TULSA — Steadman Upham took a chance on Bill Blankenship.
The University of Tulsa president hired a football coach known more for his victories on Friday nights than anything achieved on a college campus.
Hired a football coach who wouldn't cost a million dollars a year and who might not bolt for a bigger job at the first taste of success.
Sometimes such decision-making can make you settle. Not this time.
Two years into the job, Blankenship has the Golden Hurricane going strong. Tulsa football is in better shape than it's ever been.
“We took a chance with Bill,” Upham admitted. “We took some criticism for that. Some people thought he wasn't tested, too soon out of the high school ranks.”
Blankenship had spent four years on the TU staff, after building a powerhouse program at Union High School in south Tulsa.
But when Todd Graham left TU for Pitt, four years after Steve Kragthorpe left for Louisville, the Tulsa administration was ready for some stability.
“We saw something in Bill,” Upham said. “And I'm glad we followed our instincts and put him in that job. He's everything we could have asked for and plus.
“The program is very strong. We're recruiting extremely well. And we have been for five or six years, and it's getting better and better.”
Blankenship, a 1979 TU graduate, looks out the window of his spacious, but not ostentatious, office in the Case Athletic Complex, which overlooks the pristine H.A. Chapman Stadium. When he was a backup quarterback in the 1970s, Tulsa football was vastly different.
The TU football headquarters opened in 2007. The football stadium was completely renovated in 2008.
The Liberty Bowl trophy sits nearby. A new league, the American Athletic Conference, with old rivals and new solid names, awaits TU in 2014.
In two years as the Golden Hurricane coach, Blankenship is 19-8, continuing the Tulsa renaissance that has produced 80 victories the last 10 years, after TU won 30 the 10 years before that.
Good facilities. A winning tradition. Conference upgrade. A coach who in many ways is Mr. Tulsa Football. This is not the old TU football.
“I would say the University of Tulsa is in better shape than it's ever been, the accomplishments we've had throughout the Stedman Upham regime,” Blankenship said. “This is a different place than it was eight years ago. Fortunately, football's one of the beneficiaries of that.”
Indeed, capital improvements have remade the TU campus, home to the smallest enrollment (4,352) in Division I-A football.
Of course, Blankenship is a football coach. He would always like more. An indoor facility would be nice. Another weight room, to go with the new one shared by all TU teams. Other amenities. College football at this level is big business.
But Blankenship is not complaining. He knows some of his predecessors didn't have the digs he enjoys. “We don't have the biggest but we really have nice facilities,” Blankenship said.
And TU is making the most of it. Tulsa is back in the business of knocking off name-brand teams. Under Graham, Tulsa beat Brigham Young in 2007 and Notre Dame in 2010. Last December, Tulsa beat Iowa State in the Liberty Bowl, TU's first bowl win over a major-conference foe since beating Ole Miss in the 1964 Bluebonnet.
Austin Chadwick, who played for Blankenship at Union and then played at TU, noted that the Hurricane has had some great teams. The powers of the 1940s, the high-scoring teams of the ‘60s. The breakthrough 1991 squad that beat Texas A&M and went 10-2.
“But from the standpoint of the type of caliber of athletes that are being recruited, facilities, coaching staff, the overall program, it's as good as it's ever been,” Chadwick said.
“It stems from Coach Krag resurrecting it from the dead when I was there. Then Todd taking it to another level. Then Coach B.”
Make no mistake. Tulsa remains a mid-major, a term Blankenship doesn't like but one he admits fits.
“I guess it's better than minor,” he said, and it provides a “little bit of a chip on your shoulder. Little bit of a see-if-we-can-do-that.”
Blankenship grew up in Spiro, the son of long-time Spiro coach Gerald Blankenship. Bill himself was coach at Spiro and Edmond Memorial before going to Union.
High school coaches are drawn to Blankenship because of his career path — and because he recruits their players. Sixty-four Oklahomans dot the TU roster.
“That's a big deal to me,” Blankenship.
And he knows he represents some great coaches who never rose above the high school ranks. Blankenship reels off the names of colleagues and adversaries.
Jenks' Allen Trimble. Norman North's Wade Standley. Broken Arrow's Steve Spavital. Union's Kirk Fridrich. Owasso's Bill Patterson.
“I feel that so many of those guys are so sincerely happy that one of their guys in the club got a chance,” Blankenship said. “I'm trying to be the same guy I was then. I think it's important to them as well; it brings honor and respect to what high school coaches are doing every day.”
Upham said the trust and confidence that high school coaches have in Blankenship helped make his decision two years ago.
Tulsa's attendance in 2012 averaged just 20,020 in 30,000-seat Chapman Stadium. Mid-major football is a tough sell these days. Six TU home games were televised football on national cable networks.
“Gotta get people in the stands,” Blankenship said.
But Blankenship's reputation as not just a good coach but an excellent man, built over a quarter century in the city of Tulsa, has renewed interest among prominent civic leaders.
“The Tulsa community's pretty excited again,” Blankenship said. “I know I'm a little biased, but people in the community are thinking it's important.
“Our history, there were some pretty big eras of Tulsa football. It's kind of fun being a part of that again.”
Berry Tramel: Berry can be reached at (405) 760-8080 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. He can be heard Monday through Friday from 4:40-5:20 p.m. on The Sports Animal radio network, including FM-98.1. You can also view his personality page at newsok.com/berrytramel.