Tag Archives: Oklahoma Sooners

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”.

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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.

Revisiting the Daniel Tabon story – Most Times Fairy Tales Don’t Come True

Eight years ago, Daniel Tabon was an incredibly gifted football prospect who had seemingly just fallen from the sky.  Not on any Rivals  or Scout Top 100 list or ESPN Future Stars outlook.  He literally came from nowhere and after signing day was touted as the next great linebacker prospect for the Oklahoma Sooners.

But fame and fortune – or even college gridiron success – never happened for Tabon.  In fact, he never set foot on the field for a game in Norman.  His nomadic past made it difficult for him to gain NCAA certification and he was scheduled to sit out his freshman year.  Soon, he was gone from Norman and today is still in the metro area doing oil field work, according to his former coaches .  Even though he didn’t find football success, Tabon appears to be making a life for himself and still maintains contacts made through his brief association with OU football.

When I visited with him back in 2006, I encountered an extremely articulate young man who had experienced one of the toughest childhoods you could ever imagine.  Here is the story of Daniel Tabon.

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The buzz about OU football signee Daniel Tabon started unusually late in the recruiting season.  It was tough to believe that the 6-3, 215 linebacker from Altus with a 4.48 40-yard dash somehow escaped the radar screens of all the gurus who have normally identified the top prospects by the time they first put on a varsity uniform. But when you hear the whole story about the future Sooner linebacker, it becomes clearer why it was so hard to find Daniel Tabon.

From the time he was six years old, Daniel Tabon has not had a permanent address.  One of 13 children, he has been in 35 foster homes and shelters in the past dozen years.  He has no idea where most of his family is and has little contact with the ones he does know.  Had it not been for a reunion with a foster family that had kept him for a time five years earlier, Daniel might not be where he is today.

“A couple of years back, I thought I wouldn’t even finish high school,” admits Tabon.  “I figured I would just be doing what I was doing out on the streets, but I opted out of that and decided to get something better.  I’m graduating from high school and have a college scholarship. I’ll be the first Tabon to graduate from high school and go to college.  That’s a pretty big thing.”

Tabon’s journeys took him through a number of schools and communities in western Oklahoma and through it all, the only constant in his life seemed to be football. While he may have been lost in the foster care system, he always stood out on the gridiron.

“I was at a 7th grade football game and there was this kid in the backfield that looked like a man playing with boys,” current Altus High School head coach Lyn Hepner remembered.  “They were running just a toss sweep and he would just take the ball and go 80 yards.  And I’m thinking ‘That guy will make a player’.”

Former Altus coach Kelly Cox was another person who noticed the lanky 7th grader on the opposing Lawton Tomlinson team blowing through his squad.  Little did he know that the youngster would soon have an even bigger impact on his life and vice-versa.

As fate would have it, Tabon was soon taken from the foster home where he was staying in Lawton and moved to Altus. And the home he wound up in was with Kelly and Nancy Cox.

“One of his teachers from Lawton called me just out of the blue that didn’t know me from Adam, before he came to live with us, and said ‘I hope you can find a place for this kid.  I think he’s pretty interested in football’,” said Cox.

You might think that’s where the fairy tale part of this story begins.  But this is real life. And when you’re dealing with the child welfare system, everything doesn’t always go smoothly.  It certainly didn’t in this case.  Within a year, the state was pulling Tabon away again.  It was a tough and confusing moment for both the Cox family and for Tabon.

“My wife, when he came and told us he was leaving, she was crying’, said Cox. “He was just a 13-year old boy, he had only been in Altus a short time.  It was tough on everybody.”

“It was 7th grade year and I though the Cox family had given up on me”,   Tabon remembered. “That kind of sucked”.

Tabon would reappear in Altus in his freshman year, playing safety on the football team and again living with the Cox family.  Once again, problems arose and once again Tabon continued his nomadic journey.  The only thing that kept him from getting permanently lost in the system seemed to be his football ability.

“I went to the same school from the time I was a first grader, so I don’t know what it must be like to even be the new kid in school, let alone moving around all the time.  I mean, how many distractions would there have to be?” wondered Hepner.  “But the thing he’s always had is a trait to adapt to any situation. I guess that’s kind of a survival skill.”

“With his athletic ability, you’d hear things about him.  I know he went to Mangum for a while and I think that week we looked in the paper and he’d scored a touchdown and recovered a fumble.  Then you hear he’s at (Lawton) Eisenhower and it wasn’t long before he was starting.  In fact, we saw some film on him there.  Every program he went to, he contributed and he had to do it in a hurry. He did a really good job and, obviously, was staying eligible because he was playing.”

But as he got older and his home life continued to be unstable, Tabon began to realize that his dream of being a Division I football player might be just that.  He knew that most players who are being recruited start to get noticed no later than their junior year and with his moving from school to school, he was convinced that might be his undoing.  That’s when the thoughts of quitting school and giving up his dream became more prevalent.

After starting four games during his junior year at Lawton Eisenhower, Tabon was at the crossroads of his young life.  That’s when the Cox family got involved again, securing the necessary paperwork to become foster parents and moving him back into their family.  Hepner, who was taking over the Altus High School program after 26 years as a teacher and assistant coach, sat down with Tabon to give him some advice.

