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Oklahoma football: What to make of alums’ criticism

by Berry Tramel Published: January 15, 2013

Former players’ criticism of the current state of Sooner football is interesting. And not necessarily off base. It’s also not necessarily on base.

About some things, ex-players know more than the rest of us. They also can know less, if they aren’t committed to analyzing a subject with some degree of reason.

OU’s 41-13 Cotton Bowl loss to Texas A&M has evoked response ranging from outrage to concern. Our man Jason Kersey wrote about it for the Monday Oklahoman, which you can read here.

A quick synopsis:

* All-American offensive tackle Jamaal Brown, from the 2000-04 era, is “mad as hell” and says the current Sooners are “soft” and don’t play physical.

* CBS analyst Spencer Tillman, a halfback in the 1980s, says the program might have slipped because of lack of concentration on the things that brought success in the first place.

“When you’re 14 years deep in it, it requires a unique coach, a unique administrator, to look at the program and judge it on its face alone,” Tillman said.

* Steve Davis, who was a college football television analyst for much of his post-OU days and quarterbacked the Sooners in the 1970s, says OU suffers from a “talent recession.”

Let’s take a look at the criticism and see how justified it is.

* First, Brown. Do the Sooners play less physical than they once did? I’d say so. Does that make them soft? I’d say no.

“Yeah, I used to walk uphill five miles to school, too,” Bob Stoops said in response to Brown’s claim. “Tell him that.”

In fact, the whole softness thing is silly. An alternative criticism of Stoops’ program is that strength and conditioning coach Jerry Schmidt is too hard on players and runs them off.

“I thought we were too soft, so how can we be too hard on them?” Stoops said. “Ask them how that could be. We’re too hard on them but too soft. I never know how to be.

“We do things as close to as we have for a long, long time. Again, when you’re dealing with injuries or whatever, you can only do so much.”

Now, if someone wants to argue that Stoops has gone soft, or at least softer, I might buy it. The Stoops of 10 years ago wouldn’t bring up injuries or any other excuse.

But his players soft? If it’s true, I don’t see the evidence.

Less physical? Sure. Style of play changes everything. Spread offenses, quarterbacks who throw the ball all over the field, defenses that have to chase those kinds of offenses. Football is changing. It changed in the Big 12, but it’s also changing even in the SEC and the NFL.

That doesn’t make a team soft. Soft, to me, is as much a mental status as a physical status.

Are recent Stoops’ teams more mentally fragile than his earlier teams? I suppose you could make that argument. But you might lose.

One recent knock against Stoops’ teams is losing to teams they had no business losing to. But that’s happened only rarely, and it’s not a new trend.

Starting with 2001, here’s a list of games the Sooners lost which are largely inexcusable, considering the caliber of the opponent.

2001 OSU. 2007 Colorado. 2011 Texas Tech. Seems pretty well distributed among all generations of Stoops teams.

OK, now let’s make a list of blowouts. Truth is, OU never should lose by four touchdowns. The Sooners aren’t always the better team, but rarely are they totally overmatched. So here’s a list of games in which OU lost by at least 20 points:

Kansas State 2003, Southern Cal 2004, Texas 2005, West Virginia 2007, Texas Tech 2009, OSU 2011, Texas A&M 2012. Again, pretty even distribution. The Sooners have been lit up two straight years (Bedlam ’11, Cotton Bowl), but Stoops’ talent-rich 2003 and 2004 teams got waxed, too.

Here’s the unpleasant truth for Jamaal Brown. His 2004 team had a big-time offensive line, a Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback, a tailback-for-the-ages in Adrian Peterson and NFL players all over the defense. The 2012 Sooners had none of those jewels. Yet OU’s Cotton Bowl performance was no more a browbeating than the OU-USC Orange Bowl.

* Now, Tillman. I think he’s onto something.

It’s human nature for successful organizations to grow complacent.

That’s one of the things impressive about the Stoops era. Despite the many disappointments of recent years, the Sooners still have played and competed at a high level. OU has not had the massive dips of other programs.

The national contenders with OU in 2000 were Miami, Washington, Florida State, Nebraska and Kansas State. Then came Ohio State, USC, Texas and Florida. Later LSU, Virginia Tech, West Virginia and Alabama. All have endured rebuilding that makes a 10-3, Cotton Bowl season look like Utopia.

But that kind of sustained success can lead to a lack of introspection. Or a certain kind of arrogance that leads to lazy decisions, be they coaching staff or recruiting philosophy or whatever.

The criticism of Tillman seems legit, to me. One of the strengths of OU football – the stability of the triumvirate leadership of Stoops, athletic director Joe Castiglione and president David Boren, the nation’s longest-serving such trio – in this case is a curse. Boren and Joe C. appear to have more of a support role with Stoops. “What do you need? How can I help you?,” rather than, “What in the heck is going on?” I don’t picture too many do-better talks coming Stoops’ way.

* Finally, Davis. I think he’s clearly right. OU’s biggest problem is that the Sooners’ talent has slipped. Not a ton. OU still has excellent talent. Just not as great as it once did.

“I think this is clearly a time when recruiting has not maybe been as efficient and effective as you might think or might hope,” Davis said. “I think this is clearly a wakeup call. I think coaches recognize, and anyone close to the program that understands football has to understand, that we go through these recessions and you have to bear down. There may need to be some casualties, either players or coaches, but those are things that happen across the college landscape on a regular basis.”

Exactly. And Stoops knows it. That’s why last year he fired a coach (Willie Martinez) for the first time in his career and demoted a long-time comrade (Brent Venables).

So Davis is on point. But there’s another issue in which he’s off. Davis spoke of OU’s lack of national titles – one in 27 years, the least successful stretch in the 76 years since The Associated Press popularized national championships.

Except there’s one problem. As much as national titles are to talk about and celebrate and even win, you never should get hung up on how many a school has won or hasn’t won.

College football national titles aren’t legitimate. They are more legitimate now than in the old days, but that doesn’t make them legit.

OU won six national titles before Stoops. Two of the six were won in a bowl game. Think about that.

OU’s 1950, 1955 and 1956 national titles were won before bowl games. The ’56 team did not play in a bowl, per Big Seven Conference rules. The ’55 team beat Maryland 20-6 in the Orange Bowl. But the ’50 team lost to Kentucky 13-6 in the Sugar Bowl.

Then Barry Switzer’s 1974 team won the national title without playing in a bowl. His ’75 team won the national title with a 14-6 victory over Michigan in the Orange Bowl, and his 1985 team won the title with a 25-10 win over Penn State in the Orange Bowl.

But even in ’75, the Sooners didn’t beat their competition. Ohio State entered the bowls ranked No. 1 and played UCLA in the Rose Bowl. OU played the Big Ten runnerup in the Orange.

That kind of backdoor no longer is open. The ’75 Sooners might very well have defeated OhioState, if given the opportunity, but the whole thing is quirky.

You don’t like the BCS? The BCS is a million miles better than the old system.

Even under the current system, national titles are part happenstance. Alabama has won two straight in part because Iowa State beat OSU and Baylor beat Kansas State.

Wilkinson’s ’49 team was better than his ’50 team. Switzer’s ’73 team was better than his ’75 team and his ’86 team was better than his ’85 team.

The message is clear. Don’t follow national championships off the cliff in college football. They are great fun to claim, but in no way do they solely define a program.

 

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by Berry Tramel
Columnist
Berry Tramel, a lifelong Oklahoman, sports fan and newspaper reader, joined The Oklahoman in 1991 and has served as beat writer, assistant sports editor, sports editor and columnist. Tramel grew up reading four daily newspapers — The Oklahoman,...
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