NORMAN — Long before Josh Heupel was Gabe Ikard's coach, he was his football idol.
Ikard was a fourth grader in Oklahoma City when Heupel led Oklahoma to a national title. Every kid had a No. 14 jersey and wanted to be Heupel when they played football at recess.
“He was that guy,” said Ikard, now the Sooners' senior center. “When you lead a team to a national championship around here, you're pretty much a legend.”
Thing is, Heupel traded the made-man status that comes with winning a national title for the most criticized job in Soonerland. He will always be renowned for leading the Sooners to the 2000 title — even though he did that goofy finger-pointing, fist-pumping celebration at the end — but as the Sooners' offensive coordinator and play caller, that ring won't save him from scrutiny.
The court of public opinion is an unforgiving place, and when the judges are wearing crimson, it can be merciless, even for former Sooners.
“Being an offensive coordinator is not easy,” Ikard said. “When things are going poorly, you're calling bad plays. When they're going really well, then players are making great plays.
“It's kind of a lose-lose.”
Criticism of the Sooner offensive coordinator is nothing new. It was happening before the 35-year-old Heupel was even born.
And he knew what he was signing up for when he took over the play-calling duties three years ago. He played for or coached with every offensive coordinator that came before him in the Bob Stoops era. Mike Leach. Mark Mangino. Chuck Long. Kevin Wilson.
Even though each of those coaches were wildly successful — they oversaw some of the most prolific offenses in the program's history — each and every one of them would've been run out of town at bayonet point if some Sooner fans had their druthers. Leach was too radical for some, though he wasn't around long enough to really upset fans. Mangino was too conservative, Long too predictable, Wilson too cute.
Never mind the fact that over their combined 11 seasons as offensive coordinator, the Sooners won a national title, played for it three more times and played in four other BCS bowls.
They won a couple of Heisman Trophies during that decade, too.
Still, the criticism of the offensive coordinator was always more plentiful than praise.
“The thing about play calling is that everybody who watches a football game thinks they can call plays,” said Sooner co-offensive coordinator Jay Norvell, who called plays once upon a time at UCLA and Nebraska, “and it's really not that easy.”
Of course, we know that is true, but it's so darn easy to watch a play go splat or a series go kaput and think, “What are they doing throwing it?” or “Why didn't Heupel run the Belldozer?”
This isn't to say that Heupel is faultless in the Sooners' offensive inconsistencies this season. The problems have been a team effort, and he has definitely contributed.
But to say he should be fired — and plenty of Sooner fans have said that — is crazy.
It might be darn near impossible, too. Heupel's sister, Andrea, is married to Dan Boren, son of OU president David Boren.
Good luck firing Josh Heupel.
Truth is, he's more likely to get a promotion than a pink slip. Heupel as successor to Stoops, whenever that might be, doesn't seem too far fetched.
“I fully expect him to get a head coaching job soon,” Ikard said. “He's one of those guys that is just a great football mind, really dedicated, works extremely hard.”
Not that anyone outside the Sooner locker room or the Heupel family gives him any credit for it.
Not that Heupel is clamoring for it.
“Ultimately, we've got to score enough points to win every game,” he said. “That's what it comes down to.
“Whether you're being praised or you're being burned at the stake, it really doesn't matter. You're only as good as your next performance. That's the great thing about being an athlete, a coach in the competitive ring; you get to go out and make it happen rather than responding to it.”
Heupel made it happen as a player. He was the face of that championship season, a Sooner savior. He could've settled in Oklahoma, opened a chain of barbecue restaurants or done heat and air commercials and been loved forevermore.
Instead, he pulled on a visor, hit the elevator button for the sixth floor of the press box and sat down on the hot seat.
Jenni Carlson: Jenni can be reached at (405) 475-4125. Like her at facebook.com/JenniCarlsonOK, follow her at twitter.com/jennicarlson_ok or view her personality page at newsok.com/jennicarlson.