Dr. Death.

His collegiate exploits were legendary and he may have been most well known in college for a wrestling match that he lost at Gallagher Iba arena in the Bedlam dual, helping make a name for an obscure 400-lb heavyweight named Mitch Shelton and almost tearing the roof off the building in the Cowboy fans’ post match celebration.

Williams turned pro as a wrestler while he was still playing football at OU, and became a revered and reviled figure around the world, especially in Japan. He battled throat cancer, helped current WWE star and former OU football player/wrestler Jake Hager (Jack Swagger) get started, and found God.

I spoke to Dr. Death about his trials and tribulations in 2008. Sadly, just a year later, the cancer returned and he died in a Denver hospital in December 2009.

Oklahoman J.R. Ross, pro wrestling announcer, with Steve "Dr. Death" Williams
Oklahoman J.R. Ross, pro wrestling announcer, with Steve “Dr. Death” Williams

He came to Oklahoma already in possession of one of the most colorful nicknames in the history of sports and he left with a fistful of championship rings.  But that was just the start of the story of the man they call “Dr. Death”. As a professional wrestler, former Sooner football player and wrestler Steve “Dr. Death” Williams has fought many opponents around the world and he has conquered just about all of them including the most deadly of them all – cancer.

Williams arrived at OU in 1979 from Lakewood, Colorado, where he was a highly recruited lineman and a champion wrestler.  He obtained his nickname after an incident in a high school wrestling match.

“I shattered my nose about a hundred times and they had to keep stopping the match, so the coach from another school gave me an old time hockey goalie mask and when I put that on, my coach yelled out “Dr. Death”,” said Williams. “Reporters from the newspaper picked it up. I wasn’t like “Stone Cold” Steve Austin (whose real name also happens to be Steve Williams) or the “The Rock” who got a nickname for being an entertainer; I got a nickname for being a tough guy on the mat.”

“I didn’t have to give Vince McMahon a big house because he made up the name.  I already had the name, I did all my bookings and I was my own agent, so it came out really well”

Dr. Death facing off with Sting in his WWE days
Dr. Death facing off with Sting in his WWE days

And that nickname gradually became the only name Williams knows.  Most of his fans probably don’t know his real name and even he doesn’t recognize it most of the time.

“It’s not Steve Williams.  When people say Steve, I don’t even hear that word anymore, it’s usually “Doc” or “Dr. Death” and I think they usually remember the name “Dr. Death”,” said Williams. “There are always some wanna be’s that came out of there like (Brian) Bosworth who wanted to be a Dr. Death.  I was already there and conquered the Sooner football field and I think they remember me as the tough guy who came in there and conquered amateur wrestling and football and the first guy who could become a professional wrestler when he’s had one more year of football left.  I don’t think anybody has ever accomplished that.”

At OU, he lettered four times in football for the Sooners as an offensive lineman, making all-Big Eight in his senior season.

Dr. Death was an all-Big Eight lineman for the Sooners
Dr. Death was an all-Big Eight lineman for the Sooners

But it was on the wrestling mat where he had the biggest impact, becoming only one of ten four time All-American’s in Oklahoma history and creating some legendary moments, especially during the Bedlam Duals.  Williams best national finish was a second place showing at the NCAA tournament in 1981.

Following his collegiate career, Williams tried his hand at football in the USFL, but wound up in professional wrestling, working for another former Sooner, Cowboy Bill Watts, in Mid South Wrestling, which later became the Universal Wrestling Federation.

“Dr. Death” captured the UWF World Heavyweight Title in 1986 and later held the National Wrestling Alliance World Tag Team Championship.

Legal troubles sidetracked his career in the late 1980s, but Dr. Death emerged as a marquee performer in Japan after being seen wrestling the legendary Antonio Inoki in a sold-out match in Texas.

“I was one of the all time culprits in Japan. Every time I went over for a tour, they put my head on a cartoon figure of Godzilla and they would say “Godzilla’s back” and it was kind of neat,” said Williams.  “I spent 18 years over there.  I guess you can call me half-Japanese.  I know how to speak it and eat it; I take my shoes off when I come through the door.  I eat with chopsticks.  I really enjoyed Japan.  It was a wonderful thing.”

