Commentary

Traditional powers restore program's luster in Oklahoma state championships

Updated: December 9, 2008, 11:18 AM ET
By Jimmie Tramel | Special to ESPNRISE.com

Oklahoma crowned champions in its top four high school football classes, and the common theme in the two largest classes was a return to glory.

Union High School
Kidwell’s PhotographyUnion High School brought home another state title in 2008.

No high school in Oklahoma has produced more topflight athletes than Tulsa's Booker T. Washington.

Among the school's alumni are Olympic basketball gold medalist Wayman Tisdale, Olympic wrestling gold medalist Kenny Monday, Dallas Cowboys first-round draft pick Felix Jones, Washington Wizards post player Etan Thomas, New York Giants defensive back R.W. McQuarters, New Orleans Saints receiver Robert Meachem and Bill Spiller, who helped shatter the color barrier in professional golf.

Get the idea there is an abundance of talent in BTW's classrooms?

But, somehow, football state championships managed to elude the Hornets for almost a quarter century.

When BTW beat Midwest City's Carl Albert High School 28-17 in the Class 5A title game Saturday, the Hornets collected their seventh state championship trophy, but it was their first since 1984, when quarterback Melvin Gilliam (remember him?) was a two-sport All-American in football and basketball.

BTW coach Antwain Jimmerson used a sly pregame tactic to connect the dots between championships: He showed his team video of the 1984 state championship game.

Crowning Achievements

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"Our kids had to understand that no matter what happened in the game, we knew we could overcome," Jimmerson told the Tulsa World. "That team in the '84 game overcame penalties and, after falling behind, came right back and scored."

What did the first BTW state championship team of this millennium have to overcome?

How about a stalemate in tradition? Carl Albert was in search of its eighth state title since 1997, and the Titans had been 9-0 all time in state championship games.

And then there's this: The Hornets had to cope with two players who rank high on blue-chip lists. Midwest City running back David Oku, who has committed to Tennessee, ran 28 times for 132 yards and a touchdown. Titans defensive back Daytawion Lowe is bound for Oklahoma State.

The Hornets prevailed despite zero passing yards. They were 0-of-10 through the air but ran for 327 yards. Junior quarterback Eric Bennett ran 32 times for 206 yards, and senior Michael Doctor carved up the Titans for 106 yards on 14 carries. Bennett rushed for 198 yards in the final three quarters.

Also returning to glory was Union High School of Tulsa, which beat archrival Jenks 34-20 in the Class 6A state championship game Friday night.

The Redskins didn't have to wait 24 years to get back on top, but they did endure a couple of regime changes.

After winning consecutive 6A crowns in 2004 and 2005, coach Bill Blankenship stepped aside because he wanted to coach at the collegiate level. It was a leap of faith for Blankenship, who didn't have a college job lined up when he quit. He voluntarily rendered himself unemployed to show just how serious he was about putting himself on the market for a college gig.

Blankenship spent a year out of coaching and worked as a morning show co-host on the Sports Animal, a Tulsa radio station. His patience paid off, and he landed a job as an assistant at his alma mater, the University of Tulsa. Blankenship has spent the past two seasons helping the Golden Hurricane put together back-to-back 10-win seasons.

Union Football
Kidwell’s PhotographyUnion battled rival Jenks for the state championship.

But what about the school he left behind?

Most everyone expected Union to pass the coaching baton to one of Blankenship's understudies. Instead, the Redskins went out of state to make a hire, bringing in Kevin Wright, who was wildly successful at Warren Central High School in Indianapolis.

The marriage was a short one. Wright resigned after a 7-4 season (the Redskins lost in the first round of the playoffs for the first time since 1997) and became an assistant coach at Western Kentucky.

Given another shot at a coaching hire, Union's decision-makers went to the Blankenship family tree. Kirk Fridrich, who was a Union assistant coach from 1993 to 2001, came aboard to restore unity and luster to the program.

Fridrich took Union to the state title game in his first season, and the Redskins made him a state champ in his second season.

Union coaches are judged not only by whether they can win state championships, but also by whether they can beat Jenks. The programs are essentially different sides of the same coin and have combined to win the past 13 large-school state titles (Jenks 9, Union 4, for those who want to keep score).

Fridrich improved to 3-1 against Jenks. He won a regular-season game against the Trojans last season, then lost a state championship game rematch.

Immediately after that game, Union running back Jeremy Smith vowed Union would not come up short in 2008. He backed up his words by running for 242 yards and three touchdowns in a state championship game at Boone Pickens Stadium, where he will play college football home games.

Smith, who is among the state's top high school recruits, long ago committed to Oklahoma State, and his big harvest came on the same day his future coach, Mike Gundy, was awarded a 7-year, $15.2 million contract extension.

Smith will soon find Boone Pickens Stadium to be familiar turf. And by the time the weekend concluded, Booker T. Washington and Union had returned to familiar turf.

Jimmie Tramel is a sportswriter with the Tulsa (Okla.) World.