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.