“I wrestled Antonio Inoki, he was a senator over there.  In fact he was the one who got the Japanese prisoners out of Iraq.  I wrestled him in Dallas-Ft Worth in front of probably 40,000 people and I got a deal out of that.  It wasn’t a contract, it was a handshake.  That’s probably why I stayed in Japan, because every contract I had in the United States has been broken and over there, I had a handshake and my money was sitting in the bank every time I got there.”

Williams bounced back and forth between Japan and the U.S. for the next several years, and even wrestled in one of the first professional events in China.

Dr. Death, in his OU singlet, was a legendary figure in Japan
Dr. Death, in his OU singlet, was a legendary figure in Japan

Still a major attraction in his ‘40s, “Dr. Death” ran into the toughest opponent of his career in 2003 when he was diagnosed with throat cancer.  An operation was performed that affected his vocal chords and at the time, doctors gave him six months to live.  But Williams battled back and has been cancer-free for the last three years.

The incident had a profound effect on Williams’ life.  Always known as a wild man and a party animal from his days at OU through his professional wrestling career, “Dr. Death” has changed his ways and is now giving his testimony to groups around the country. With his life in order, Williams is now using his influence to talk to the next generation of wrestlers.  He will be giving the prayer at the Fellowship of Christian Athletes breakfast on the opening day of the NCAA Championships in St. Louis and he plans to continue talking about his recovery.

“We have an awesome God.  He is just so wonderful.  I had throat cancer and they gave me six months to live and as of today, man, I’m three years cancer-free,” said Williams. “I’m wrestling, I’m out in churches ministering.  I wrote a book “How Dr. Death Became Dr. Life” and I’m going around the world telling people about how awesome God is.  Everybody should get their life right with Him.”

“He gave me a second chance.  I do my testimony.  I tell a lot of people I used to do it my way because I was so big and awesome and I was on top of the hill and nobody could knock me down.  I did it like Ole’ Blue Eyes, Frank Sinatra’s song. I did it my way.  In September ’03, I got knocked down to my knees from an opponent named cancer and I knew I couldn’t do it on my own.  I asked God into my life and now we’ve become a tag team.  He’s conquered cancer for me and now I’m gonna talk to the world telling them how awesome our God is.”

“Dr. Death” has lived in Louisiana for a number of years, but now he is making regular visits to Oklahoma through his association with a local company involved in wrestling, and he was recently honored by the OU wrestling team for his contribution to the Sooner program.

“It was kind of neat that I got to come and be honored by the team and the OU fans, and then come back and see Danny Hodge, Frankie DeAngelis, and some of the older guys, it was really neat,” said Williams. “I hadn’t seen a lot of wrestling matches lately and when I’ve been back in Oklahoma the last month and got to sit down and watch a dual, memories came back like the good old days. The fans that were there supporting it made me feel good and I kinda wish I was an assistant coach for them. I could help them out, you know?”

One thing Williams would like to see is increased support for wrestling in Oklahoma.  He is disappointed by the lack of fans at the Sooners matches.

“I never wrestled at the Field House.  We were filling them up so big, we always had them at the Lloyd Noble,” Williams said. “I feel sorry for Coach Jack.(Spates).  I think wrestling should still be on a pedestal.  A lot of people ought to come out and support OU. I went to the Ford Center and watched them wrestle and they beat Arizona State and I thought that was a great match.  There are some great wrestlers on that team that have the ability to be NCAA champions and all-Americans”

“I don’t think people realize what wrestling is all about. They don’t know the rules.  I think if somebody gets out there and explains the techniques and the point system,  people could understand it better. It’s like boxing and anything else. They like to see the big guys go at it. I don’t think people understand the sport and if they understood it better, I think they’d come out and watch.”

When it comes to his days at Oklahoma, Williams has nothing but fond memories of being a Sooner and is still close to his coaches in both football and wrestling.

