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Making the right moves and putting the “cool” back into OU football
Rewind to National Signing Day 2013 at Oklahoma.
The Sooners did all right for themselves. They hauled in Dominique Alexander. He would go on to win Big 12 Defensive Freshman of the Year honors the following fall. Jordan Evans came aboard. Keith Ford, Stanvon Taylor, Matt Dimon… Guys you’d see on Owen Field in another seven months.
It wasn’t just a players watch, however. Fans kept a lookout for coaches.
OU trotted out Bob Stoops and several assistants in front of their cameras to talk about signees. You never saw Jackie Shipp, though. You never saw James Patton or Bruce Kittle. A major clue that they were no longer part of the Sooner equation.
It’s not as if the Sooners were in disarray. But the forgettable way the 2012 season had ended in the Cotton Bowl, followed by four weeks of high-profile recruiting losses and signatures scrambling left the distinct impression change was needed.
Now. Let’s visit the Adrian Peterson Team Room, site of OU’s 2014 National Signing Day press conference. Let’s listen to something defensive coordinator Mike Stoops said when it was his turn at the podium:
“We’ve changed the whole vibe of Oklahoma football. It’s cool again. That’s positive and that’s what we want. We want kids to play for the ‘cool’ school. Certainly that’s very positive when you look at what we’re able to do and what we’re starting to do for next year already. It’s very positive right now and we have a lot of momentum and hopefully we can carry that out.”
Again, OU was OK a year ago. You don’t share a Big 12 championship if you aren’t.
But OU wasn’t cool. This wasn’t the early 2000s, when the Stoops brothers led a young, vibrant staff to one big victory after another over their elders, and they could raid Texas to reel in a pair of five-star wonder boys in the same recruiting class (Adrian Peterson and Rhett Bomar, 2004).
Kevin Sumlin and Texas A&M? They were cool. The SEC was cool. Oregon’s uniforms and facilities — they were cool.
OU wasn’t going to change its gear. It wasn’t going to rebuild Memorial Stadium. They had a cool new dorm, but Bud Hall still stood across the street. It was stuck in the Big 12.
Some things Bob Stoops could control, though. He could replace Shipp with the younger, fresher Jerry Montgomery. He could add two more younger, fresher assistants. He could fortify his operations staff, direct their efforts to help update how the Sooners recruit. He could use the new staff blood to help reinvent how his offense moved the ball and how his defense stopped it.
There were bumps along the regular season way in Dallas and Waco. But the payoff eventually came.
And when it came, it was a bonanza.
The transformed offense used a devil-may-care approach to win at Oklahoma State and in New Orleans. Montgomery’s transformed defensive line wrecked shop against supposedly impenetrable Alabama.
The tide was crimson, not Crimson, and the Sooners rode its crest all the way through signing day. They picked off one target after another to shoot back into Rivals’/Scout’s/247’s national picture after disappearing for a few years.
As recruiting analysts boasted of OU’s bright future, Sooner coaches weren’t hidden from view this time around.
“We’re doing a better job… presenting what this program is all about, the tradition of it,” said Josh Heupel, “and selling it.”
“The way that we played, it was a great, inspiring effort by everybody,” Jay Norvell said of the Sugar Bowl, “and I think that made kids want to be a part of it. You know, the fun that our kids showed on the sideline, the spirit that the kids showed and the coaching staff.”
“It puts that extra topping on your cake,” said Cale Gundy. “You have a good program, but then (recruits) see something brand new that’s even better than they thought."
It brought Mike Stoops back to the good ol’ days.
“This reminds me a lot of when we started here at Oklahoma,” he said. “Sometimes change is just part of it.”
Change had to happen, and Bob Stoops made it happen. More importantly, he made it work.
The Sooners, left in the second-half dust by Johnny Manziel and the A&M cool kids a year ago, victimized as a result of being left on their old dusty recruiting trail, had completely rebooted.
They looked sharp again. They played sharp. They enjoyed themselves. Their recruits enjoyed themselves, using Twitter to communicate and predict big things for each other. Some even got ahold of a rendering of what an expanded Owen Field would look like.
The same fan base that worried not long ago that Stoops had peaked and the program had languished — they lapped it all up like Labrador puppies.
Former players who criticized the program for going soft not long ago partied hard on the OU sideline in the Superdome.
Everyone connected to the program felt so good about things again it was remarkable. And the best feeling of all — the best seemed yet to come.