“When he came back this summer, I told him it was obvious to me that the people who care the most about you are right here in Altus,” said Hepner.  “The Cox family, they are to be commended.”

Something else happened in the summer before his senior year that would set the stage for the events that led to Tabon’s college recruitment. He attended the University of Tulsa football camp and was clocked at 4.45 in the 40. Kelly Cox knew it wouldn’t be long before college coaches knew who Tabon was.

“That’s the ‘holy grail’ in college football.  It doesn’t matter if you’re 5-7, 165, if you can run that fast, people will be after you,” said Cox.  “And here is this guy, 6-3, 215.”

Tulsa managed to keep the news about Tabon away from other recruiters, hoping they could sneak him into the fold before other schools could find out about him.  Tabon, though, had other ideas.  He was intent on playing at a BCS conference school, so if Tulsa was his only offer, he was ready to go to junior college and develop his game, then hope that he could make the move to a big D-1 program after that.  As it turned out, he wouldn’t have to wait, thanks to some extra work by Hepner.

Altus was using Tabon all over the field in his senior season.  He played safety, where he was a fierce hitter, ran some halfback and was used as a punt returner.  But midway through the season, there were still no college coaches calling on Tabon, so his coach went to work.  Hepner took his new video editing system and compiled a highlight tape of his star player, which he sent to a team in the Big 12.

“I actually sent it to OSU first and they didn’t seem very interested, so I held the highlights for awhile thinking that, well, maybe there isn’t as much talent as I think there is or he’s not what colleges are looking for,” said Hepner. “So we kept compiling the highlights and later on in the year I said, well, I’m going to send it to OU.  They don’t have to take it if they don’t want to, but I’m going to send it.  So I sent it on a Thursday and on Monday, Coach Merv Johnson was calling me, so it had caught somebody’s eye up there and things kind of rolled from there.”

The eye he caught was that of OU defensive coordinator Brent Venables, who envisioned the lanky safety as a bulked up linebacker in the Sooners scheme.  It didn’t take long for OU to make a scholarship offer to Tabon.

“I was pretty excited. It was a dream of mine to play D-1 ball and to play at OU – it couldn’t get any better than this,” said Tabon.

By this time, Tabon suddenly was moving up the recruiting ranks.  He made the Oklahoma All-State team and was rated as the fifth best player in the state. It seemed too good to be true, and Cox and his wife tried to make sure that the young man who had seen so many disappointments in his life didn’t lose perspective of where he had been and the challenges that were still ahead.

“It’s truly a gift of God that he’s been given and we want him to make the most of it, but we just wanted him to be low-key and humble through everything,” said Cox.  “We were excited, but Daniel knows best that this could be a two-edged sword and things can suddenly go the other way.  We didn’t want him to get the big head. But that’s something we’ve talked about all the time with him – overcoming obstacles.  And here’s a light at the end of the tunnel”

Tabon quickly committed to OU and despite some late overtures by other schools, became one of the Sooners 2006 signees.  Hepner and Cox agree with OU coaches who think Tabon can put on about 25 pounds on his 6-3 frame without losing his speed and agility.

Cox has been coaching for 19 years and, ironically, had worked in the Lawton program long before Tabon came on the scene, working with players like perennial NFL Pro Bowl selection Will Shields, and former Sooners Martin Chase and Antonio Perkins.

“I know what college players are like and he can fit in at that level.  He won’t be out of his league,” said Cox.  “Daniel tries his best when he’s challenged.  I don’t doubt at all that he can rise to the challenge off the get go. I don’t think there can be anything as difficult as what he has faced the last nine years of his life.”

Tackling the odds of trying to become a major college football star may not seem anywhere near as daunting as what Tabon has faced just making it to this point, but he is not satisfied with his good fortune thus far.

“I plan on coming up to Norman in early June to get acclimated.  I want to work with Smitty (strength coach Jerry Schmidt) and get bigger,” Tabon said.  “I’d like to play right away this fall.  It’s the biggest goal, one of my short term goals.  I’m up at six every morning lifting and running.  I plan on making an impact as soon as I can.  I plan on being a starter, if not this year, as soon as possible.”

And even though Tabon says it’s doubtful that anybody in his biological family has any idea of the success he has had in his football career, he will have family in Altus that is pulling for him every step of the way.

“We’ve been with him thick and thin the last four or five years, not just with football, but with his life,” said Cox.  “He’s a part of our family. We didn’t consider ourselves foster parents, we’re his parents. My 13 and 15-year old kids call him brother and he calls them brother and sister.  My wife calls him son and he calls her Mom.  That’s family.”

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Granville Liggins – All-Time Sooner Great

He may not have realized it at the time, but Granville Liggins was a trailblazer for future athletes at Oklahoma. 

Although OU had welcomed a number of black players since Bud Wilkinson had desegregated the team by bringing in Prentice Gautt in 1956, Liggins became the first black player from OU to gain All-American status, paving the way for the host of African-American athletes who followed him. 

Being a black player in NCAA football in the mid-60s was much different than it is today.

