NORMAN — DeMarco Murray had been talking for a half-hour Wednesday at his introduction as Oklahoma’s running backs coach, when the question had to be asked.
If you had been healthy, wouldn’t your Sooners have beaten Tim Tebow’s Florida Gators for the 2008 national championship?
“Now that I’m not playing I guess I can say that,” Murray responded laughing. “Yeah.”
Murray spent the last half of that season in game-breaking form — he rushed for over 100 yards in three games and totaled 201 all-purpose yards in another between Oct. 25 and Nov. 22 — and then came the opening kickoff of the 2008 Big 12 championship. He tore a hamstring, underwent surgery and hobbled around Miami while the rest of his teammates prepared for Tebow and the Orange Bowl.
I can still see Murray stretched across a table at OU’s practice site, crutches leaning close by, looking as if he’d just lost his dog. The mood didn’t brighten the night the Gators beat the Sooners 24-14.
Florida won the rushing battle 248-107. The Murray-deprived Sooners couldn’t convert third-and-goal or fourth-and-goal from the 1-yard line in the first half, then lost four yards on third-and-1 in the third quarter, one play before Florida blocked a field goal attempt.
It was terrible injury luck that Bob Stoops would curse several more years.
“Yeah, they got Percy Harvin back (from an ankle injury) and we were without DeMarco,” Stoops said once in 2014. “So … yeah.”
Murray’s return to Norman 10 years after his departure as the program’s all-time leader in touchdowns and all-purpose yards is worth celebrating. It is a reminder of OU’s staying power.
Cale Gundy used to rave about Murray’s ability when the running back was 19 years old and leaping over Texas Longhorns in the Cotton Bowl. He was just as high on the young man’s character.
Fast forward to a few weeks ago, when the running back coach job opened on OU’s staff. Murray texted two eyeballs, Lincoln Riley’s go-to Twitter emoji, to Gundy when he heard the news. Now he coaches the same position Gundy did. He coaches on the same staff as his college tutor, since Gundy is still around coaching OU receivers.
It feels right that the 32-year-old Murray is back and looking eerily similar to the teenager who hurdled the Longhorns. To see him Wednesday was to get all nostalgic and believe he’ll work out fine, regardless of his one year of coaching experience at the University of Arizona.
The sharper edge to Murray’s return evokes that 2008 national championship. It isn’t just the bum luck that night. It’s the gap ever since.
Murray’s return is a reminder that the Sooners haven’t played for a national title since. A dozen seasons is an awfully long lull considering OU’s exalted standard, and Stoops and Riley’s relative success meeting it.
Relative to national championship appearances, it’s too long a lull.
“Right,” Murray recognized Wednesday. “There’s a standard, obviously, being associated with this program. Obviously a Big 12 championship means a lot and a playoff means a lot. But the ultimate goal, why you come here and why you play here and why you coach here, is to be in the big one.
“By no means do I take that lightly. By no means does anyone in this program take it lightly. We know what our goals are.”
Specific to Murray, those goals are fine-tuning Kennedy Brooks, Trey Sermon and Rhamondre Stevenson, developing younger backs T.J. Pledger, Marcus Major and Seth McGowan, and proving himself of four- and five-star caliber as a recruiter. He must crank out the production that predecessors Gundy and Jay Boulware did.
The mood at Wednesday’s introduction made that feel like the easy part.
It’s the bigger picture, helping to get the Sooners back in The Game, where Murray must make the ultimate difference. He played for a team that got there once. He’d like to coach a team there now.
An anxious fan base teased by four College Football Playoff semifinal appearances and seven Big 12 titles since 2008, the year OU would have won it all but for Murray’s torn hamstring, would like that even more.