If you’re too young to remember the Oklahoma Sooners of the 90s, a 7-5 record probably doesn’t seem so noteworthy. However, the 1999 campaign could be best described as a breath of fresh air after fans had suffered through several years of gridiron ineptitude.
Gary Gibbs succeeded Barry Switzer in 1989, and he was able to clean up the program and generally keep its head above water. However, an inability to truly bring the Sooners back to prominence ultimately cost him his job in 1994.
The decorated Howard Schnellenberger talked a big game in the leadup to the 1995 season, vowing to make Oklahoma fans forget about Bud Wilkinson and Barry Switzer. He indeed made Switzer’s not-so-distant glory years seem like a distant memory, as he led the program to a 5-5-1 record and departed by mid-December.
Oklahoma then decided to keep it in the family by hiring former OU noseguard and Dallas Cowboys defensive line coach John Blake to lead the program. Although the records gradually improved under his watch (3-8 in ‘96, 4-7 in ‘97, 5-6 in ‘98), the program was clearly going in the wrong direction. Oklahoma’s execution on the field was flat-out embarrassing between 1996 and 1998, and a change had to be made.
I was born in 1989, so I had never really seen OU football for what it was supposed to be. It was the program that adults would tell me would be good eventually, but why was I supposed to take their word for it?
“OU football will be back, just be patient!”
Telling a child to be patient is pretty much a non-starter, so I focused my attention on Kelvin Sampson’s basketball program, the mid-to-late-90s Packers and my dad’s Arkansas Razorbacks. OU football hadn’t really done much for me up to that point — with the exception of the 1996 OT win over Texas and the weird 1997 win over Syracuse — and my fall Mondays typically consisted of hearing my OSU friends brag about Tony Lindsey (remember him?) and Bob Simmons. I would retort with what my parents told me (as kids typically do) about OU football, but that predictably didn’t carry much weight with the sons and daughters of Aggies. Those fall Mondays weren’t a ton of fun.
Luckily, the script would flip in 1999.
The Sooners opened the 1999 campaign with a 49-0 win against Indiana State. The college football equivalent of Larry Bird wasn’t running out of the tunnel with the DI-AA (now FCS) Sycamores, so that one didn’t carry a ton of weight. Neither did the next win against Baylor, since Baylor had truly become Baylor by that point.
Then came a road game against Louisville and high-profile QB Chris Redman. OU found itself in a 21-14 hole midway through the third quarter, but an unassuming JUCO transfer by the name of Josh Heupel would lead Mike Leach’s offense to 28 unanswered points while Mike Stoops’ defense shut the Cardinals down.
I was hooked. How can a 10-year-old not be fascinated by all the bells and whistles of the Air Raid offense? For the first time in my life, Oklahoma football was FUN.
Oklahoma then took a trip up to South Bend, where the Irish struck first with a TD before former OU QB Brandon Daniels electrified the Sooner Nation with one of the most memorable returns in modern OU history.
OU would jump out to a 30-14 lead before eventually collapsing, as Notre Dame’s offense simply wore down a thin OU defense. This game did, however, give us a bit of a taste of what was coming for this program. This wasn’t a championship-caliber team just yet, but much of this performance (check out the game highlights) gave us hope that the program could potentially return to glory.
Bob Stoops’ first game against Texas stated out about as well as he could’ve hoped. A 17-0 lead seemed insurmountable. Surely this team wouldn’t collapse again, would it? Yep, a 17-0 lead would become a 37-27 defeat. OU fans were realistic about the whole thing. No one (for the most part) was really hitting the panic button early in the Stoops era, but we were still craving that first big win. What ensued was a complete performance that OU fans still remember quite fondly.
No. 13 Texas A&M was in town for homecoming and ran into a buzzsaw. That would happen to the Aggies pretty much every time they came to Norman from that point on, but this is where it all started, and it was glorious.
No. 24 OU then traveled to Boulder, where it hadn’t won since 1988. In fact, that was the last time Oklahoma had defeated Colorado in general, as OU’s swoon had occurred during Colorado’s glory years. The Sooners fell short in what was a pretty entertaining football game, and Rocky Calmus was indisputably the star of the day.
Seriously, go back and watch the full game if you have time. Calmus was a man possessed. If you don’t have time, here are the highlights.
A star was born that next week when true freshman Quentin Griffin was brought out of redshirt due to an injury to Michael Thornton in OU’s 37-0 victory over Missouri. Oklahoma then topped Iowa State, 31-10, to improve to 6-3 and become bowl-eligible for the first time since 1994. Unfortunately, Oklahoma couldn’t extend the win streak to three in Lubbock, as the Red Raiders took control in the third quarter and didn’t look back in a 38-28 victory.
Oklahoma closed the regular season with a Bedlam matchup, as Oklahoma was looking to snap a two-game losing skid in the series. More importantly, OU was looking to truly seize control of the Sooner State after years of futility. Oklahoma State, on the other hand, entered the game with a 5-5 record and needed a win in order to reach a bowl game. Oklahoma dominated Oklahoma State that day and hasn’t relinquished control since (despite that brutal two-game skid in 2001 and 2002).
Oh, and Monday was awesome.
Oklahoma and Ole Miss faced off in what was the final game of the 20th Century. After finding itself in a 21-3 hole at halftime, Heupel and Oklahoma stormed back to take a 25-24 lead with just 2:17 remaining in the game. The future Heisman runner-up gave OU the lead with a magnificent, scrambling throw to Griffin in the corner of the end zone, and OU seemed destined to end its season on a high note.
Ole Miss, however, had other plans, as they were able to drive it down the field and make a field goal as time expired. This one was a classic.
Although Oklahoma fell short in a number of big games, this team set the tone for what was to come and gave OU fans a bit of legitimate hope for the first time in years. It was also great for guys such as Jarrail Jackson, Brandon Daniels, Stockar McDougle, Rodney Rideau, The Woodses (Mike and PeeWee) and William Bartee to taste a bit of success after paying their dues with some really bad OU teams. This was also a breakout season for many of the stars of the 2000 National Championship team, as Josh Heupel, Quentin Griffin, Antwon Savage, Curtis Fagan, Trent Smith, Frank Romero, Rocky Calmus, Roy Williams and Torrance Marshall gave a preview of what was to come.