It’s highly unlikely that the 2014 Oklahoma Sooner football will make it to the National Championship Playoff, let along qualify as one of the greatest teams in OU history. But since this is the 40th anniversary of the 1974 national title squad, I thought it would be fun to go back and revisit which teams should be on the top five list of all-time greatest in history.
For the purpose of this discussion, you have to narrow the field and even trying to do that will start a few chat room arguments. First of all, we’ll limit the choices to undefeated teams, and that in itself will start a fight with devotees of the 1985 squad, which won the National Championship, but lost in the regular season to Miami. The key word in this analysis is TEAM and that means performing on a high level for every game of the season. If you want to talk about the most talented squads in history, that may be another story.
We’ll start with the 1949 team, which went 11-0 and posted five shutouts, including a 35-0 rout of LSU in the Sugar Bowl. Despite a dominating year in which they outscored opponents 399-88, OU wound up second in the national polls, behind Notre Dame. Looking back, that snub seems amazing, given the fact that the unblemished season extended OU’s winning string to 21, a string that would be extended to 31 games with a 10-0 regular season in 1950, only to be snapped in the Sugar Bowl by Kentucky. Ironically, the Sooners did win the national title that season, as voting was done prior to the bowls.
The 1949 team featured Darrel Royal at quarterback in the split-T and the introduction of the Oklahoma 5-2 defense that became the standard for all levels of football in years to come. The closest anyone came to the Sooners that season was a six-point decision in the Red River Shootout over Texas. Bud Wilkinson’s squad also took a seven-point win over Orange Bowl bound Santa Clara, but after that, no one came within 20 points of OU. Besides Royal, Leon Heath, George Thomas, Stan West, Wade Walker and Jim Owens were named All-American and Wilkinson was named the National Football Coaches Association Coach of the Year.
Any of Wilkinson’s mid-50s undefeated teams could be included in the comparison, but the 1956 squad makes the list for their sheer dominance over opponents. They blasted their first three challengers 147-0 and went on to post six shutouts in 10 games. Included in the carnage were a 47-0 win over Texas, a 40-0 pasting of a Notre Dame team that would end the record 47 straight win streak the following year, and a season ending 53-0 thumping of Oklahoma A&M.
Mercifully for the rest of the teams in the nation, the Sooners did not play in a bowl game, but were declared National Champions after outscoring the opposition 463-51. Future NFL stars Tommy McDonald and Jerry Tubbs captured the Maxwell and Camp Trophies, as the top offensive and defensive players in the country, and they were joined on the All-American teams by Bill Krisher and Ed Gray.
Likewise, their predecessors in 1955 belong here for extending the streak to 30 games and being the only one of the three teams in the mid-50s to play in a bowl game. Like the team the following year, they allowed less than six points per game. Bo Bolinger and McDonald were All-Americans and the Sooners got revenge on the guy who left OU after one year to make way for Wilkinson, Jim Tatum. Tatum’s Maryland team was proclaimed by some as the ‘greatest team of the era’ but they soon found out who the real boss was.
The 1974 undefeated Associated Press National Championship team can certainly lay claim as being the best in Sooner history. Racking up staggering rushing numbers with Joe Washington leading the way, Barry Switzer’s first national title team was a dominant force that few outside of Oklahoma saw due to probation that banned the Sooners from television broadcasts. Only Texas was able to play OU within a touchdown and three times the offense posted more than 60 points in a game. Eight Sooners made All-American, led by future NFL Hall of Famer Lee Roy Selmon and brother Dewey. Other stars on the team included Washington, Tinker Owens, Rod Shoate, Randy Hughes and Kyle Davis, all of whom would go on to have lengthy NFL careers.
Fast forwarding to 2000, that team takes a slot in the top five for their amazing precision on the march to a national crown. Not regarded as a national contender in the preseason, Bob Stoops second OU team quickly opened eyes in the early season. Like this year’s squad, they were extremely dominant through the first eight games, including a 63-14 destruction of Texas that was similar to last month’s humiliation of the Longhorns. There were close calls at Texas A&M and Oklahoma State, as coaches tried to disguise the shoulder injury to quarterback Josh Heupel, who gamely fought through the pain and another narrow win over Kansas State in the Big 12 Championship game.
