NORMAN — Bobby Stoops hangs in the air, suspended by time, now 32 years, still seeking to draw a bead on Billy Sims.
Funny how a black and white photo can span so much history. Can bridge two eras of Sooner football.
Stoops, playing maybe not so well but definitely maniacal, bringing hard-nosed football to Owen Field 20 years before he ever coached a game there. Sims, the reigning Heisman Trophy holder the day he ran away from Stoops, showing the form that defined the Switzer '70s.
On Sept. 15, 1979, Oklahoma beat Iowa 21-6. The Hawkeyes, a woebegone football program, without a winning season since 1961, in their first year under coach Hayden Fry, played the crimson-striped pants off the third-ranked Sooners.
It was Stoops' second college football game. The only OU-Iowa game in history.
Next Friday, the Sooners and Hawkeyes finally stage a rematch, in Tempe, Ariz.'s Insight Bowl.
The flying Stoops photo is iconic because Stoops now is an iconic coach. Leader of the third great age of Oklahoma football. Wilkinson, Switzer, Stoops.
But the 1979 OU-Iowa game was a prequel, a wrinkle in time for what was to come. A pinch-me afternoon for Stoops, who grew up in Youngstown, Ohio, admiring the Sooners from afar.
When the Hawkeye bus drove up Jenkins Avenue that morning, and the 19-year-old safety saw the football stadium, “it was really cool,” Stoops thought. “I'm thinking, ‘I'm in Norman, Oklahoma.'”
Over the years, Stoops has sworn he was a Sooner fan growing up. Lifelong friend Jerry Williams has confirmed the story.
“I really loved Oklahoma football,” Stoops said. “Followed Oklahoma. I loved all the tailbacks. Really followed coach Switzer, their style of play.”
Those '70s tailbacks included Greg Pruitt, Joe Washington (Stoops and Williams painted their shoes silver, like Little Joe) and Billy Sims. Stoops went from fan to, as the picture clearly shows, pursuer of Switzer's greatest tailback.
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Stoops became a Hawkeye for the simplest of reasons. Iowa was the only Big Ten school to recruit him.
Iowa coach Bob Commings was from Youngstown, a year or two ahead of Ron Stoops, who stuck around his hometown to raise a family that included some notable coaching brothers.
Commings “probably saw something in me that no one else did,” Bob Stoops said. “Gave me a chance.”
Stoops redshirted the 1978 season as the Hawkeyes went 2-9, the school's 18th straight non-winning season. Commings, 18-37 in five seasons, was fired.
“I was so young, I didn't know what to think, other than hopefully the new staff coming in will give me a chance,” Stoops said.
The Fry era got off to a rough start, a 30-26 home loss to Indiana, so the Hawkeyes came to Norman that day with little hope of an upset or a turnaround season.
Stoops said his most vivid recollections of that game are two:
* The rock-hard Tartan turf on Owen Field, with the steep crown. “Like playing on a parking lot with fuzz on it,” Stoops said.
* How hard Billy Sims ran. “I remember being so impressed with him,” Stoops said. “I described him like a Tasmanian devil, spinning.”
But the Tasmanian devil might have been wearing No. 41 in Hawkeye black and gold.
“I remember Bobby was a really physical player, a heady player,” said Barry Alvarez, then Iowa's linebacker coach but who would go on to build Wisconsin into a Big Ten power. “You could see he was going to be a coach, even then. He could get everybody lined up, but he'd hit you, too.”
Fry that August was trying to figure out what kind of players he had inherited. Fry asked his staff what they'd seen in drills, and defensive coordinator Bill Brashier spoke up.
“Coach Fry, I got a guy out there who will chase you up in those two-bit seats, just to hit you,” Fry said Brashier told him.
“Why's he hitting anybody?” Fry asked. “We're just in shorts.”
Brashier answered, “You tell that to Bobby Stoops.”
Fry, who would coach Iowa to 143 wins and three Rose Bowls in 20 seasons, said, “That was the first time I'd ever heard of Bobby Stoops. He was the first player I learned about on the practice fields at Iowa.”
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