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.
* * *
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.”
* * *
OU football was glorious in the 1970s. Switzer lost seven games in the seven seasons from 1973-79. But season openers often were dicey: 28-11 over Baylor in 1974, 25-23 over Vanderbilt in 1977, 35-29 over Stanford in 1978.
Iowa was no different on this Band Day in 1979. The Hawkeyes scored first, on a 10-yard pass from quarterback Phil Suess.
And Iowa was playing defense. OU's wishbone would rush for just 269 yards that day, and Sooner carelessness and hard Hawkeye hitting led to seven OU fumbles. Iowa recovered five of them. In a stretch of 136 seconds, OU lost three fumbles and Iowa threw an interception.
The Sooners resorted to blitzing, usually with linebacker George Cumby, to keep the Hawkeyes at bay.
OU scored on Sims' touchdown, with backup quarterback Kelly Phelps directing the final 50 yards of an 80-yard drive after J.C. Watts was banged up.
The Sooners' John Hoge missed field goals of 47 and 24 yards — Stoops was jinxing OU kickers, even back then — and Iowa trailed just 7-6 after three quarters.
Finally, the Sooners wore down the Hawkeyes. Watts returned, and his passing keyed two more touchdowns, and OU survived 21-6.
Sims rushed for 106 yards on 23 carries, a nondescript game, other than a snapshot of a wild-eyed safety trying to bear down on the greatest offensive player in OU history.
Sims today says he sort of remembers Stoops in that game. “He was a pretty decent tackler,” Sims said. “One thing I did know about him, he would try to make the tackle. He wasn't trying to run the other way, that's for sure.”
Switzer, unaware that Fry was building something special and that the Hawkeyes would play Nebraska within 24-21 the next week, was not impressed with his Sooners.
“Well, he was used to hanging half-a-hundred on everybody,” Alvarez said. “So maybe we made it a little tougher on him than he expected. Matter of fact, I do remember seeing him after the game. He looked pretty disgusted.”
* * *
That game was Stoops' first at Owen Field. It also was the first OU game I ever covered.
I was 18 years old, working for the Norman Transcript the September after I got out of high school. My assignment was the Iowa locker room.
Thirty-two years later, I've encountered few postgame news conferences more entertaining. Fry filled every reporter's notebook.
“Men, I just told the football team what's wrong with this ballclub,” Fry said. “We get our --- kicked and get complimented. And if I see one guy that's got a smile on his face, I'm going to bust him right in the mouth.
“I'm proud of them. They've been working their tails off. But damn it, they've got to grow up and start winning some football games. Losing and looking good doing it is just a bunch of crap. Who is Iowa and who is Oklahoma? Just a bunch of 18-, 19- and 20-year-old kids out there.
“I didn't come to Iowa to lose, and I don't think these kids enrolled in school at Iowa to lose. These kids have been babied, pampered, petted and complimented so much when they lose that it makes me sick.
“Sure, I know we played a hell of a lot better than the experts and point spread predicted, but that isn't enough. We still lost.”
I don't believe I talked to Stoops that day. Don't know why I would have. I certainly didn't quote him.
Just an interesting football game at Owen Field. I had no idea what it would mean. That it was a small part of helping Iowa build something special, and a flying safety building a football pedigree that would one day bring him back to Norman.
“His whole career was like that,” Fry said of Stoops' launch. “He was very tough, very aggressive and very intelligent.
“He became what I call a bellcow. You know how it is on the farm, with the one cow with a bell that leads the way? When you want to feed the herd, you listen for the bell.
“He was my leader. He was my bellcow. We played for a Rose Bowl two years later.”
Berry Tramel: Berry can be reached at (405) 760-8080 or at email@example.com. He can be heard Monday through Friday from 4:40-5:20 p.m. on The Sports Animal radio network, including AM-640 and FM-98.1. You can also view his personality page at newsok.com/berrytramel.