For the Tuesday Oklahoman, I wrote about Bill Blankenship and the University of Tulsa football program. You can read that column here. Here are some leftover items that didn’t make the paper but remain interesting.
* Until you visit the TU campus, you don’t appreciate the respect that permeates the school for president Steadman Upham.
Upham was hired at TU’s president in 2004 and undertook a massive fundraising campaign that has transformed the campus.
In 2011, Upham announced his retirement, effective June 2012. Tulsa hired Geoffrey Orsak as Upham’s successor. But in September, Orsak was fired after 74 days on the job, and Upham agreed to return to the job.
“He rescued us in a lot of ways,” Blankenship said. “Had we gone back to Square One, it would have cost us as a university.
“For Sted to come back in, it was almost as if we didn’t miss a beat. The level of respect for him in this community has really helped us not just survive, but thrive.
“The incredible fundraising, but he’s also done it in a spirit of approachability. He’s not been in ivory towers.”
Blankenship said Upham’s philosophy is, “If you’re going to do it, do it with excellence.”
Blankenship and others also laud Kevan Buck, TU’s executive vice president, who temporarily filled in as president and now is filling in as athletic director, after the resignation of Ross Parmley, who was implicated in a gambling (non sports) scandal. Buck oversaw Tulsa’s talks with the Big East, which has resulted in TU headed to the new American Athletic Conference in 2014.
TU has hired Eastern Michigan’s Derrick Gragg as its new AD.
* Blankenship admitted that Tulsa embraces the underdog role.
“And we probably dwell on it a little more,” he said. TU has the smallest enrollment (4,532) of any Division I-A football school. “Being the smallest, we kind of like to play on that underdog role, maybe more than we should.”
Tulsa won at Notre Dame in 2010. The Hurricane needs a series of victories like that. TU goes to Norman this year and in 2015, hosts OU in 2014, goes to Ohio State in 2016 and goes to OSU in 2017.
“The Boise States and TCUs have led the way,” Blankenship said. “To get to that level, you’ve got to win those games. To beat Arkansas and Iowa State and Oklahoma and Oklahoma State.”
Blankenship said Boise State has done a great job of evaluating talent. He hopes Tulsa is going along the same path.
“I do know, we’re getting more comparable in the way we appear,” Blankenship said. “We’re some bigger kids, faster kids.”
* Entry into the new American Athletic Conference in 2014 should be good for Tulsa. Many of the same faces from Conference USA, but some of the sleepy southern schools have been replaced by Cincinnati, Connecticut and South Florida.
“Conference USA has been great for us,” Blankenship said. But C-USA changed. Coming into the league are North Texas, Louisiana Tech, Texas-San Antonio, Florida International, Florida Atlantic and Middle Tennessee.
“There’s a big difference, going to Orlando (Central Florida) and New Orleans (Tulane) and Memphis, then we’re going to Ruston (La.) and wherever. From a recruiting standpoint, it was a big deal.”
Actually, the new C-USA members come from some big markets. Miami, Dallas, San Antone, Nashville. But the caliber of competition will be better in the new conference.
Blankenship said conference upheaval really doesn’t affect players. And on the recruiting end, the effect is “probably moreso with parents,” he said.
“The best thing I can do is help our team win. I just want us to grow.”
* Tulsa went 11-3 last season. Lost at Iowa State 38-23, lost 19-15 at Arkansas and lost 35-27 at SMU.
“Five or six plays (difference), we could have been in the Orange Bowl,” Blankenship said. “Five or six or the other way, we could have been in no bowl.”
Don’t laugh. He’s right. Northern Illinois made the Orange Bowl with a 12-1 record and a weaker schedule. And TU did skate by with some narrow wins: 27-26 over Fresno State, 49-42 over Alabama-Birmingham, 45-38 at Marshall, 28-24 over Rice, 23-21 and 33-27 in overtime against Central Florida.
But those close victories are huge. “The good thing is, the program’s in a fairly confident place,” Blankenship said. “That’s a good place to be. We’re not having to teach guys how to win. We can get to this point, we’ve actually seen it now. We know we can do this.”
* Blankenship said TU is proud of its new facilities. He has laughed with Dave Rader, who was TU’s starting quarterback in the 1970s, when Blankenship was the backup, and who went on to be the Tulsa head coach in the ‘90s.
“They would strategize,” Blankenship said of Rader’s time. “Bring recruits in at night.”
Now, the Tulsa campus and athletic facilities glistens.