By Darl DeVault
The University of Oklahoma Football Team’s success culminated with a National Championship last month.
The University of Oklahoma Football Team’s trip to the national title game after a mid-season loss reflects a tradition steeped in hard work and the will to prepare. Preparation is everything, as OU’s first coach in the modern era, Bud Wilkinson, preached. That tradition has afforded the school its prominence as the most successful major college program in the country since WWII.
The Sooners traveled to play in the FedEx Bowl Championship Series (BCS) title game on Jan. 8 at Dolphin Stadium in Miami, Fla., where they played the No. 2 Florida Gators.
Sooner Head Coach Bob Stoops’ teams were 109-23 before the game in January, with a national title and 6 conference championships in 10 seasons. The 10 teams compiled a 60-2 home record under his guidance, the most wins in the nation during that period. Oklahoma extended its national-best home winning streak to 24 games. Last year was the fifth time a Stoops-led OU squad won 12 or more games.
The University of Oklahoma Football Team’s success last season reflects a tradition steeped in hard work and the will to prepare. Preparation is everything, as OU’s first coach in the modern era, Bud Wilkinson, preached. That tradition has afforded the school its unqualified prominence as the most successful modern-era, major college program in the country. In wins and winning ways, the Sooners have led the way in many changes in college football, and now stand astride the modern era as the best program.
Stoops’ staff handles every aspect of college athletics well. His decade at the helm has earned him the privilege of firmly putting his stamp on the Bob Stoops era. This success, following the Bud Wilkinson and Barry Switzer eras, thrills Oklahoma football fans as they have come to expect the excellence the team displays.
Last year’s Sooners became the highest-scoring team ever in major college football, surpassing Hawaii's NCAA-record 656 points set in 2006. Oklahoma averaged 54 points per game to lead the nation. The team’s 702 points included five straight games of more than 60 points, becoming the first in 89 years to accomplish that feat.
Their Heisman Trophy winner, 6-foot-4, 218 lb. QB Sam Bradford, led the nation with 48 touchdown passes. The redshirt sophomore led a senior-dominated team by throwing those TDs to break the 40-TD school record Jason White set in his Heisman season. Bradford’s best-in-nation passer rating (186.3) translated into 4,464 yards as he capably directed the Sooners' newly installed fast-paced, no-huddle offense. He was voted college football player of the year by The Associated Press to add to his Davey O'Brien Award as the best QB.
Bradford was the third athlete to win the Heisman without receiving the most first-place votes. He, Notre Dame’s Paul Hornung in ‘56 and Billy Sims in ’78 are the only athletes to pull that off.
”We are fortunate and blessed to have a quality guy like Sam, how he handles himself and how he has developed. I think coach (Josh) Heupel deserves a lot of credit, along with Sam’s hard work on the fundamentals,” Stoops said after his sophomore quarterback’s Heisman selection. “You just watch him – how good he is in the pocket, his footwork, never throws the ball off balance, his release – he has worked hard and coach Heupel has worked hard with him.”
Oklahoma offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson won the Broyles Award in December as the top assistant coach in the country. Stoops said that Wilson has been important in Bradford’s development with his play calling. He pointed out how coach Wilson’s play calling helped by mixing things up and that Wilson, along with coach Heupel, did a great job with Bradford.
Growing up in Oklahoma City, Bradford was a three-year starter at QB for the Putnam City North Panthers. His dad Kent, a Sooner tackle from 1975-78, and his mother, Martha, encouraged their only child to play sports. He redshirted his freshman season at OU, working on the scout team for the Sooner defense.
Last year, Bradford carved up the competition with uncanny accuracy to win almost every award available to a college quarterback, including Academic All-American to go with his many other All-American selections.
Under the watchful eye of OU Quarterback Coach Josh Heupel, Bradford developed into the nation’s best pocket passer. He displays the patience to find the open receiver and the ability to throw the accurate pass, especially near the end zone. The sophomore passing sensation notched a school-record eleven 300-yard games, with a high point of scorching conference foe Kansas for 468 yards. Bradford was in a good rhythm by Oklahoma's 52-26 victory over Cincinnati last year. In the third quarter, he threw 12 strikes out of 13 attempts for two TDs and 168 yards.
Bradford threw to a stable of sure-handed receivers. Throwing short, intermediate, and long with equal precision, he was careful in his selection of open receivers, only throwing six interceptions all year. His primary receiver, wideout Juaquin Iglesias, picked up 1,092 yards last year. Other wide receivers, tight end Jermaine Gresham, and multiple running backs caught their fair share.
"Playing in the national championship is something we've talked about all three years that I've been here, and we've yet to do that," Bradford said soon after winning the Heisman. "So to have that opportunity... it's really exciting. Me and my teammates are really ready to get down there."
Oklahoma won seven straight games after losing to Texas to earn a berth in the national championship game. The 12-1 squad scored 45 points or more in each game after Texas, winning by a combined score of 419-205. The Sooners moved up one spot to No. 1 in the BCS by beating Missouri 62-21 in the Big 12 title game for its third-consecutive Big 12 Conference Championship.
