Commentary

Sooner and later

For Oklahoma football fans, game day in Norman starts early and goes strong all day

Updated: October 14, 2010, 3:11 PM ET
By Doug Ward | Special to ESPN Sports Travel

Memorial StadiumTy Russell"The best place on earth." It's the sentiment of one Sooners fan describing Gaylord Family-Oklahoma Memorial Stadium that is undoubtedly shared by many among the Oklahoma football faithful.
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NORMAN, Okla. -- It's game day at the Campus Corner in Norman, and Oklahoma football fans have been doing their school's nickname proud all morning, arriving sooner rather than later for today's intersectional matchup with Florida State.

It's two-and-a-half hours before kickoff and the Sooners faithful have packed campus-adjacent Asp Avenue like homesteaders awaiting a land run. The thoroughfare has been closed to traffic and turned into a street fair, replete with foot-long corn dogs, beer stands and games of chance. A carnival dunk tank offers the chance to douse a Seminole for charity. And a block away, scores of OU fans have staked their claim to a piece of Oklahoma, remaking South University Avenue into a tailgate tent city.

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For a closer look at the Sooners football tradition and the scene at Gaylord Family-Oklahoma Memorial Stadium, click here for 10 gallery images.

"The best place on earth," says Oklahoma fan Sean Hubbard, who drove 10 hours from Ruidoso, N.M., to be a part of the festive scene. "The best atmosphere, the best tradition. It does not get any better than this."

Dawn broke unseasonably cool on the plains this September morning, leaving football hanging thick in the air. Across West Boyd Street, a creamy layer of cloud cover drips over Oklahoma's Cherokee Gothic brick campus like vanilla icing piled high on a red velvet cupcake.

But after an alarmingly difficult win over Utah State a week prior, there is no cupcake on the Sooners' schedule today. Still, no one here seems too concerned with Florida State; in Oklahoma, it's all about Oklahoma. The cobblestone streets bustle with crimson-and-cream-clad fans who guzzle domestic beer from cans sheathed in OU sleeves, clamor to get inside Sooners merchandise stores to purchase still more team gear, and line up to get their picture taken with former quarterback Thomas Lott.

George Lynn Cross, who served as Oklahoma's president from 1943-68, famously laid out the university's priorities when he told the state senate, "I would like to build a university of which the football team could be proud."

Done and done.

Oklahomans take great pride in their football team for good reason: OU is one of just eight schools with more than 800 wins in its history (the others: Michigan, Texas, Notre Dame, Nebraska, Ohio State, Alabama and Penn State).

Forbes has called nearby Oklahoma City recession-proof and, after a bust period in the '90s when coaches John Blake and Howard Schnellenberger posted a combined record of 17-27-1, Norman has reclaimed its place as a college football boomtown.

Since Stoops took over as head coach in 1999, the Sooners have gone 122-29. They were 13-0 in 2000 en route to winning the most recent of their seven national championships.

Petroleum and fertile soil give the state of Oklahoma its economic viability, but football keeps it vital. Football players, it seems, should be included among the state's great resources. OU's famous alumni include Darrell Royal, Adrian Peterson, Lee Roy Selmon, Billy Sims and Sam Bradford. Even grads who go on to success in other arenas seem to start on the football field at Oklahoma: former Republican Congressman J.C. Watts was a Sooners quarterback.

Country music stars Reba McEntire, Vince Gill and Carrie Underwood all hail from Oklahoma, too, and the state's unofficial narrative seems to be talk of the Sooners set to a country music backbeat.

Inside O'Connell's, an Irish pub in the Campus Corner, men in khaki cargo shorts paired with red shirts and women in OU-logo emblazoned sun dresses devour red meat and down red stripe beer while talking Big Red football.

"Game day here is everything that encompasses the college experience," says Zac Thompson, a second-year civil engineering grad student. "Football games are something everyone looks forward to."

Oklahoma and Florida State will square off on the field a little later, but for now, Sooners fans and Seminoles followers are united in their hatred of Florida as they watch a bar TV. When South Florida scores an early touchdown against the Gators, the competing fans team up to bring down the house. Some stadiums don't get this loud.

Gaylord Family-Oklahoma Memorial Stadium sits a mere power sweep from the pregame festivities at the Campus Corner, separated only by grassy campus quads filled with kids throwing footballs, fans tossing bean bags and undergrads tossing back beers.

The stadium, which is situated on the east side of the school's campus, opened in 1923 with an intimate capacity of 500. The addition of the west stands in 1925 added 16,000, before the east stands, built in 1929, raised capacity to 32,000. In 1949, the running track was removed and the north end was enclosed, adding more than 23,500 extra seats.

The playing surface is named Owen Field (the name preferred for the stadium by many locals), in honor of Bennie Owen, who coached Oklahoma from 1905-26. By the time the Sooners won the national championship in 1974, stadium capacity had been increased to 71,187. The most recent makeover added 8,200 seats and a second deck to the east side. Current capacity stands at 82,112.

Today's crowd will swell to 85,360, including standing room, marking the venue's 70th consecutive sellout.

Fans of a certain age will remember the stadium as the site of Game of the Century, played here on Thanksgiving Day 1971. Fifty-five million viewers (the most-watched college football game at the time) tuned in to see No. 1 Nebraska hold off No. 2 Oklahoma 35-31. The artificial turf from that game has long since been replaced by grass, but Nebraska Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Rodgers' footprints are still all over the place. Rodgers' 72-yard punt return for a touchdown sparked the Nebraska victory.

The presence of other former football greats can be felt everywhere on a football Saturday in Norman. At the team store adjacent to the stadium, Sooners legends Brian Bosworth and Billy Sims sign autographs and pose for photos. The Boz wears a black T-shirt emblazoned with a likeness of Barry Switzer, replete with the former coach's take-no-prisoners motto: "Hang half a hundred on 'em."

In Heisman Park, along the east side of the stadium, fans emulate statues of four of OU's five Heisman Trophy winners (Billy Vessels '52, Steve Owens '69, Billy Sims '78 and Jason White '03), which stand like oversize electric-football game pieces. A likeness of 2008 Heisman winner Sam Bradford is in the works.

Inside, the stadium feels both intimate and intimidating. At 12:15 p.m., a high-stepping band leader with a first step quicker than Adrian Peterson's leads the Pride of Oklahoma, the school's 300-member band, onto Owen Field.

Fans hold up a lone finger while the band plays the school's alma mater, "Oklahoma Hail!"

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