The climax to the first OU national title in 15 years was a breathtaking defensive performance in the Orange Bowl in a 13-2 win over Florida State. The Sooners shut down Heisman Trophy winner Chris Weinke and finished with a school-best 13-0 record. Heupel finished as the Heisman runner-up, while winning the Walter Camp trophy and Associated Press Player of the Year honors. Linebacker Rocky Calmus and kick returner J.T. Thatcher also made All-American teams, and bubbling under the radar was future superstar Roy Williams, who should have made the national honors squads.
Now that we have the lineup, it’s time to rank the contenders.
Number Five -2000
There are probably several OU teams that were not included on the list that have an argument to be ranked ahead of Stoops’ title team. But this team deserves a spot on the list for coming out of nowhere to will themselves to the National Championship. Heupel revolutionized OU’s offense and the defense has to rank among the top five all-time as well. It helped that no starters were lost to injury all year, an ingredient vital to almost all national title teams.
Number Four – 1955
The second of three straight national title teams gets this slot for the way they finished the regular season – four straight shutouts while outscoring their opponents 166-0 during that stretch, and for continuing on to a bowl game and knocking off number three Maryland, 20-6. That was something their 1956 counterparts didn’t get to do because of an archaic rule that a school couldn’t go to a bowl in consecutive years. Tell that to all the 6-5 teams of today.
Number Three – 1949
It’s probably a bias against post-World War II football, given the number of older veterans who returned to the collegiate ranks and a bias against the quality of football being played at the time that puts this squad lower on the list. Without television and videotape, it’s hard to compare the players of the time with those of today. This team holds its place in OU history as the one that really cemented OU’s national reputation in the Wilkinson era.
Number Two – 1956
The competition gets tough here. In the middle of college football’s longest winning streak, there can be plenty of support for this team as the best all-time. It’s close, but a nod goes to more modern times over the golden age. I can only hope that Tommy McDonald doesn’t get wind of this.
Number One – 1974
So many stars, so much success. Even though Steve Davis would be number five in talent among quarterbacks on the top teams, he ran the show well on a team with unbelievable ability. Half of the players on this team made All-Big Eight and almost the same number had outstanding pro careers. Even with a 14-0 season, this year’s squad would be hard pressed to topple Little Joe, the Selmons, Tinker Owens and Billy Brooks, Rod Shoate, Randy Hughes and all the great talent from Barry Switzer’s ultimate squad.
The football recruiting trail is littered with the bones of prospects who never reached their potential, but you always like to go back and look at the ones that seemingly rose from obscurity to make it big.
Former Sooner and current Cincinnati Bengals tight end Jermaine Gresham is one of those. Blessed with size and speed, Gresham rose from a dirt poor background to become one of the top receivers in the game.
But in late 2005, Gresham was just a tall basketball star that was starting to become a major football recruit without much fanfare. It all started with a video, in the days before the Internet had taken over recruiting and it culminated with OU getting a major star. And when I spoke with him, he was not used to all the attention that was starting to come his way. Let’s take a look back at the emergence of Ardmore’s Jermaine Gresham.
For a town of just under 24,000 residents, Ardmore has turned out its fair share of major college football prospects. And most of them have been skill position athletes. But none have possessed the overall God given talents of the latest recruit on the national radar, Jermaine Gresham.
At a shade over 6-6 and currently weighing 232 pounds, Gresham has recruiters ready to beat a path to the Carter County town this fall. In high school, he has played wide receiver and even some defensive back, but college coaches project him as a tight end in the mold of Tony Gonzalez, Jeremy Shockey or Kellen Winslow, Jr. Like Gonzalez, Gresham excels in basketball, having scored 39 points in the opening round of the 5A State Tournament this season. He averaged over 20 points and 10 rebounds a game this year, leading his team to a runner-up finish. Even though he is good enough to play basketball at the D-1 level, Gresham says he plans to play football.
Interestingly enough, Gresham has caught the attention of every major college football program in the country without going through one of the standard rituals that put most recruits on the map. The soft-spoken star has never attended any school’s summer camp and doesn’t plan to do it this summer, either. Instead he will work at the high school and re-take several classes to try and improve his overall grade point, hoping to reduce the score he needs on the ACT test. He took the college entrance exam for the first time in April.
