Oklahoma’s 2000 football team will turn 20 next year, and we’ll remember all of the rose petals, champagne fizz and fairy dust from that national championship season. It’s OK to be reverent that way.
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It’s also OK to be mindful, to recognize a 20-year anniversary happening right now.
“I think everyone immediately, and naturally, goes right to the 2000 national championship team,” says Bob Stoops, OU’s coach at that ascendant time. “But I’ve said on multiple occasions that that all begins with those guys in ’99.”
If 2000 marks the Sooners’ last great season, 1999 is their last essential one. It is one of the three most essential seasons in OU history, on par with 1970, the year offensive coordinator Barry Switzer changed from the veer to the wishbone, and 1946, the year Jim Tatum arrived with a young professorial assistant named Bud Wilkinson.
The program Stoops inherited was as wayward as the one Tatum did, with a revolving door of coaches and ideas that clouded players’ heads and infuriated loyalists.
“I came in my freshman year in ’98 and I definitely remember being booed by our own fans running into the tunnel,” says Jay Hunt, an OU running back at the time.
“You’re at Oklahoma and everyone says you’re horrible,” says Bubba Burcham, an offensive lineman then.
“Morale was low. I don’t know if it was so much morale but expectations,” says Jeremy Wilson-Guest, a defensive lineman. “We didn’t expect to win. We talked like we wanted to win, but we didn’t know how. We didn’t know how to prepare to win. We didn’t know how to work every day to prepare to win.”
Stoops arrived Dec. 1, 1998. He sicced strength and conditioning coordinator Jerry Schmidt on the players after that Christmas break, while he put in 20-hour recruiting days with the new staff.
“When they announced Coach Stoops, right at the very beginning you could see a change behind the scenes, the attitude, the way things were going to be run, the process of building up the players to believing they could win,” recalls Mike Prusinski, OU’s sports information director at the time. “That roster was full of talent. Even the last two years Coach Blake was there, the talent was there.”
It’s just nobody knew how to tap into it.
“Guys just wanted to be coached hard,” says Brandon Daniels, who went from ill-used quarterback under Blake to scene-stealing receiver/kick returner in ’99. “We responded well to it. We knew we had the ability. We just needed the right guy to get it out of us.”
It was a strenuous transition. Players used to being coaches’ buddies were now coaches’ projects. They were torn down so they could be rebuilt, first by Schmidt over the winter of ’99.
“It’s tough,” Schmidt acknowledges today, “but I enjoy people that are embarrassed and want to change it.”
The players who gutted out Schmidt’s regimen wanted to change the program desperately. So they rode out the conditioning, yielded to the new coaching and, sure enough, things began to change.
“I used to tell friends on the team like J.T. Thatcher and Ontei Jones, ‘Look, if we just get to a bowl game, we’ll be the group that turns this thing around,’” recalls Rocky Bright, an OU defensive end then. “‘Just a bowl game.’”
The ’99 Sooners lost to Ole Miss in the Independence Bowl to close out a season that was frustrating, rewarding and promising all at once.
They blew a few games they should have won. They also developed a steady identity and an unwavering camaraderie. They learned about accepting coaching and finishing games.
They built a foundation.
“I tell people we were probably the reason they won it all next year,” says Mike Woods, a senior cornerback in ’99.
There’s no “probably” about it.
“That ’99 season was the turning point of ‘You come to OU because you want to win championships,’ ” says Ryan Fisher, a ’99 defensive tackle. “ ‘There’s something special going on there.’ ”
“Belief is a heck of a thing. Proper coaching is a heck of a thing. That’s what all came together in 1999,” Bright says. “That was the breeding ground, the catapult for where we are.”
“You look at what’s happening today, it’s all from that season,” says ’99 defensive lineman Jeremy Wilson-Guest.
With Stoops staying another 17 years to build on that foundation, before passing the torch to assistant Lincoln Riley? That isn’t hyperbole.
This is fact: The 2000 season, OU’s last national championship, was a direct result of ’99. The ’99 Sooners had a feeling before anyone else possibly could.
“I can remember going fishing that summer between ’99 and 2000, me and Seth Littrell,” Wilson-Guest recalls.
“Out in Pink, Oklahoma. Catfishing,” says Littrell, a Sooners fullback then. “Yep. I know exactly what he’s talking about.”
“We would always go fishing in the afternoons after workouts,” Wilson-Guest continues. “I remember him and I sitting in the boat, talking ... ‘Y’know, we can win this thing ...’”