“It was quite scary, actually.  In 1963 and 64, there were only three or four black players on the football team – and only about 100 black students out of about 18,000 on campus,” Liggins recalled.  “We didn’t have many experiences off-campus.  Today, as we speak, the black kids have a helluva lot more fun socializing and doing things away from school than we ever did. The only exciting things that happened to me at OU were on the football field. 

Racism was never a factor on the football field, but it was driven home for Liggins during the off-season in his hometown of Tulsa.

“On my summer job in 1966, I was working at a paper company and one day I went to lunch at a restaurant with some other guys who were white,” Liggins said.  “I was told by the manager of the restaurant that I couldn’t eat my lunch there.  As an 18 or 19-year-old kid, I was stunned.”

“And as I sat outside and ate, I wondered to myself  “if this was OU and Notre Dame playing on a Saturday in Norman, Oklahoma, would those same people who refused to let me eat in their restaurant be cheering for me?”  Of course they would.  It hurt, but I just moved on.”

It had always been Liggins’ dream to play at OU for Bud Wilkinson.  He grew up idolizing lineman Ed McQuarters, another Tulsa Washington grad who starred for the Sooners in the early ‘60s.  Liggins listened to the OU games on the radio and watched Wilkinson ‘move those little pieces around on the chalk board’ on the weekly Sooner Football television show.  He never got to play for Wilkinson, as the legendary coach resigned to run for the U.S. Senate shortly after Liggins had committed to the Sooners.

And even though he went on to be a two-time All-American for the Sooners in football, Liggins’ greatest moment in Oklahoma athletics may not have even occurred on the gridiron. 

Granville LigginsAs a junior, Liggins was pressed into service by the OU wrestling team, which was in desperate need of a heavyweight.  The 5-11, 212 lb. Liggins had been a star grappler in high school, but at this level, he often had to go against opponents that were 50 to 100 pounds heavier.

“The Big Eight Championships were in the old field house at OU, “ Liggins remembered.  “I wrestled some guy about 6-6 and 280 lbs.  And somehow I beat him.  Everybody went crazy and I was hoisted around the field house and everybody was chanting ‘Granny, Granny, Granny’.  It still sends tingles up my spine to think about it.”

Liggins went on to become an All-American in wrestling as well, losing in the NCAA Championships to future NFL star Curley Culp, a 300-pounder.

Despite his small stature, Liggins was a demon for the Sooners at middle guard, taking on larger opponents and outmaneuvering them with his speed and quickness.  That was a trademark of Sooner teams of that era.

“We had the lightest defensive line in college football.  I think we averaged about 210 lbs. across the front but the one thing about OU is that we were fast from sideline to sideline.  They couldn’t run around us.”

But many teams still tried, including old Sooner nemesis Notre Dame.  Liggins calls the meeting against the Fighting Irish in 1966 as the biggest game of his career.

“They had Terry Hanratty, Alan Page, and Nick Eddy and their offensive line averaged about 250,” Liggins said.  “For two or three quarters, they tried to run around the end, but finally (Notre Dame coach) Parseghian got wise and they go the bright idea to run right at us and just wore us out.”

The other Oklahoma game that stands out in Liggins mind was the 1968 Orange Bowl victory over Tennessee.  It was a bittersweet moment for the senior, as he suffered a knee in jury in the third quarter and had to miss the Hula Bowl All-Star game.

That might have affected his NFL draft status as well, as he only went in the 10th round to the Detroit Lions despite finishing fifth in the Heisman Trophy balloting.  Their offer was not enough to suit Liggins, but another one was.  It came from the Canadian Football League’s Calgary Stampeders and it would change his life.

“I didn’t know where the hell Canada was then.  All I knew is that it was up north”, laughed Liggins. “My size was an issue with the NFL, but in the CFL, the bigger field gave me a chance to use my speed.”

“I had a ten-year run in Canada, when most pro careers average five to five and a half years. The best thing that ever happened to me was coming to Canada.  It’s a great place to live. I was truly blessed.”

Liggins played on Calgary’s Grey Cup championship team in 1971, defeating the Toronto Argonauts.  Ironically, Liggins was traded to the Argos in 1973 and recently, he was named as one of top five greatest players in Toronto history.  Staying in Canada, Liggins still makes his home in Oakville, Ontario.

Even though he now considers himself a Canadian, after spending more than half of his life north of the border, Liggins holds fondness for Oklahoma and the Sooners.  His mother lives in Oklahoma City and he still wears his “O” Club ring and the Orange Bowl/Big 8 Championship watch he got after his senior year alongside his Grey Cup Championship ring.

Liggins said he almost fell on the floor when told that he had been selected as one of OU’s greatest players.

“I’m amazed that people in Oklahoma still remember my name.  That is very humbling”, admitted Liggins.  “My years at OU, that was a great ride.  Every year I pull for those guys, but I don’t have the opportunity to get back there very often.”

“I was just fortunate.  Very few people get to do what they want to do.  I wanted to play football at OU.  I wanted to be an All-American.  I wanted to play in the NFL, but wound up in the CFL, which was a blessing for me.  When I retired from football at 32, my life was complete.  Everything since then has been a bonus.”