Rivals.com, one of many recruiting sites that engulf the Internet, fueled his nationwide discovery. They posted video of Gresham in action and later traveled to Ardmore to see him in person, and they have now ranked him in their top 100 prospects for 2006. They currently list 10 schools in the running for his services, including Oklahoma.
Traditionally, OU has had a tough time with the nationally touted recruits from Ardmore. In the late 80s, Rafael Denson was a highly sought running back who chose Oklahoma State over Oklahoma, and in the 90s, wide receiver Taj Johnson left the Sooner State to sign with Miami, later transferring to San Diego State. The Sooners may have their work cut out for with Gresham, too, who says he is “wide open” in the recruiting process and will probably not commit to any school in the fall. He did ask his coach to take him to an OU spring scrimmage, possibly a good sign for the Sooners.
Gresham claims to have no allegiances to any team, saying he’s just a fan of the game. Hundreds of letters have been pouring in to his mailbox, and his high school coach, Mike Loyd, says a number of scholarship offers have already arrived. OU and OSU, along with LSU, Texas, Nebraska, Missouri and Iowa State have made that step, while schools like Notre Dame, Miami, Ohio State and Michigan are also hot on the trail.
One school that Gresham was looking forward to hearing from was National Champion USC.
“It’s kind of surprised me that I haven’t heard anything from them. Everybody else has stepped in”, said Gresham.
Several days later, the first correspondence from the Trojans arrived.
This is heady stuff for a 16-year old whose coach thought he was just a basketball player when he arrived at Tigers’ workouts a few years back. Gresham changed that perception with 27 catches his sophomore year, and 56 more last season. Those who have seen him in person or on tape marvel at his grace and agility. And he has decent speed for his size, running a 4.6 in the 40-yard dash.
Gresham is also modest in evaluating his own talents.
“I’m not fast, but I’ve got pretty good hands. Kind of like a T.O. (Terrell Owens)”, says Gresham, in a non-boastful manner. “But I watch everybody and try to pick up things I can use.”
What is frightening is that Loyd believes Gresham has only scratched the surface of his ultimate ability. Loyd should know a little about what it takes to make it as a big-time college football player. He played quarterback professionally for six seasons and coached junior college powerhouse Northeastern Oklahoma A&M from 1990-1995, leading the Norsemen to the 1991 National Championship. There, he produced a number of receivers who went on to star in the major college ranks and NFL, among them former University of Tulsa star Chris Penn.
Loyd says Gresham at this stage is ahead of any receiver he ever coached at NEO.
“Jermaine is athletically better than all those guys. His upside is incredible,” said Loyd. “He’s just now started working in the weight room and he’s starting to enjoy that. He’s strong in the bench and squat and I guarantee he can play at 245 pounds next year, easily. I can’t think of a receiver I’ve ever had with more potential.”
“Number one, he’s a good guy. He works hard, is fun to coach and fun to be around.
He has a chance for a bright future. He’s wide open. I’ll sit down and talk to him about the process. He’s just 16 years old and all of this can be overwhelming. I don’t know if he knows how special he is.”
To make sure that Gresham is prepared for the onslaught of recruiting advances that will intensify as the year develops, Loyd frequently sits down with his star player to map out a strategy for the recruiting process. He also brought in a couple of former OU stars to talk to Gresham about what to expect as schools try to entice him to join their programs.
Former Sooner tight end and recent Denver Broncos signee Stephen Alexander, heading into his ninth NFL season, recently traveled to Ardmore to give Gresham an idea of what the process is like and what schools will expect of him at the D-1 level. Alexander also talked to the youngster about getting his academics in order and about what kind of attitude college coaches would be expecting. The Chickasha native was accompanied by another former Sooner teammate, J.R. Conrad, who is now a coach with the Oklahoma City Yard Dawgz of the Arena II football league.
All of the attention is apparently having an impact on the young receiver. Gresham has started to become more serious in his workouts and is starting to build his body in a way that will meet college coaches’ expectations for the move to tight end. Loyd says Gresham reminds him of a bigger Ryan Humphrey, the former Tulsa Washington two-sport star who was a top tight end recruit by many colleges but chose instead to play basketball and is now in the NBA.
