Oklahoma perfects the art of losing a nation's sympathy
By Adam Hoff
I've resisted dropping a line about Oklahoma's response to the controversial calls in their recent game against Oregon, but if Bobby Knight is going to weigh in, well, so am I.
The moment I saw Oregon recover the now-famous onside kick on Saturday, I had a very sure feeling the play wouldn't stand. That it <i>couldn't</i> stand. The way those hideous green uniforms with the scaly shoulders were crashing into Sooner players, you just knew they'd violated more than a few rules. Confusion reigned supreme on the field (and in the replay booth, apparently) as ABC ran the footage time and time again. For the viewers, it was obvious. Great news for Sooners fans and heartbreak for the Ducks - this call was going to be overturned. Clearly, an Oregon player touched the ball before it went 10 yards (in violation of the rules). Another Oregon player smashed into a Sooner before 10 yards (another violation). And it even appeared that an Oklahoma player actually wound up recovering the loose pigskin.
All of this was clear ... yet somehow, someway, the call on the field stood. Oregon ball. Even though I'm a Pac-10 guy and was rooting for Oregon in this game, I couldn't help but feel sick. This isn't the way you are supposed to win a game (although, in fairness to Oregon, they didn't actually win it on that play - they proceeded to make other plays, score the winning points, and then block the final field goal attempt). It was awful. It called to mind Colorado's famous "Fifth Down" and the 1985 World Series and about 90 percent of last year's NFL playoffs. Other than ABC's Dan Fouts (who played at Oregon, it should probably be noted), you couldn't find anyone with a microphone who thought things turned fair or just or correct. And even Fouts just sort of ignored the whole thing. The consensus: 1) it was awful that officiating impacted the game, and 2) we might need to take a look at the replay system.
Not once did I hear an analyst wonder out loud (or in print) whether the game should be erased from the record books. Or whether Oklahoma should void a contractual obligation to another Pac-10 school (Washington) because they no longer liked the rules that conference uses (and they are admittedly kind of strange rules). Had someone proffered those solutions, I would have groaned in agony and chalked it up to another talking head trying to get a rise by saying the most controversial thing possible.
So you can imagine my absolute and utter shock when Oklahoma's president, David Boren, made that suggestion. Scratch that, when he made that <i>written request</i>. This guy is the president of a major state university and he's spending his time pleading with Big 12 Commissioner Kevin Weiberg to protest the outcome of the game. Incredibly, he came right out and asked for a football game to be erased from the record books.
It was so absurd as to be comical. A man responsible for the education of thousands of students - a man that is supposed to be responsible for instilling valuable lessons (among them: life isn't always fair, sometimes we have to deal with disappointment, and one should always be a good sport, whether in victory of defeat) in those students - is spending his time begging for a do-over. In a freaking football game.
Right about this time, my level of sympathy for Oklahoma went from "off the charts" to "pretty freaking low." Did I still feel bad for all of my friends who live and die with the Sooners every Saturday? Sure. Did I still feel bad for the players who worked so hard and were so close to achieving a victory that almost certainly should have been theirs? Absolutely. But my sympathy for the university was dwindling. Rapidly.
(I'm still in shock that a university president would stoop - no pun intended - to this level. It's like he wore a sandwich board with the words "All we care about is football" printed on them. I know I need to stop ranting about this, but I just can't. It was mind-blowing. It literally blew my mind.)
Things got even worse as the week wore on. Although I was shocked (as you can see) by Boren's behavior, one could at least give him the "knee jerk reaction" benefit of the doubt. People do rash things all the time, in the heat of the moment. But he never recanted his position, so I started to wonder. Then I really started to rub my eyes and clean out my ears in disbelief when Bob Stoops decided to join the party.
