The rebirth of Oklahoma football began one January morning 20 years ago not with Bob Stoops, but with the bristle-haired, barrel-chested drill sergeant Stoops had brought with him from Florida. It began not at Owen Field, but inside a dingy workout facility a few blocks east of the stadium, with the rest of Norman sound asleep.
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It began with 80 players who looked at those trash cans positioned all over the place, heard strength and conditioning coach Jerry Schmidt blow his whistle, and sensed their lives were about to change.
“Ten minutes in, guys are puking,” says Josh Norman, an inside receiver on the ’99 Sooners.
“We called it ‘giving it up for Big Red,’” says Tim Duncan, OU’s kicker then.
“After another 20 minutes Schmitty brings us in,” says Jay Hunt, a running back on that team. “He says ‘Good job!’ We’re thinking the workout is done.”
“I f---king hated it. I’m not gonna lie, I hated working out. But there was a method to the madness. Y’know? It made us who we were.” — Roy Williams
“We hear Schmitty say, ‘Let’s start stretching,’” says defensive lineman Jeremy Wilson-Guest. “We all looked at each other. ‘Stretching? You mean that was a warmup?’ You could hear a mouse fart in that place.’
“We’re like, ‘Oh this is fixin’ to be crazy,” Hunt says. “Schmitty brings us in closer for a breakdown and says, ‘National champs on three!’ That’s the first time I remember we yelled ‘National champs!’ That’s when the idea was first planted into our head.”
The players’ lives were, in fact, about to change. So was the direction of their program.
Schmidt was captivated by Stoops from their three seasons together on Steve Spurrier’s Florida staff in 1996-98.
“I just knew,” Schmidt, now director of athletic performance at Texas A&M, says. “You can feel it when a guy’s got that ‘it’ factor, and Bob had it.”
Stoops was drawn to Schmidt because he worked in the same straight lines. They both squared their jaws at problems and then manhandled them.
And so it was no surprise Schmidt was one of two assistants on the ground of the OU rebuild from week one (the other was Bobby Jack Wright, a veteran assistant who knew Texas high school football like a preacher knows the Bible).
It was no surprise Stoops deputized Schmidt to change the culture of the place, to reshape the bodies and minds of players who until then had been spoiled with ice cream the night before games and on the way home from road trips.
“I remember one time that first spring, we’re out there running full-field gassers, like six-trippers end zone to end zone. We’re dying,” Norman says, “Coach Stoops walks out to check on us. I think it was Quentin Griffin (a freshman running back then) who said, ‘Coach Stoops, man, you gotta stop Schmitty. This ain’t right. You gotta do something about it.’”
“Coach Stoops just looks around and says, ‘Well. You guys know. Whatever Schmitty says goes.’ And walks off.”
“Bob said, ‘You got a problem with these guys, then you’ve got a problem with me,’” says Corey Edmond, one of Schmidt’s strength staff assistants in ’99. “Right then and there he gave us the leeway to go do the things we needed to do to change that team.”
“We came to realize Schmitty was a huge reason for our success,” Norman says. “Coach Stoops having the wherewithal to give Schmitty free reign was brilliant.”
“Our problem before ’99 was we’d get in shape as the season was going on,” says Mike Woods, a senior starting cornerback in ’99. “You had to be in shape before the season started. Next thing you look up, it’s halfway through the season and you’re finally getting in shape.”
There was football in mind with the regime change. That, though, only hinted at the impact.
“It was all survival that winter, and a lot of guys didn’t survive,” Wilson-Guest says. “You’ve never seen so many guys give up full-ride scholarships. Every day there was one or two that were missing.”
“It was culture shock, man,” says Damian Mackey, a starting receiver in ’99. “Between the last game of the ’98 season and the start of the ’99 season, we had a turnover of, like, 30 guys.”
“I remember hearing this statement consistently: ‘I’m done, I’m outta here,’” Hunt says. “The coaches at our stations would yell, ‘If you walk out that door, don’t come back!’ Guys would go out that door and you’d never see them again. It’s like they left the planet or something.”
The ones who stayed took what Schmidt threw at them, clung to each other and threw it right back.
“Schmitty, the amount of work we put in during the offseason, I thought there were times he was gonna kill us all,” says Seth Littrell, the North Texas coach who was a running back for the ’99 Sooners. “But that’s what brought us together.”
“It seemed like half the damn team quit,” says Trent Smith, a redshirt freshman tight end in ’99. “I do remember every time one of those guys quit, it became more motivating to us players who eventually became that ’99 team.”
“Well what else you got!” says Rocky Bright, a ’99 defensive end. “That was our attitude.”
Through winter, spring and on into that first sweltering summer.
“After a weekend off that summer, we came back and there was a hill up around the campus Duck Pond,” says Jarrail Jackson, a senior receiver and kick returner in ‘99. “Schmitty had somebody come in and kind of landscape it a little bit. That morning we came back, he had 45 and 35 weighted sleds, and we had to pull them up a hill 16 times in the heat. I saw Stockar McDougle (a senior tackle) pull one up that hill and he had a full body lockdown. The sled pulled him all the way back down the hill to the Duck Pond.
“They walked over to him and were like, ‘Stockar! Can you hear me?’ ‘Yeah.’ ‘Get up. You’re killin’ the grass!’”
“We walked out there for our portion of the workout and it looked like there had literally been a war battle,” Duncan says. “There were bodies laying everywhere.”
‘After one workout it was myself, Curtis Fagan, Andre Woolfolk and Damian Mackey,” Norman recalls. “We were all sitting there after getting our tails busted by Schmitty and we said to ourselves, ‘You know what, man, if we don’t start winning next year, we’re not coming back next summer. Cause it’s pointless. What’s the reason to do all this and not win?’”
It was the reason, of course, as the Sooners discovered in the fall of ’99 when they started to win. That’s when it started to sink in.
“I f---king hated it. I’m not gonna lie, I hated working out,” says Roy Williams, a redshirt freshman safety in ’99. “But there was a method to the madness. Y’know? It made us who we were.”
“The mental toughness, the winning attitude versus immediate gratitude...” says ’99 freshman safety Matt McCoy. “Schmitty was as instrumental as any of the on-the-field coaches in that whole deal.”
Williams calls it “Schmitty built” to this day. He and so many of the ’99 Sooners grew from swearing at their taskmaster to swearing by him.
Four-star talent Brandon Daniels spent from 1996-98 seeking a position and an identity within the OU program. Then Stoops arrived and brought Schmidt with him.
“It was a little tough at first. Like, ‘Man, what is going on?’” Daniels says. “We just hoped we were going to get something out of it. After a while we knew we were.”
“It changed the mentality of the team,” says Josh Smith, a starting offensive lineman in ’99.
“Those workouts prepared us to do what we did,” Savage says.
They swear by him, and he swears by them.
“Those guys, when it was time to take their rep, whether it was a sprint or a lift, they took their rep. They were about team,” Schmidt says. “That first group, we kept the hammer down.
“I didn’t know how everybody was gonna respond day one. We went over to that funky indoor that had been there for years. Twenty-five guys threw up that first day, and we had just gotten through a warm-up. But there was a vision and a belief and we didn’t freaking waiver on it.”