I grew up during the Barry Switzer era of Oklahoma Football. We’d travel to Norman from Guthrie, OK and watch the Sooners lay victim to whoever dared enter Oklahoma Memorial Stadium. Winning wasn’t just expected, it was a foregone conclusion. We never really entertained the idea that losing was a feasible option. After Switzer left in the late eighties, the Sooners lost a step, but winning was still an expectation. We might not have been competing for a National Championship on an annual basis, but certain things were understood:
1. We’d have a winning record.
2. We’d be nationally-ranked.
3. We’d never get blown out.
4. We’d make a bowl game.
5. Under no circumstances would we ever lose to Oklahoma State.
In 1995, two big things happened: One, it was my freshman year of college. Two, it was Howard Schnellenberger’s first year as head coach at OU. The Sooners had made a change at the head coaching spot to restore glory to a waning football program. And Schnelly was the answer. Or so we thought. The season didn’t end up seeing the great turnaround we’d hoped for, but it was after all, a rebuilding year. He needed time to right the ship. Our only losses toward the end of the season were to Top-10 teams and we even managed to tie Texas in the Red River Rivalry.
Two games left: We’ll beat Oklahoma State, as we had every year of my life since I’d been alive, lose to top-ranked Nebraska, take the off-season to lick our wounds and come back in ’96 ready for a championship run.
Only that didn’t happen. No, somehow that cool, autumn day in November of 1995, something happened that I’d never witnessed in my life. The Oklahoma State Cowboys beat the Sooners. They didn’t just beat us, either. They shut us out. 12-0.
TWELVE to ZERO!
To that point, it was the worst day of my life. I couldn’t fathom it. I didn’t speak for hours after the game. I just went back to my apartment and fell asleep. That may have been the first time I realized the true power of sports. I knew the highs it could provide. I had no idea the pain it could cause, but I sure learned it that day.
My 1995 had to have been a lot like Leon Costello’s 1984. Leon is the Director of Athletics at Montana State University and when I interviewed him for the book I’m writing, he talked a lot about the heartbreak of growing up a Chicago Cubs fan. The biggest difference is that he didn’t have the years of seeing the Cubs win championships. No, as a Cubs fan there were no peaks. Just valleys. Which is why in 1984 when they were playing for the National League pennant his hopes were so high that he’d finally get to witness a championship and a trip to the World Series.
The Cubs had a two-game lead on the Padres that year in the NLCS and then went on to lose three straight, keeping the curse alive. It was gut-wrenching for Leon and every other Cubs fan out there. They were ascending to the peak and had it in their grasp, only to have the rug pulled out from under them again.
That ended up being Schnellenberger’s only year at Oklahoma. He was promptly fired after the season and while I’m sure there were probably plenty of reasons for his forced resignation, I like to believe that he was let go because he lost to OSU and caused me so much personal anguish.
Unfortunately, his replacement John Blake didn’t fair much better. Three losing seasons in a row and my entire college years were spent watching my beloved Sooners get embarrassed week-after-week-after-week. I attended nearly every home football game during college. My friends and I joked about how long it would take our Sooners to commit a false-start penalty and the unders usually won. It was a comedy of errors only I saw little comedy in it. This football program was the entire reason I wanted to go to OU. I dreamed of coming to OU and seeing my Sooners win a National Championship while I was a student. Not only were they not living up to that expectation, they couldn’t even manage a winning season.
To say that this was the deepest valley of the history of the Oklahoma Football program would be an understatement.
It. Was. Awful.
What could be more painful than that? Well, for Cubs fans it would have to be “The Bartman Game.”
“When I think about the Cubs, I think about the Bartman game,” Leon says.
In the eighth inning of Game 6 of the National League Championship Series with Chicago ahead 3–0 and holding a three-games-to-two-lead in the best of seven series, Moisés Alou attempted to catch a foul ball off the bat of Marlins’ second baseman Luis Castillo. Steve Bartman reached for the ball, deflected it, and disrupted a potential catch by the Cubs outfielder. If Alou had caught the ball, it would have been the second out in the inning and the Cubs would have been just four outs away from winning their first National League pennant since 1945. Instead, the Cubs ended up surrendering eight runs in the inning and losing the game, 8–3. When they were eliminated in the seventh game the next day, the incident was seen as the “first domino” in the turning point of the series.
In the immediate aftermath of the incident, Bartman, a lifelong Cubs fan, had to be escorted from the stadium by security guards and was placed under police protection for a time when his name and address were made public on Major League Baseball message boards.
“I think about the ball going into the stands. Everybody looking at Bartman as the curse. But really it was what transcended after that, with the error by the shortstop and then really just the fever from then because they were on the verge of going to the World Series for the first time since 1945.”
Fortunately for me, it took me an extra semester to graduate. Why is that fortunate? Because Bob Stoops was hired after the 1998 season and in 1999 (my second senior year), he launched the Sooners on an ascent that would take us to the highest peak the program may have ever seen. And thanks to my inability to finish school in four years, I can always say that I attended school during the Stoops era.
In 2000, OU fans were riding high after a 7-5 season and a trip to the Independence Bowl, but no one could have expected what was to come.
The Sooners started the season strong, going 4-0 against opponents that just a couple years before could have given us trouble. But not Stoops’ Sooners. Then we rolled into Dallas for the first big test of the season: Oklahoma vs. Texas. We were scared to death of that game, but it ended up being one of the most euphoric sports experiences of my life. OU dismantled Texas in a 63-14 rout.
OU then went on to beat the #5, #2 and #1 teams in the country in a single month taking the number 1 ranking for the first time since God was a baby and it sent OU fans into a frenzy. Norman was as exciting a place to be as any town in the country. And then, by some miracle, OU went on to beat Florida State in the National Championship game. OU shocked the world that year and returned Sooner Football to glory.
Nobody Wanted to Leave
Words can’t describe what that football season did for OU fans and the state of Oklahoma. As I’m sure that words can’t describe what the Cubs winning the World Series last year did for Cubs fans and the city of Chicago.
Leon Costello was in Chicago for Game 5 of the World Series and told me that it was one of the greatest experiences of his life. “Cubs fans finally got to witness a World Series victory in Wrigley Field. Nobody wanted to leave.”
Victory does that for us, doesn’t it? It makes us want to live in that moment forever and we know that as soon as we leave, the feeling will start to fade. I had that feeling after OU beat Nebraska at Owen Field in 2000. The crowd rushed the field and I just stood there in the stands in awe of what I’d just witnessed. Cubs fans stayed after at Wrigley field for a good half-hour. They sang “Go Cubs, Go.” They sang “Sweet Home Chicago.” They had reached a peak and as they’d find out a few days later, they’d reach the ultimate peak, making all those years of suffering that much sweeter.
The Deeper the Valley, the Higher the Peak
No one likes to lose. No one likes to spend a day in the valley, much less 108 years. Spending my college years as the basement dwellers of college football made the 2000 season far more magical than anything I’ve ever experienced. At the end of that season, a job came open at OU Athletics for a graphic designer. I could not imagine not taking that opportunity. So I jumped at it and now, 16 years later, I’ve spent my entire career working to drive attendance to sporting events and improve the game experience for fans. My career path might have been entirely different had it not been for that 2000 OU Football season.
Winning just isn’t as fun when you don’t know how it feels to lose.
Leon Costello agrees: “You look back and you wish you had the Yankees dynasty. But doing that, this year wouldn’t have been as special. Sometimes you have to go through the hard times to truly appreciate the great times. That truly epitomizes what sports can do. You see the impact it had on a city, on a nation and even the world… the impact the Cubs winning the World Series had on everything.”