Oklahoma football is a staple of life for most Oklahomans. Fall is the time of year where all eyes are focused on Norman, patiently watching, hoping for a national championship run.
After three consecutive playoff appearances with no ultimate reward, fans and players alike are growing restless.
As it has been over 20 years since OU’s last national championship (the longest drought in school history), the same question burns in the hearts of OU fans: when will the Sooners bring the national championship trophy back to Norman?
The last year OU won a football national championship was 2000. On that team, 17 of the 22 student-athletes on the starting roster were born and raised in Oklahoma. They earned their roles during some unsuccessful years when OU failed to recruit high-profile athletes from other states.
However, the fact that Oklahoma was able to win a national championship with mostly in-state kids is quite a feat. This raises a variety of questions. What did these players possess that current ones do not? Does winning mean more to OU players who were born and raised in Oklahoma?
The only way to answer these questions is by asking the players themselves.
Some OU players who were a part of the 2000 team were able to weigh in.
“To be honest, I wasn’t much of an OU fan growing up,” Teddy Lehman, OU All-American linebacker and Butkus Award winner said. “Our family was large and busy, so we never really had the chance to just sit down and watch sports, unless we were playing them. I was just a kid who loved football, and that drove me to Oklahoma.”
Though Lehman was not raised in the atmosphere, being an “Oklahoma guy” meant more to him than he even knew.
“It hit me like a ton of bricks when I first arrived on campus,” Lehman said. “The history, the tradition, walking down the halls of the stadium and seeing the All-Americans, all the award winners, it was inspiring. It made me realize the duty I had to this program and its fans.”
Oklahoma football is a program like few in the country: it is steeped in tradition, always relevant and has a consistent and dedicated fan base.
“As an Oklahoma guy, we were expected to handle ourselves in a different way than everyone else,” Lehman said. “There were all these great games and great names that we were expected to live up to or surpass. The pressure was powerful and a privilege, a thing only Oklahoma guys can fully grasp and understand.”
Lehman was a freshman when OU won the championship, but he went on to win the Butkus Award in 2003 and was drafted by the Detroit Lions in 2004. He played in the NFL for seven years.
“It was something we did as a team,” Trent Smith, former OU tight end and Clinton-native said. “Some of us were really tempted to transfer, especially after Blake (John Blake) was fired. We sat down as a team and decided we would be better, not for the Oklahoma or out-of-state kids, but for us and the people of Oklahoma. OU is a football school, and we intended to bring that back to the national stage. We owed it to our fans, who weren’t just hungry to win, they were starving.”
Smith, though just a redshirt sophomore when OU won the national championship, played an integral role on the 2000 team, receiving for over 300 yards and three touchdowns and averaging 10.4 yards per reception.
“So, no, I don’t think that I cared more about Oklahoma football than Quentin Griffin or Josh Heupel just because I was born and raised here,” Smith said. “After 2000, I don’t think you could’ve guessed the in-state from the out-of-state kids. We were brothers, we had this special alchemy about us. We had been down for so long, Oklahoma football was kind of a joke at OU. But, to rise to the challenge, to overcome incredible odds and finally reach the top of that mountain, it bonded us for life.”
Unlike Lehman, Smith feels that a player’s geographical location is not nearly as important as the heart he plays with.
“There was just something special about that team, there was an overarching sense of ‘us’ and ‘we,’” Smith said. “It wasn’t about where we were from, but what and who we were playing for: the people of Oklahoma and each other. It was a privilege to play with such a passionate group of guys.”
Smith was drafted by the Baltimore Ravens in the 7th round of the 2003 NFL Draft. He was with the Ravens until 2005, and then played for the San Francisco 49ers.
Fans have played an integral role in the success of Oklahoma football since the school’s founding in 1890.
Without a dedicated support system, Oklahoma football wouldn’t be what it is today.
Oklahoma fans are raised on the idea of “Sooner magic” and understand just how much consequence even one game can carry.
“We have a fan base like no other,” Lehman said. “I like to think of OU as having generational championships; if you weren’t alive for one, odds are your dad, grandparents or even great-grandparents were, and that also means generations of fans.”