“Jermaine is like Ryan in that he is not a skinny basketball type guy out there. He’s a football player that also plays basketball”, noted Loyd. ”He has big legs and broad shoulders. He’s going to get much bigger.”
Gresham has always been a marked man on the gridiron, drawing double and sometimes triple coverage. Despite that, his coach plans to get him the football as much as he can this fall, especially on the short routes, where Gresham can use his size and agility to make yards after the catch. On the hitch pattern, Loyd says you can expect Gresham to run over his share of cornerbacks, too. He has averaged over 12 yards per reception on that particular pattern during his career.
Opposing teams won’t be the only ones zeroing in on Gresham this fall. The nation’s top programs will be vying for an opportunity to have him make one of his five official visits to their campus, but so far, he isn’t giving any hints as to how his top five list will shake out.
“I’m not going to commit early. I’ll take all my visits and weigh my options”, said Gresham. I’m just living my life.”
He made that visit to USC and to Miami, but eventually settled on OU, where his Mom could see him play. After a slow start his freshman year, he exploded with more than 100 catches and 25 touchdowns in his next two seasons.
The injury bug, which had continue to follow him to college, prevented him from playing his final season and he elected to turn pro, becoming the 21st overall selection in the 2010 draft. He signed a contract worth $15.85 million dollars, making those hardscrabble days growing up in south central Oklahoma a thing of the past.
His pro career has flourished, despite more injuries, as he joined fellow Sooner Keith Jackson and another Hall of Famer, Mike Ditka, as the only tight ends to catch 50 or more passes in their first three NFL seasons. After back-to-back Pro Bowl selections, Gresham saw his workload diminish in 2013 as he split time with rookie Tyler Eifert, but at 6-6 and 261 pounds, he remains one of the most feared targets in the league.
When the cheering stops, many athletes find themselves at a crossroads in their life, unsure of how to approach the real world. That was the case for former OU lineman, Eric Pope, a starter on the 1985 national championship team, who hit rock bottom before turning his life around and making a comeback more rewarding than anything he had experience on the football field.
Pope was a homegrown product, gaining All-State status at Seminole High School in the early 1980s. Growing up a Sooner fan, there was little doubt he would cast his lot with Oklahoma.
“Watching the Selmon brothers play was something I enjoyed growing up and without a shadow of a doubt, I wanted to go to the University of Oklahoma,” said Pope. “When I came out, I was one of the top 100 players in America, blue chip, all-American. It was between Nebraska and OU. Texas asked me if they had a shot, and I told Fred Akers no. He appreciated my honesty.”
He signed with OU and at 6-3, 285, became a mainstay on the offensive line. Injured in his initial year, Pope redshirted and spent five years at Oklahoma, suffering through a couple of down years for the program before grabbing a starting spot on Barry Switzer’s squad that overcame a loss to Miami in the regular season on their way to a wishbone-fueled national title with a win in the Orange Bowl over Penn State. Pope was a second-team all-Big Eight selection that season.
“It was pretty neat. Really an interesting time,” Pope said. “In ’83 we opted out of a bowl game. We already had a game scheduled in Hawaii and instead of going to the Holiday Bowl, that trip became our bowl game. You know you’ve been to too many bowl games when you opt out of one. Only year we didn’t go to a bowl when I was there.”
“There’s a statistic on that 85 national championship team that not too many people know, but we graduated 100 percent of our seniors. Seven seniors, everybody got a degree.”
While in Norman, Pope was exposed to the Fellowship of Christian Athletes through its longtime leaders Chuck Bowman and John O’Dell. That relationship would help in his revival in later years. But first, he would have to travel down a dark path that almost ruined his life.
Undrafted by the NFL, Pope still had dreams of making a team. He was hopeful that a history of injuries wouldn’t derail his chances.
“I was one of those guys who was challenged with injuries before I even left OU,” said Pope. “I had five surgeries while I was there. But going to the league was something I wanted to do.”
Signing as a free agent with the then St. Louis Cardinals, Pope was excited about being a professional, but not as thrilled with his new digs.
