Steadying the Sooners

Dan Wetzel
Yahoo! Sports

Bob Stoops has coached Oklahoma to a national championship, a perfect season and three Big 12 championships heading into Saturday's conference title game with Nebraska. He has put together bone-breaking defenses, roll-the-dice offenses and even figured out how to turn a moderately talented quarterback (Jason White) into a Heisman Trophy winner.

The guy can coach 'em up. No doubt about that.

Stoops' Troops aren't going to win the BCS title this year and aren't going to bring home a Heisman, but it's difficult to imagine that the eighth-year head man (85-18 overall) ever has been better than in the fall of 2006.

Every coach likes to talk about overcoming adversity, but try this on for one season:

• The preseason loss of the starting quarterback and an offensive lineman due to self-reported NCAA infractions.

• The inevitable media fallout from that controversy.

• An outrageous series of officiating and replay blunders that cost the Sooners a game at Oregon in September.

• The inevitable media fallout from that controversy.

• The loss of mega-star running back, Adrian Peterson, to injury in mid-October.

And yet here is Oklahoma, 10-2, on the verge of reclaiming Big 12 dominance, with a host of new skill players but the same old Sooner focus. Oklahoma had every excuse in the book to roll over this season, but it never did. It didn't really consider it. And that's because of the guy in charge.

"I really haven't looked too much into [the Coach of the Year race]," said quarterback Paul Thompson, who was converted back from wide receiver in August when Rhett Bomar was dismissed for NCAA violations. "[But] definitely he should be in that mix. With the things we have had to overcome, the way he has kept our mindset focused."

Stoops isn't going to win national Coach of the Year – the magic Greg Schiano pulled off at Rutgers should be rewarded – but it doesn't diminish his work. Long considered one of the best in the college game, this season outside of national contention ought to cement his legend.

If the old coaching adage is about how it's not how many times you fall down, but how many times you get up, then OU's stand-tall season is one for the ages. Even at a program this rich in history, this comfortable with win-it-all expectations.

"It was one of the most enjoyable [seasons] for sure," Stoops said Monday as he prepared for the Cornhuskers. "Mainly because of the attitude of our players."

His season-long message was about staying on course. It was about not giving in to excuses and giving up on the preseason goals. It was about finding a way to turn a most turbulent year into a most enjoyable one.

In August, when the program was rocked by the Bomar dismissal, when the preseason top-five expectations seemed unattainable, Stoops gathered his team and allowed no doubt to creep in.

"I told them, 'If you are looking for an excuse or for our expectations to change, it will not be because of Paul Thompson,'" Stoops said.

That confidence boost helped Thompson, who, according to Stoops, hadn't thrown a ball in "eight or nine months" to put together a strong season. It allowed everyone to keep playing like Oklahoma is supposed to play and continue to improve week to week.

Then Stoops made nearly the same speech after the Oregon debacle – two bad calls and a botched replay system cost the Sooners a key victory. The gaffes could have sent the team into "why us?" mode. He brought the speech out again when Peterson, the undeniable star of the team, was lost to injury.

"The expectations never changed and guys stepped up," Stoops said. "We never took our eye off our goals."

The tough thing for Oklahoma is that the Oregon game still impacts them. The Sooners should be 11-1; everyone, including the officials, has acknowledged that. They should be in the mix for a shot at the BCS title game. Maybe the 28-10 loss at Texas would be too much to overcome, but maybe not.

"It would be interesting to see where we would be if that game was called properly," Thompson said. "It's definitely hard not to think about it after every game."

Stoops says he can't waste time on it, although you imagine he must.

"[Thinking about it] doesn't do me any good," Stoops said. "For me to dwell on it would take away from what we're trying to do."

Oklahoma isn't going to win another national title this season. Bob Stoops isn't going to hoist that glass football. No Sooner will be in Manhattan for the Heisman ceremony.

And yet it is difficult to imagine this program, or this coach, having a better year.

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