Trent Smith also had a fond memory when talking about the OU fan base.
“It was after the Nebraska game in 2000,” Smith recalled. “To beat a team like Nebraska at home, when everyone thought they had us, was something special. I remember the fans storming the field and staying there for hours. I lived a few miles from campus and it took me over two hours to get home. Fans were just pulling over in the middle of traffic to yell and drink beer.”
“The fans were a big part of why we won that day,” Smith said. “OU football was back in full-force, and it felt so good. It was something I’ll never forget.”
With a fan base as revered as Oklahoma’s, it’s only natural that some would have a strong opinion regarding the sacredness of OU football and this topic.
“As a kid who grew up in Oklahoma, watching OU football every Saturday, or listening on the radio, all I ever wanted to do was play for OU,” Dale Moody, longtime OU fan and generational season ticket holder, said. “When I graduated high school and had the opportunity, but things didn’t work out, I was devastated. I so wanted to be a part of that, like I know so many Oklahoma kids do.”
Oklahoma football is more than just a sport to fans like Moody: it’s a livelihood, something that can’t be taught.
“And if I had gotten the chance to play there, I’m not sure I can put into words what that would have meant, but I can guarantee you, I would have taken a loss harder than a kid raised in L.A. or Florida,” Moody said. “I’ve been raised in it, it means more.”
Randall Dewees, a Clinton-native and current medical student at OU, shared a similar view.
“Being from Oklahoma, OU and the football program have to mean more,” Dewees said. “Before the Thunder came to Oklahoma City, the Sooners’ football program was our way to make a name for ourselves on the national stage. For out-of-staters, OU and it’s success just brings pride to their alma mater. For Oklahomans, that success is a point of pride, not just for where we spent our college years, but for the place we call home.”
On the other side of the spectrum, OU alumnus and avid fan Mark Fried had a different perspective.
“I’ve always had a soft spot in my heart for kids who were raised in Oklahoma and had success here,” Fried said. “There’s something very nostalgic about a home-state boy doing well at OU. However, I don’t believe what state a kid is from matters. Some of the best players to ever play at OU were from somewhere else. Billy Sims, Joe Washington, Adrian Peterson, Baker Mayfield, Brian Bosworth, Kyler Murray – all from Texas.”
Unlike other fans, Fried feels that once the student-athlete is immersed in the culture, they become a part of OU and understand the importance of the program.
“Jamelle Holieway led us to the 1985 title and he was from California,” Fried said. “He threw a TD pass in the Orange Bowl to Keith Jackson, who was from Arkansas. Roy Williams is my favorite Sooner of all-time and he was born and raised in California. So, while it was very cool for Jenks-native Rocky Calmus and Muskogee’s own Seth Littrell to be key contributors on that 2000 team, I loved and appreciated team captain Josh Heupel from South Dakota.”
Other national title teams
To get a clear look at the importance of in-state kids on a university team, I looked at every national championship team’s starting roster from 2001 to the present.
When analyzing this topic from a more broad perspective, it is obvious the impact that in-state players have on a successful, championship-winning team and program.
The majority of the starting rosters, from the 2001 Miami team to the 2015 Alabama team, had either half or more than half of its players from the home state. The influence of in-state players has definitely been a factor in college football.
However, in recent years, the large number of in-state players is beginning to dwindle, with just nine players on the 2020 Alabama team hailing from the cotton state.
This could be a sign of the changing times, as national recruiting has grown into a multi-million dollar business. With programs like NIL and the College Football Transfer Portal, players are able to come from all over the country, especially to well-know programs like Oklahoma, Alabama, Ohio State, and others. In-state kids aren’t being as highly recruited as they have been in the past.
Has college football taken up a business-style mindset when recruiting players? Have these teams lost the sense of pride that representing your state on a national scale can evoke?
Though this entire idea can be chalked up to speculation and opinion, one thing is certain: Oklahoma football is a tradition and way of life for Oklahomans, revered by all who call themselves a Sooner.