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Oklahoma Sooners: David Boren elevated OU both on and off the field

Oklahoma’s president, who has been in Norman since 1994, is scheduled to retire in June.

Iowa State v Oklahoma Photo by Brett Deering/Getty Images

One day during my sophomore year at OU, there were reports of an active shooter on campus.

I was leaving class on the South Oval and I could tell something was up, so I walked over to the OU Daily offices where I was a reporter at the time. For those who don’t know, the Daily office is secured behind bulletproof glass and requires card-swipe entry. I called my parents and told them not to worry, I was in the safest place on campus.

Then my editor walked up and told me to get out there and report.

The hubbub was happening across the Oval in Gould Hall. Already there were a couple dozen cop cars parked behind the building near Memorial Stadium, and before long armored police carrying assault rifles started running in. No one knew what was going on beyond the wild rumors swirling on social media.

And then there he was, David Boren himself, being escorted by cops into Gould Hall wearing nothing but his normal coat and tie and a determined expression on his face. Later that afternoon he would hold a press conference and explain that the whole situation was a false alarm, a panic induced by a professor who heard construction equipment backfire on the Oval. But even without that knowledge, somehow just seeing President Boren there made it obvious that things would be okay.

Boren was almost universally beloved during my time at Oklahoma, though he wasn’t immune to some playful mimicking about his love for National Merit Scholars and his pre-recorded phone calls to the entire OU community. Every time winter weather threatened, the whole school took to Twitter and exhorted Boren to “make the call.” (I still get those calls to this day. They always start with, “This is OU president David Boren,” and they always bring a smile.)

I’ll admit, I was one of those anointed Merit Scholars that Boren so loved to brag about. When I was a freshman, he gathered us all on the OU practice field before the first football game of the season and then, as we walked onto Owen Field for a pregame recognition, shook all of our hands individually. He probably loved our class more than most — with us he could finally say that OU had more Merit Scholars than any other school in the country, public or private, and he never tired of saying that.

Every time I met D-Bo he always had the same good-natured grin and warm energy, the kind that belied his advancing age and tricky health. But there were also solemn moments during my four years when Boren had to lose the grin.

I don’t think I slept a wink the night after I watched a group of SAEs sing gleefully about lynching, and I doubt Boren did either. While the OU football team became the public face of the university’s response, Boren’s swift decision to disband SAE and expel the obvious perpetrators diffused a potentially explosive situation and set the school on a course for healing.

As a moderate Democrat, Boren served his state for years as Governor, U.S. Senator and a member of the Oklahoma House of Representatives. Even as the state shifted sharply away from his party, Boren remained a respected figure across the political spectrum.

Under his watch, the University of Oklahoma did a ton of construction, established new programs and achieved a level of academic excellence never before seen in the state — it’s now ranked as a top-100 American university for the first time ever. And most relevantly for this blog, he hired the men and women who took a floundering mid-’90s athletics department and turned it back into a national powerhouse.

It seemed at times like Bob Stoops could barely make it through a press conference without mentioning how lucky he was to work with Joe Castiglione and Boren for so long in an industry with no continuity. Though some football fans grumbled about Boren’s commitment level to the sport, OU’s recent facility upgrades have all but silenced that discussion and set up Lincoln Riley for years of success.

The national media didn’t know what to make of Boren when he became the public face of the Big 12 during expansion discussion. From his “psychologically disadvantaged” comments to his ultimately-fruitless search for new members, Boren’s endgame — and his commitment to the conference — seemed somewhat in doubt.

But to me, that was simply Boren recognizing that, with Texas in transition, OU was momentarily the conference’s most powerful player. His loyalties have always been with Oklahoma, not the Big 12. OU doesn’t need the Big 12 nearly as much as, say, TCU and Kansas State do, and Boren wasn’t trying to make those schools happy. He was looking out for the Sooners, and now he leaves the school’s future up to his successor.

How does one follow an act like D-Bo? We’ve already had approximately this same discussion during the Stoops-to-Riley transition, but this time there’s no obvious heir to pin our hopes to. Whoever is chosen, they certainly won’t have the public track record that Boren did. His commitment to the state of Oklahoma was obvious and unimpeachable. His successor will have a lot to prove.

But Boren has set the university on a course for long-term success. It has many challenges, rising tuition and decreased state funding chief among them. But maybe the pendulum will swing back soon — goodness knows our state and nation could use more consensus-building politicians like Boren. He’s demonstrated the value of education and of football, and he proved you don’t have to pick one or the other. You can have both.