“Being a football player that helped me with wrestling and wrestling helped me with football. What great coaches I played for – Barry Switzer and Stan Abel – you couldn’t have asked for anything better than that,” said Williams. “Those two guys were like fathers to me. They came to see me in the hospital when I was dying and couldn’t speak, and they spent six hours with me. And I realized that was a turnaround for me.  I speak to Barry a lot and Stan.”

“I think it was a blessing to go to Oklahoma and kids, if they ever get a chance, they ought to come to Oklahoma and play.  In fact, I have nine rings – three Orange Bowl, one Fiesta Bowl, one Sun Bowl, two Big Eight in wrestling, two Big Eight in football.  Those are my pride and joy.”

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In The Year 2000 – OU’s Last National Title May Have Been Even Too Absurd For Conan O’Brien to Predict

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It was the year that produced Oklahoma’s most recent national championship, brought the school back to football prominence and defined the Bob Stoops era of Sooner football. Seventeen years ago, Oklahoma surprised the nation – and possibly themselves – by putting together a dream season that stands as the most unlikely undefeated campaign in OU history.

What Oklahoma accomplished in the 2000 season was unprecedented. No Sooner team had won 13 games in a season and no team since has gone unbeaten. When the campaign started, no one suspected what was about to unfold. The previous year, Stoops first in Norman, OU had gone 7-5 and closed the season with a loss to Mississippi in the Independence Bowl – hardly the foundation for a national contender.

But Stoops had put together an up and coming coaching staff, an innovative offense installed by the departed Mike Leach, who left after one season to be the head coach at Texas Tech, and he had recruited what turned out to be the nucleus of a rock solid defense that was to be the key to the title run.

“You know, probably our youngest and most inexperienced team was our 2000 National Championship team,” said Stoops. “I look out and I remember back, we had only had one year with those guys, so the experience in our system wasn’t there for very long.”

“I remember walking out and starting early in the year with Derrick Strait, a redshirt freshman who hadn’t played at all. Michael Thompson, who played very, very little the year before, so basically, he’s a first year guy, first year starting as a true sophomore at the other corner. And so on and so on. And we struggled early in the year and kind of hit our stride mid-year and continued to improve as we went through the year.”

The Sooners began the season ranked in the lower regions of the top 20 and walked through an easy non-conference schedule to slowly begin their climb in the ratings and into the national consciousness. But it wasn’t until they took on Texas in the annual Red River Rivalry that people started to believing Oklahoma was ready for a return to glory.

In what was to ignite their march toward a spot in the national title game, the Sooners started what is now referred to as “Red October” by crushing 10th ranked Texas, 63-14, in Dallas as running back Quentin Griffin scored a record six touchdowns. It was OU’s first victory in the series in four years and began a run of five straight wins over the Longhorns.

The following week, OU had climbed to number eight in the national rankings, but had to go on the road at then-number two Kansas State. Behind the offense run by senior quarterback Josh Heupel, OU won 41-31 to make another leap to number three and set up yet another titanic battle against the number one ranked Nebraska Cornhuskers.

With the formation of the Big 12, the series between OU and Nebraska had ceased to become an annual affair after the 1997 season – mercifully so for the Sooners, who had lost by back to back scores of 73-21 and 69-7 in the last two meetings.

But things had changed in Norman since then. Stoops had taken over the program and had the Sooner faithful excited with the undefeated start. This would be his first meeting against Nebraska and a win over the top rated Huskers would complete a month-long march through murderer’s row and reestablish Oklahoma as a national power.

It would not be easy. The Sooners fell behind 14-0 early, as Heupel struggled in the opening quarter. Just as many fans started thinking that the OU streak was over, the defense quickly took command, holding the Huskers to just 16 yards in the second quarter.

