Berry Tramel

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Oklahoma football: A reader weighs in on the Cotton Bowl collapse

by Berry Tramel Published: January 7, 2013

As you can guess, I received a ton of emails after the Cotton Bowl. Anguished OU fans are searching for answers. I’ll post a big chunk of those emails, and some of my responses, later Monday. But I received one email that was really thoughtful and indepth. Fellow by the name of Randall. He raises a lot of good points and makes you think about the status of Sooner football. Here you go.

I think that you are overly optimistic if you think that all the Sooners need to do is fill some holes, address some deficiencies, and move on. You say that the OU program has not rotted at the core, and you cite the wins over Texas and OSU as evidence. But neither of those teams were very good this year. They both finished 5-4 in conference play. Texas has obviously fallen into disrepair, and the OSU game was in Norman. Beating the 2012 Cowboys by three points in overtime is better than being taken to overtime in Norman by Baylor in 2005, but not all that much better. The evidence seems clear to me. Bob Stoops’ Sooners have become a consistent three-loss per season program. OU only plays four, five teams a year that have reasonable prospects to beat the Sooners, and OU loses to three of them. The reasons all come back to the coaching staff. Here’s how I see it.

* Recruiting has fallen off. OU has not been able (or willing) to recruit enough good linemen to play college football at an elite level. I’ve heard several explanations for this. Advancing age and predominant ‘whiteness’ of the coaching staff often feature in these explanations. Another common explanation is that playing basketball on grass in the Big 12 does not bring linemen recognition by pro scouts and does not prepare them for the pro game.

* Retention of players is poor. Jerry Schmidt is a part of this. It is known that other programs use Schmidt as an example of why recruits should not sign with the Sooners. (Backups) never getting into games until the last couple of series in blowout victories is another part of this problem. Why be a good soldier for five years, working your tail off under Schmidt, when you will never get in for more than a handful of plays even in the biggest blowout games? Schmidt’s summer regimen is widely believed to be why several Sooners have left before their eligibility expired, even when it seemed quite clear that they could improve their pro draft prospects with another year of college experience. When you combine OU’s failure to recruit enough good linemen and Schmidt’s tendency to drive them off with the fact that the backups get little if any game experience, you get what OU has seen quite a bit in recent years, patchwork offensive lines where the lineup changes from week to week depending on who’s banged up to play, and with no experienced reserves to take the place of the injured.

* Mediocre coaching staff. Not many of OU’s assistants would be in demand at other top-10 programs. (I realize that I’m making the assumption that OU is still a top-10 program.) Josh Heupel certainly would not be offensive coordinator at any other top-10 program. I doubt that Mike Stoops is getting many phone calls from top-10 programs to come coordinate their defenses. Bobby Jack Wright was once in demand for his Texas recruiting connections, but he is getting older by the day, and so are those connections. It is not clear that he provides much value as a position coach. Cale Gundy’s value seems to be in recruiting too, but recruiting has fallen off. Is he in demand by other programs as a running backs coach? James Patton has developed interior offensive linemen who can pass-block, but they can’t run-block to save their lives. Running the ball on 3rd-and-1 requires toughness, attitude, and want-to. OU cannot run the ball on 3rd-and-1 against a good defense. As far as offensive tackles and tight ends, who is coaching them? Bruce Kittle? Kittle could not get hired to coach those positions at any other school in a BCS conference, much less any top-10 program. His qualification for holding this job seems to be little more than having been in the wedding party when Bob and Carol Stoops got married.

* Play-calling. Shaky. Josh Heupel seems lost against an interactive defense once he’s gone through his scripted plays. Mike Stoops has been shown to be something less than all-world by giving up all-time record yardage and points by not just Johnny Manziel and the Texas Aggies, but the likes of 7-6 West Virginia.

* Halftime adjustments. Not in evidence. In all of OU’s losses and close-calls, the Sooners were beaten in the second half. Consistently, the other coaching staffs are making the better adjustments.

* Blowout losses. Since marching into the Orange Bowl game after the 2004 season, OU has suffered its worst two bowl losses ever. It has suffered its worst-ever loss to Texas. It has done what no team with OU’s talent level should do — it has been humiliated. Blowouts are evidence of either failure to prepare or of moral collapse. Both of those problems come back to the coaches. They’re either not preparing the players adequately, or they’ve picked the wrong guys to be OU football players.