“First year I arrived there it was a lot of fun,” Pope said. The difficult part is that OU had just gone through a renovation with workout and training facilities and we probably had the best in the country. OU’s facilities were much better than what the Cardinals had.”
Battling to become a member of his new team, Pope’s hopes were dashed by injuries early on. He suffered another injury in pre-season and was released from the Taxi squad midway through the season. Still, he had shown enough to Cardinals coaches that he was invited back to camp the following year, only to break his hand in an early pre-season game. By the time he was healed, NFL players had gone on strike and since he had signed a contract and had been paid up front, he couldn’t return as one of the so-called “scab” players who filled in while the regulars were sitting out.
After two years, Pope called it quits, deciding not to try and hang on to the dream that so many players chase.
“I had a short career, it was difficult overcoming injuries. It had nothing to do with my ability but rather my durability,” Pope said. “A lot of guys don’t want to let go, but I knew it was time. But I got to know a lot of great players during my time there. There were some really interesting characters on my team. Pat Tilley was a strong Christian, O.J. Anderson was there before he got traded to the Giants, Neil Lomax was the quarterback, Roy Greene, great receiver and a four-time Pro Bowl selection. Good times a lot of fun.”
Without football in his life, though, Pope began wandering through his life without any direction. He spent five years traveling around the country, on a downward spiral fueled by alcohol and drug abuse. He tried going through 12-step programs and rehab centers several times, but nothing worked for him. His epiphany came when he was arrested for possession.
“When I left pro ball in 1987, I had some nasty habits. Just got caught up in the wrong circle, the wrong group of people, and found myself using. I remember my grandmother telling me “You run with dogs, you wind up with fleas”. That’s where I was. My life was really challenged,” Pope said. “One day, I was getting ready to face a prison term because of alcohol and drugs. I told the Lord if he would deliver me that I would help deliver the message. October 19, 1992 is the last time I had any alcohol or drugs.”
“At that point, that was a valley. When I got to that place in my life, everything and everybody was gone and my life was being threatened by the use of drugs, I surrendered to what I knew was right and God came in and delivered me, set me free from drugs and alcohol. Not long after that, I began to carry the Gospel to share that hope of recovery no matter what level of human life you had gone to. I’m a living testimony that there’s nothing too hard for God. That’s what I live by now and I work with my kids and tell them that dreams can come true. Anything is possible in their lives.”
Thinking back to 1984 and his experiences with FCA on the OU campus, Pope reached out to his former mentors and began to put his life back together. He began speaking to children on the evils of alcohol and drugs, and eventually became involved with the Abundant Life Family Worship Center in Oklahoma City, where he became an assistant pastor, director of the church’s men’s center and a member of the church Board of Trustees.
“I live life the way I played ball – as hard as I can to hold on to it,” said Pope. “I speak as often as I can to share that good news in high schools and colleges. I’ve done a lot of neat stuff in my life since that time, sharing my recovery.”
“When I look back on it sometimes, I say “Wow”. Would I do it again? Well I probably wouldn’t want to go down the road I went with alcohol and drug abuse, but I’d be afraid to miss anything for this relationship that I have right now with God. When you see me now, you see someone whose renewed and regenerated in his heart and mind. My life is totally converted. There’s no residue left behind.”
Standing by Pope’s side has been his wife, Floritta, also an evangelist working with single mothers and youth, who grew up in Holdenville and was Pope’s high school sweetheart. They have four daughters, including Jhavonne, who was a sprinter at Texas Tech and OU. Along with her sisters, Erica, Hannah and Rebekah, they form a singing group that performs at church functions.
“My four daughters have tremendous voices and are sharing them to praise God,” Pope said. “I have been truly blessed in my life.”
Pope now spends his days working to provide hope and assistance to his community and warning youngsters about the danger of associating with the wrong crowd. He’s not sure his status as a former OU player has that much of an impact on the groups he speaks to but it is part of his life, just as the dark days that led him to a spiritual revival.
“I played ball in ’85 and it was the Big Eight then. Most of the kids I talk to now weren’t even born when I was playing ball,” said Pope. “But I really enjoy working with them. I really think that’s what God is calling me to do.”