NEW ORLEANS — Since becoming Oklahoma's coach 15 years ago, Bob Stoops has always educated his players on the program's rich football history.
Rarely, though, does Stoops lead seminars on an opponent's tradition.
“There were very few programs that he put up there like that,” remembered former OU fullback J.D. Runnels. “Nebraska was one. USC was one, and he definitely put Alabama on a pedestal.”
Throughout the week leading up to Oklahoma's 37-27 home win over Alabama in early September 2002, Stoops repeatedly praised the Crimson Tide program, even showing videos of past Alabama greats.
That tremendous respect between the Oklahoma and Alabama programs continues today as they prepare to clash in Thursday's Sugar Bowl, which will only be the fifth-ever meeting between the traditional college football powers.
“It's very much like our series over the years has been with Penn State,” said longtime Alabama radio play-by-play announcer Eli Gold. “It is a game against another team that is very much like Alabama. … The fans have a very healthy respect for one another. I noticed that going to Norman, and the Oklahoma fans remembered that coming to Tuscaloosa the next year.”
Oklahoma and Alabama played a home-and-home series in 2002 and 2003, a time when the Sooners were among the nation's most dominant teams, and a relatively dark era in the Crimson Tide's storied history.
When Alabama traveled to Norman for a Sept. 7, 2002 contest, the program was in a rut — having gone 31-28 over the previous five seasons — and was ineligible for postseason competition that year because of NCAA sanctions.
“We felt like we were gonna win the game,” said former OU linebacker Teddy Lehman. “But all week, Coach Stoops talked about, ‘This is a program that is traditionally outstanding; the talent level that's there on campus is unbelievable; we can't sleep on these guys at all.'”
Lehman also developed a deep respect for Alabama fans that week.
On Wednesday morning of that game week, Lehman was walking to class when he saw a Chevy Tahoe covered in Alabama gear drive by, with fans screaming, “Roll Tide!” out the windows.
“I was like, ‘Oh my God; it's Wednesday,'” Lehman said. “By Thursday, the Lloyd Noble parking lot was completely full with RVs from Alabama. I thought, ‘This place is for real. Even when the program's down, they're traveling in huge numbers.'”
Gold remembered walking to the stadium on game day and being impressed with how friendly Oklahoma fans were.
“I'm not gonna name names, but you don't get that cordial of a welcome in every city in which the Tide has played,” Gold said with a laugh.
Oklahoma needed a late, fourth-quarter rally to beat Alabama that year, and pulled out another close victory the next season in Tuscaloosa.
“There were letters to the editor in local newspapers from Oklahoma fans that I remember reading, saying, ‘Thank you for treating us in such a classy way,'” Gold said. “Both games were like giant respect-fests, and that's good. It's wonderful.”
Ten years later, Alabama is in a much different place. The Crimson Tide won three of the last four national championships under coach Nick Saban, and were one freak play in the Iron Bowl from likely playing for another title
The warm feelings between programs, though, remain the same.
Saban's relationship with Stoops goes back more than 20 years, and the two fan bases respect one another because of those 2002 and 2003 games.
“There is a definitive respect that I have seen in the Alabama-Oklahoma series, and the Alabama-Penn State series,” Gold said. “Probably unlike any other that Bama has had over the years.
“Everybody here knows how special Oklahoma is. We're not saying that to blow smoke. It's just a fact.”