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The difference between a successful person and others is not a lack of strength, not a lack of knowledge, but rather a lack of will. --Vince Lombardi
One of my favorite figures in football history has to be Vince Lombardi. He accumulated a 0.738 winning percentage in the National Football League in his career. His teams posted a 9-1 record in the playoffs and he was a 6-time NFL champion as a coach in a span of just 12 years. Simply put, he embodied winning and that is probably why football's most prestigious trophy is named after him. Under Lombardi's direction, the Packers simply won championships, period.
You may be asking why I'm discussing Lombardi on a Sooner blog, but I bring him up because I think that the Sooner teams of late could learn something from him. I included the quote above, because I think it speaks volumes as to why the Oklahoma teams of recent years are falling short of expectations. There is a certain amount of will or desire that is necessary to be a truly great team - a champion.
Do you use cruise control when you're taking a long road trip? A lot of people do because it makes a long journey more comfortable. You aren't required to constantly keep with the ebb and flow of traffic, you can simply coast along and divert less attention to the main task at hand.
The Sooners are coasting. They are on cruise control.
They get from point A to point B mostly successfully, but they aren't doing anything spectacular either. At times they seem to be "going through the motions".
It has been apparent for the past couple years. Oklahoma is undoubtedly fielding good, talented teams. But they are also teams that seem indifferent at times - indifferent to the main task at hand - and appear to lose focus. A team that truly had a strong will to win a championship would come out on a weekly basis with a chip on their shoulder and something to prove.
Look at the truly great teams in any sport. Every game they attack. They take the game to their opponent. They look singularly focused on one thing - winning.
I am a defender of the Sooners teams the past couple years, or as some may put it - a "sunshine pumper". However, even I can't deny that lately OU has lacked that certain instinct to put teams away. It's something that is hard to put a finger on or quantify. We are still racking up some fairly impressive stats. Sure you can look at the loss column and tell that something is amiss, but being able to precisely say what is wrong is difficult, and anyone who says they have all the answers is probably wrong.
All that being said, I'm going to mention a few things that have bothered me.
Football starts at the line of scrimmage. The most glamorous positions are certainly not on the lines on either side of the ball, save perhaps for an elite pass-rushing defensive end, but they are enormously important. Look at the last year OU made it to a national championship game (2008) - we had 3 All Americans along the lines: Trent Williams and Duke Robinson on offense, and Gerald McCoy on defense.
Oklahoma must get tougher on the offensive and defensive lines. We need to be able to impose our will with our big guys and be able to generate a push on the opposite side of the line of scrimmage. Look at the Alabama teams lately, they dominate the line of scrimmage. OU hasn't done that. We have plenty of talented players at the skill positions, but something has to change on the lines.
Special teams plays now cause Sooner fans everywhere to hold their breath. We have seen too many glaring errors, sloppy play, poor efforts, and near-misses to expect anything close to a dominant special teams performance. This should not be the case with a great team. Special teams is, like it or not, one of the three major facets of the game of football. It should not be treated like a nuisance. Field position makes a difference. FIeld goals, while not as appealing as touchdowns, still count as points the last time I checked. The special teams simply has to have better execution.
Finally, who do you put the blame on for the lack of will, the lack of a total 60-minutes of effort? This is a difficult question to answer. Some will simply say Bob Stoops is to blame, or the coaching staff in general, but I'm not sure that's entirely the case. Surely the coaches play a role in creating a culture of winning and finding ways to challenge their players.
That being said, these are still players in Division-I college football, at a major university with a massive football tradition, and in a major football conference. They shouldn't need a coach screaming in their face to be motivated to win championships, and neither should all the blame for the "coasting" be laid entirely at the feet of Bob Stoops. In my opinion, motivation, desire, and will are built from within the team and within the ranks of the players.
All that being said, Oklahoma will probably continue to be a very good program for many years to come. The tradition, the professionalism of the athletic department, and recruiting top players almost ensure that this will happen. It's certainly pre-mature, if not way off the mark, to be calling the current state of affairs the beginning of the demise of the program, or a program melt down. I seriously doubt that is the case.
In my opinion, it's begging for disaster to happen to be calling for Bob Stoops' job. He is undoubtedly a good football coach. Through the end of last year he was 37th on the all-time winning percentage list at 0.803, ahead of a few names you may have heard of such as Bear Bryant and Bo Schembechler. He's also 7th amongst active coaches and tops in Division I.
Be careful what you wish for. I draw parallels to Lloyd Carr and Michigan. Carr was certainly a successful coach in his career (0.753 winning percentage), and won a national title early in his stint in Ann Arbor (3rd year, 1997). Despite not winning a national title every year, Michigan still won 5 conference championships in 8 years between 1997 and 2004. And yet, at the end of Carr's tenure, the Wolverines couldn't beat rival Ohio State in several high-profile showdowns, and he eventually retired in 2007 as some Michigan fans pined for more.
So, let's not write the obituary for the OU program just yet, and I personally think we should show a little more faith in Bob Stoops. Our early loss may keep us from winning a national title this year, but there are still achievable goals. Run the table and we will surely be in the hunt for another Big 12 title. And who knows, crazier things have happened in college football. 1-loss teams have gone on to play in the BCS Championship Game before. Is that the most likely scenario for the Sooners? Probably not. But now is not the time to write off the team. There is a lot of season left. We will be able to tell whether or not this team has the will to become champions by how they respond to the Kansas State loss, with plenty of tests littering the schedule ahead.
Most importantly, we should be proud to support the winningest program in the modern era of college football.