You would think that with his university president throwing a hissy fit, his athletic director (Joe Castiglione) getting in the mix, thousands of fans ranting on the Internet, and hundreds of pundits bemoaning those calls, Stoops would take the high road. Oh, no, not a chance. Instead of moving on, Stoops was short and abrupt during interviews. He pouted. He threatened to bail on Oklahoma's contractual obligation to travel to Washington in 2008. (Could it be that the Sooners no longer want to play in Seattle, after UW hung with them well into the third quarter and is showing signs of improvement? Just a thought; get North Texas on the phone!) He basically went into "Bob Stoops When Things Go Bad" mode. Don't recognize that one? Well, luckily for us all, Oklahoma wins most of the time, so we don't have to deal with it. I can't remember all of the times this guy has irritated me by being a poor sport (although there was something about running up the score, if I'm not mistaken), but here are two instances I remember with a great deal of clarity:
Heading into the locker room for halftime during 2003 BCS title game, Stoops was stopped for the obligatory ABC interview. When Lynn Swann asked Stoops about LSU's "number one defense," Stoops actually stopped to correct Swann on a <i>semantic point</i> (that while LSU has the top-rated scoring defense, Oklahoma actually had the best total yardage defense ... gee, thanks for the clarification, coach), before moving on to blame the refs for his team's deficit. Not only did he fail to give his opponent any credit or respect whatsoever, he actually went out of his way to say that the only reason LSU was ahead was because of OU's own poor play and because of the officiating.
The very next year, Oklahoma was back in the big game. The Sooners had edged out a fantastic Auburn team in the silly computer rankings to "earn" the right to play USC for the BCS title. Unfortunately, the computers didn't look so good that night and neither did the Sooners, as the Trojans led by the rather incredible score of 45-10 at the half. Granted, no one wants to have a microphone shoved in his face at a time like that, but this was the chance for Stoops to be a good loser and to win some people over in the process. Something along the lines of, "Wow, they are playing fabulous football" or "I'm at a loss for words" would have worked just fine. Instead, when asked about USC's prolific offense, Stoops said that it was all because of Oklahoma's poor tackling. I remember sitting in front of the TV, mouth gaping. I couldn't believe that a coach would still refuse to give his opponent credit when they had hung six touchdowns on him in a single half. Bad tackling? Not sure what good it does you to tackle well when guys are hauling in 50-yard bombs in the end zone, but then again, I'm not part of the Oklahoma football elite, so what do I know?
Anyway, those games really soured me on Stoops. So when he started whining about the Pac-10 conference's rules and bemoaning that apologies and suspensions couldn't get that game back and threatening to boycott a scheduled game, I just got downright sick of the whole thing. Enough. Turn of the TV, ignore the latest articles, just get these babies out of my face.
It's a funny thing, sympathy. You never quite know when you are going to gain it and when you might lose it. For about 24 hours, Oklahoma had it in spades. Largely ignoring the fact that they had a chance to win the game with a field goal in the final seconds, people everywhere were up in arms about this whole situation. This was a patchwork team with a wildly overrated defense (check the tape of their game against UAB, never mind the 500+ yards of total offense they gave up to the Martians, err, Ducks), yet because they were robbed of a sure win, they were engendering the kind of hand-wringing that is reserved for mighty champions! As George Constanza might say, they were "basking" in the sympathy (much like George himself briefly basked in "the buffer zone" when Frank and Estelle moved to Florida).
Unfortunately, the University of Oklahoma couldn't leave well enough alone. They had to go and spoil a nice bit of fan and media outrage by parading three of their most influential and recognizable university staff members out to gripe and complain about what a terrible injustice had been committed. And just like that, the sympathy was gone in nearly every corner. Sympathy was no longer the story here. It was replaced by something worse, something that gets to the heart of what is wrong with sports (and it's not instant replay). It was replaced by entitlement and greed and the kind of action that people take when they see large piles of money going up in smoke.
Way to go, University of Oklahoma. You had the chance to run through the 2005 season as the martyr and the sentimental favorite (which would have happened, never mind the fact that calls are missed - even huge, game-changing calls - all the time). Now? Everyone just wants you to go away. Maybe even lose a few more games so that you will shut up about everything that was so horribly taken away from you. God forbid, the Sooners should run the table in the overrated Big 12. If that happens, we will truly never hear the end of it.
Go Middle Tennessee State.
Adam Hoff is the columnist for WhatifSports.com.