In summary, it seems to me that OU’s staff is operating far below peak efficiency, and far below where it was operating in 2000. Good coaches have left the staff to take better jobs. Their replacements don’t seem to be as good. They demonstrate the signs of complacency and entitlement. They aren’t getting the recruits because they’re not working hard.

Why doesn’t Bob fix the problems? I think that the program has become risk-averse. Why change anything, when you can win or tie for the conference championship every couple of years? After all, Bob did coach the Sooners to the 2000 national championship. That proves to Bob that he’s doing everything right and that changing anything might do more harm than good. Risk-aversion shows up in the game-planning and play-calling too. Both are far more conservative now than back in the days of Big Game Bob. Now, OU generally plays not to lose. That works fine against Florida A&M. Even works well against Mack Brown’s program-in-shambles. But it doesn’t work against the less-talented but better-coached K-State, or the equally talented but better-coached Notre Dame, or the better-talented and better-coached Texas A&M.

So, is the Schooner on fire? No, not if Sooner fans, boosters, and administrators are satisfied with three-loss seasons. And I don’t see it as being on fire either. But it does have some wheels that are wobbly and seem on the verge of falling off.”

Like I said, totally interesting. Here are my quick reactions to Randall.

* I think OU’s conference performance in 2012 was solid. The Sooners went 8-1 in a league that was void of a great team but had a bunch of teams that could beat you. If the Sooners had lost to Texas and OSU, those teams would have been 6-3 in the same kind of league. OU plays more than four or five teams that could beat it. I’d say OU could conceivably have lost to any team in the Big 12 except Kansas and Iowa State.

* With that said, I didn’t say OU just had to fill some voids. I said OU needs a talent upgrade, and Bob Stoops has all kinds of decisions to make, from coaching to personnel to strategy. That’s what I wrote about. What a vital off-season this is.

* Recruiting clearly has slipped. I think the “whiteness” comment was silly, but I definitely think the Big 12 style is not conducive to attracting strong linemen.

* I think it’s possible that Jerry Schmidt is a problem, but he looks like an untouchable to me. However, that backups-never-get-to-play argument carries no water. Outside of quarterback, the Sooners play a ton of players. They play seven DBs. They rotate linemen and receivers and running backs. If there’s a linebacker any good at all, he gets to play. Now they’ve even found a mainstream use for the backup quarterback. That’s a non-issue.

* It’s possible that Stoops’ staff has grown stagnant. But like we just saw, Stoops shook it up last year — Mike Stoops and Tim Kish in, Brent Venables and Willie Martinez out — and what good did that do? The idea that other schools are not clamoring for OU coaches is wrong — Stoops has consistently put assistants into head coaching jobs, and assistants aren’t looking to leave otherwise. However, the Kittle hire does seem problematic. The guy had no coaching credentials.

 

* I think the jury is out on Heupel, but the early returns, after two years, remain solid. OU’s offense last year was high-powered virtually every game. OU’s offense this year stymied against the really good teams. Was that gameplanning? I don’t know.

* Blowout losses aren’t good, but they’re sort of the cost of doing business. Guess what? OU’s winning by blowout more than ever, too. That’s the nature of college football these days. Beat Texas by 42, lose to A&M by 28. Last year, beat Texas by 38, lose to OSU by 34. At the end of the season, the Sooners had a remarkable run of close games (won them all; remember when that was a criticism of Stoops?), but I think all the blowouts, pro and con, are a result of college football’s wide open game.

* I think Randall might be onto something with the complacency point. The risk-averse. I don’t buy the gambling argument. I think OU is as wide open as ever. But I do think that coaching staffs can stagnate. It’s possible that OU’s offensive staff is more stagnant than the defense.

Anyway, excellent discussion, Randall. And stay tuned later today for an avalanche of emails, some of which are in Randall’s category of quality and some of which are kookier than a purple Christmas tree.

 

 

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by Berry Tramel
Columnist
Berry Tramel, a lifelong Oklahoman, sports fan and newspaper reader, joined The Oklahoman in 1991 and has served as beat writer, assistant sports editor, sports editor and columnist. Tramel grew up reading four daily newspapers — The Oklahoman,...
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