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Tuesday, September 4, 2012
Updated: September 7, 1:35 PM ET
Why OU is No. 1

By Ryan McGee
ESPN The Magazine

Oklahoma Sooner Wagon
The Mag did the BCS math and OU rolled.

The numbers splashed across the media guide are staggering: 13 straight bowl games, including eight BCS bids and four national championship game appearances; seven Big 12 titles since 2000; 81 consecutive home sellouts; 125 straight televised games; and 12 players taken in the first round of the NFL draft since 1998. And all of those stats will be larger by the end of 2012 -- two of them already are after Week 1.

These stats don't belong to the programs from Tuscaloosa or LA or Austin -- they were piled up by the Oklahoma Sooners on the plains of Norman. But over the past 14 years, college football fans have become notorious for their recency bias. Which is why OU is rarely the first, second or even third program that tends to come to mind when folks outside Big 12 country reflect on the sport's computer era.

"I guess the success might sneak up on some people, but it shouldn't," Sooners head coach Bob Stoops says with a shoulder shrug.

If it's any consolation, rival athletic departments across all regions certainly notice the crimson and cream media guide. "As with any business, in collegiate athletics you keep your eyes on what others are doing," says Arkansas AD Jeff Long, a former OU administrator. "There isn't anyone in our business that doesn't look to what Joe has done at Oklahoma with admiration."

That would be Joe Castiglione, who took over as the Sooners AD in April 1998, just as college football was adopting an uncertain championship system. What he inherited was a department proud of its football history -- six national titles from 1950-85 -- but too stuck in the past (and in the red) to move forward. So he weeded out complacency by questioning longtime department management processes. He cut wasteful spending and turned the focus to selling tickets, a job that, frankly, most of his employees had forgotten how to do because they hadn't had to convince anyone to buy them before. He also started aggressive capital campaigns that moved the department into the black, now one of only 22 public FBS schools not operating with a deficit.

Those profits have been used wisely, pumping more than $110 million into facilities improvements, including sorely-needed upgrades to a 90-year-old Memorial Stadium. Athletics have also made big donations to the university's general operating fund, and Castiglione even earned a master's degree from OU in 2007. "Culture changes are not easy," Castiglione admits. "At the same time, it was exciting to know where we could go and use the great history of where Oklahoma athletics have been to get us there."

There's no denying football was the primary sport behind the resurgence, and Castiglione's foresight to hire Stoops in 1999 shifted the momentum. After five consecutive seasons at .500 or below, the Sooners won the BCS championship after just two years under Stoops. OU has won 10 or more games 10 times in the past 12 years, and produced two Heisman winners (Jason White and Sam Bradford), including 33 All-Americans. "It's a tough tightrope to walk, but they've done it," says former Sooners head coach Barry Switzer. "They have stayed ahead of the curve with this crazy new world of college football, but they still embrace the great history. In the past, that wasn't always the case."

Case in point: the newly overhauled football center at Memorial Stadium was christened the Switzer Center. Dedicated in 1999, just as the program's renaissance was beginning, it is a brick-and-mortar hug of the man that led the school to three national championships in the '70s and '80s, but also created an occasionally rocky reputation.

Now the Sooners rep is as a winner and a major player in today's perpetually shifting college sports landscape. Two years ago, when the Big 12 was on the brink of collapse, it was Castiglione's and school president David Boren's willingness to stand up to others, particularly archrival Texas, that suddenly made them the hinge upon which nearly all of the conference realignment craziness swung. The SEC and Pac-12 were both sitting by the phone waiting to see where the Sooners might go. Ultimately, they chose to save the Big 12, a conference the program helped create in 1994.

"If you didn't realize how big Oklahoma is before that, you did after the way the school stood up for itself during realignment," says former Sooner Adrian Peterson, a Palestine, Tex., native who chose OU over UT. "Even down in Texas."

Still, critics like to knock Norman because they say it's a location without any luster. But they have likely never been there and conveniently forget that logic when asked about Gainesville, Tuscaloosa or Auburn, none of which sit in the suburbs of a million-resident media market such as Oklahoma City. Other detractors refer to Oklahoma's BCS bowl record of 3-5 as a chink in the legacy. To that, Stoops chuckles. "I'm going to use a coaching cliché here," he says. "You have to be in it to win it. And I'm fortunate to work at a place where they expect to be in it, and give us the support we need to get there."

Even if folks outside the Sooner State are slow to appreciate those numbers on the media guide.

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