And Heupel, who was now being mentioned in the Heisman Trophy race, heated up. He was 7 of 10 in the second quarter, including a 34-yard TD to Curtis Fagan to tie the game 11 minutes before halftime. By the time the teams headed to the locker room, OU had added 10 more points to take a 24-14 lead. For all practical purposes, the game was over. OU’s defense added the only score of the second half, as the Sooners scored the last 31 points of the game. Heupel finished 20 of 34 for 300 yards and Oklahoma had served notice that they not only were back, but also were ready to contend for an undefeated season and national championship.

Sooner Quarterback Josh Heupel
Sooner Quarterback Josh Heupel

“The first couple of series in that game, I missed some throws and just wasn’t feeling comfortable with what we were doing offensively,” Heupel admitted. “But once we got into the flow of the game, things settled down, our defense started to dominate, and we made some plays offensively.”

“That entire month was a big stepping stone for this program. That was the first building block to where we are today. And that game was very important. As many people as there were who thought we were a good football team, the win against Nebraska was the final stamp of approval that maybe this football team was for real and had a chance of going the distance.”

For the first time in anyone’s memory, OU fans tore down the goal posts after the victory. It was the first, and most definitely, the last time that would happen during Bob Stoops reign.

Now it was the Sooners’ turn to sit atop the national ratings, taking over the number one spot for the first time since their last national title in 1985. Two weeks later, they found themselves the marked team, on the road at Texas A&M and trailing in the fourth quarter, when linebacker Torrance Marshall intercepted a pass and ran it back for a touchdown, providing the winning margin in a 35-31 victory.

Oklahoma finished the regular season unbeaten with a close 12-7 win over Oklahoma State in Stillwater, then won for the second time against Kansas State in the Big 12 Championship game.

After that, on to Miami for the Orange Bowl and the national title game against Florida State, where some of the Sooners had extra incentive for the contest. Even though they were ranked number one and the Seminoles were third, the Sooners still weren’t getting the proper respect, with Florida State a double-digit favorite in the game.

Heupel had also finished second in the Heisman Trophy race to Seminole’s 27-year old quarterback Chris Weinke, which did not sit well with linebacker Marshall. During the pre-game coin toss Marshall announced to Weinke that he was there “to get my boy’s Heisman back”.

marshall-torrance-1-ok

They may not have taken back the Heisman, but the OU defense dominated and bewildered Florida State and Weinke all night long. The only two points for the Seminoles came on a safety when the Sooners botched a punt attempt in their own end zone. OU won 13-2, capturing the schools seventh national title and putting Oklahoma football back in its rightful place among the nation’s elite programs.

The celebrations when the team returned to Norman were carried on live television and the players treated like rock stars. Unknown to the nation when the season began, Heupel, linebacker Rocky Calmus and kick returner J.T. Thatcher became first-team All-Americans, while players like Roy Williams, Derrick Strait, and Andre Woolfolk would go on to become first round NFL draft picks in subsequent years.

A dozen players on the squad would go on to play professional football, but it was a number of the unsung squad members who represented the heart and soul of that championship team. Center Bubba Burcham was a lightly recruited player out of high school who suffered through the lean years prior to Stoops’ arrival. Transfer defensive tackle Chad Heinecke and walk-on linebacker Roger Steffen were also major contributors.

As is usually the case with championship teams, things had to go absolutely perfect for the dream season to materialize. There were comebacks and fortuitous bounces and the Sooners went the entire season without a major injury – a far cry from recent seasons that have seen talented players fall by the wayside. The confidence began to build after the Texas game and hit its crescendo in the title game.

Much of that has to be attributed to Stoops, who instilled a work ethic in his squad that has carried on through his entire tenure. As Teddy Lehman, a freshman contributor on the team who went on to become an All-American before his career ended, summed it up, winning became natural for the team because of their preparation.

“I never played in a game at Oklahoma – even the ones that we lost in later years – where I ever thought we were going to lose” said Lehman.

OU has had several more chances since that perfect 2000 season to capture additional national titles, but all have ended in defeat. More than a decade had passed and fans are wondering when that eighth championship will arrive. As those who followed the miracle that unfolded fourteen years ago can tell you, it will likely happen when you least expect it.