OU has the best college football program in the modern/post-WWII era. The stats more than speak for themselves. The Sooners have amassed the highest combined regular-season and post-season winning percentage in NCAA Division I since 1946. The Sooners have the most wins, most national titles, and most weeks ranked No. 1 in the AP Poll and BCS in the modern era. Seniors on the 2004 team finished their careers playing in three BCS bowls. Last year’s seniors did that again.
Putting this success into historical perspective focuses OU’s uncanny ability to recruit talented athletes and prepare them by surrounding them with the best coaching. Early 20th century head coach Bennie Owen (Owen Field namesake), OU’s first of four 100-game winners, started a winning tradition. OU is the only major college to have four 100-victory coaches. Stoops joined Owen, Wilkinson and Switzer this year.
Former head coach Bud Wilkinson, who started coaching at the beginning of the modern era (post WWII), pioneered many successful regimens that are still in place today. One of the primary methods of good preparation for success is exhaustive recruiting to bring in the best talent each year. Wilkinson built a 31-game and historic NCAA record 47-game win streak. His teams went an equally amazing 72 conference games without a loss in the ‘50s. He laid the foundation of this dynasty by recruiting twice as effectively as other coaches of the day.
In those days, coaches only wanted to find the best at each position. Wilkinson wanted to find and recruit the best and second best at each position. Recruiting twice as productively as his contemporaries, the legendary coach expected to field a squad that would allow him to play his first and second team with little drop-off in talent and success.
During most of the games in Wilkinson’s era his first team started the game, only to turn the game over to his second team to play the second quarter. Out of the locker room his ‘starters’ began the second half, and because OU was usually ahead, the second team played the fourth quarter. Fresh legs every quarter and similar talent level produced many NCAA records.
"If you have the will to prepare, things will usually work out quite well, and the will to win will take care of itself," Wilkinson said during his career at OU.
That preparation paid off in building a dynasty of 13 consecutive conference championships and many individual awards for his athletes. After winning the 1950 national championship, Wilkinson recruited and coached running back Billy Vessels to the Heisman Trophy in 1952.
The late Bill Connors, former Tulsa World editor, said in 1998 that Vessels was the most complete athlete he ever saw play in person. Connors went on to explain that Vessels’ hard hitting on defense put two opposing players in the hospital when they played in Norman. They were unable to return to their schools with their team, making their way back early the next week.
Later, by the mid-‘50s, the national press were attuned to Wilkinson’s success but could not be counted on to understand his special platooning of his first and second team. This accounts for several odd vote totals in national awards.
The teams prospered in winning the ’55 and ’56 national titles, but sometimes athletes were shortchanged in individual awards. They did not get to play enough to compile statistics comparable to stars on other nationally ranked teams. A good example was how close Tommy McDonald came to winning the Heisman in ’56.
Close? As close as Tim Tebow came last year as the reigning Heisman winner. Tebow received 309 first place votes, to winner Bradford’s 300, but only took third. You have to go all the way back to McDonald’s third place in the ’56 Heisman voting to find a scenario where the most first place votes only meant third place.
Complicated, sure, but easily explained when you realize Wilkinson worked hard to recruit and prepare his first and second teams for equal playing time. This strategy propelled Oklahoma to 93 wins in the '50s, playing only 105 games. The Sooners' .895 winning percentage from 1950-59 is the highest of any decade.
Good recruiting is critical to college football preparation. Wilkinson traveled farther to recruit than many written accounts depict. He went to Albuquerque, New Mexico to land McDonald, and it paid off. The 5-foot-9, 175-pound speedster is still the only player to ever lead the Sooners for a season in all four offensive categories. In '55 and '56 he was the top rusher on the country's best rushing team. In '55 he led in passing (throwing the halfback pass) and scoring. He was the first Sooner to score a TD in every game of a season, as OU led the nation in scoring with 36.5 points a game. He led in receiving in '56. He still leads OU running backs in all-purpose yardage with 9.31 yards per play.
His National Football League career was a huge success as well. The most receptions for a five-year span and a 12-year career allowed McDonald to be enshrined in 1998 in the NFL Hall of Fame as the only NFL player to win every game in college in a three-season career.
During Switzer’s era at OU, he was often described as a masterful recruiter. He brought Joe Washington, Sims and Marcus Dupree to campus. Having landed Troy Aikman to pass OU to success, Switzer’s exhaustive recruiting allowed the Sooners to never miss a beat when Aikman went down with a broken leg. Switzer turned around to the bench to find new recruit and Southern California State Champion QB Jamelle Holieway. Holieway won that state title running a wishbone offense.
This is how Switzer won his third national title in ’86, watching an offense he installed run to perfection by the true freshman. Holieway is still the only true freshman to quarterback an NCAA Div. 1 team to a national championship.
Switzer put his stamp on his era by winning three national championships and coaching two Heisman Trophy winners. He was Steve Owens’ position coach in ’69 and head coach for Sims’ win in ’78.
Lee Roy Selmon is Switzer’s NFL Hall of Famer, while Stoops coached several athletes who may reach the hall. Tommie Harris is playing at that level, while several others are among the NFL’s best at their position.
This will to prepare and take this year’s national championship game seriously was evident in interviews before the game. Many team members expressed a strong work ethic for practice and a team focused on an obtainable goal, the national championship. In early interviews, several players described taking a business trip to Orlando, rather than vacationing.