In the heat of the 2000 summer, Roy Williams, Damian Mackey and Jay Hunt sat just down the road from Owen Field in their apartment at Summer Pointe on East Brooks Street.
Amid a period of hot and hard practices, the Sooner sophomore safety, wideout and running back found themselves deep in excited conversation about their team’s schedule.
The first few games of the 2000 season appeared to be handy victories leading up to October, a month in which the Sooners would face highly touted Texas, Kansas State and Nebraska. Despite the promise of one grueling month, the trio was confident about the prospects of the coming season. And they weren’t the only ones.
“We don't know who the national championship is going to be against, but we should be able to run the table,” Williams remembers saying. “And the crazy thing about it is everybody else (on the team) was having those conversations and we didn't even know about it.”
Despite the confidence among players, OU was hardly a favorite to win the 2000 FBS title after its performance in 1999.
In his first season at the helm of the Sooners, head coach Bob Stoops had picked up the pieces of John Blake’s time in Norman to lead the program back to its first winning season since 1993 — an initial product that still amounted to a shell of what Oklahoma had been during the Barry Switzer era. Though OU was finally winning again, a loss to Ole Miss in the Sanford Independence Bowl on a last ditch field goal left a sour taste for fans, and while they hoped for improvement in the coming year, few could have predicted the kind of the run the Sooners were destined for.
The team believed in itself more than most outside the locker room, but greatness always comes at a price. During practice and on game days, the Sooners were determined not to return to the program’s mediocre play of the last decade plus. The players and coaches on OU’s 2000 team were all in on making their aspirations a reality.
Twenty years ago today, on Sept. 2, 2000, Oklahoma embarked on its quest for the program’s seventh national championship. Four months later, they’d take the field at Hard Rock Stadium to achieve what no OU team had in 15 years.
“When we finally got a taste of winning in college it’s like, ‘OK, so there's no turning back,’” said then sophomore cornerback and wide receiver Andre Woolfolk. “This is the new normal. We can’t do anything else.”
‘It wasn’t like that beforehand’
The Stoops era of OU football wasn’t very fun at first.
In 1999, a few players who were recruited by Blake departed after Stoops’ arrival, and OU’s new coach was tasked with getting those who remained to buy in.
Player and coach relationships weren’t fantastic at the outset, as Blake holdovers had to get used to a pro-style offense and Mike Stoops' and Brent Venables’ adjustments on defense. A 7-5 record showed that even with new leadership, Oklahoma was in need of polish.
The refining process really took off in summer 2000 with twice-daily practices in the heat. Strength and conditioning coach Jerry Schmidt had players running stairs to the top of the stadium until they keeled over and threw up, among other tasks designed to push the athletes to new limits.
“If you ask any player from the past that had Coach Schmidt and you mention his name, it always shook anyone down because he took us out there in that football field during offseason workouts and destroyed us,” said then-senior safety J.T. Thatcher. “But he destroyed us in the right way to get our bodies ready to play football.”
Meanwhile, Stoops owned the book on every other coach the Sooners would face that season and was bent on imparting that wisdom to his players. OU’s second-year leader, whose future success made him a legend in Norman and abroad, wanted his team to be prepared for anything, and often went to measures players described as “overkill” to make sure they were ready.
The road to the top was tough and often mundane, but as players continued to work hard, there was a shift in the culture. Athletes and coaches began to gel and things became a lot more fun. After practices, Stoops would take players to the campus swimming pool or the OU Softball Complex for some entertainment and relaxation. Other coaches would hold position group gatherings and meals at their houses to give players time together away from football.
OU’s philosophy of football was being rebuilt from the ground up, and so was the team’s morale.
“(Coach Stoops) made sure that we could go to waterparks or stuff like that and made it where we had an opportunity to spend time around each other where it wasn't the locker room, and we’re dreading going through two days or something like that,” Woolfolk said. “It wasn't like that beforehand. I don't remember having any team gatherings where we weren't doing team activities or football related activities.”
As preparations for the season carried on, Stoops also showed his mastery at keeping players focused. He told his team to save reading newspapers for a time down the road, block out the media’s opinions of them, and stay locked in on the task at hand.
So when the Associated Press ranked OU No. 19 entering their Sept. 2 season opener against UTEP, the Sooners were mostly indifferent about what the media did or didn’t think of them.
“I honestly can't say that we even cared where we were at the beginning of the season,” Williams said, reflecting on time when the internet was just taking off, and social media didn’t exist. “I mean it's easier back then, but Coach Stoops did a great job of (saying), ‘Hey, let's not worry about the news clippings. We’ve got a game to win.’ And we just took it one game at a time.”
‘The standard for the year’
Regardless of press perceptions and the prior year’s finish, UTEP head coach Gary Nord knew Oklahoma was good.
Oklahoma’s offense had evolved significantly since his time as Howard Schnellenberger’s offensive coordinator in Norman in 1995. By 2000, OU had jumped from the wishbone to the pass-favoring offense Nord had hoped to establish during his tenure there.
The Sooners were far more potent through the air with Heisman contender and then-senior Josh Heupel under center and a host of skilled athletes alongside him.
An Oklahoma season-opener record temperature of 106 degrees in front of 74,761 fans — OU’s largest first-game crowd since 1988 — further added to the Sooners’ advantage. In his first game at the reins of the Miners, Nord knew he would have to pull out all the stops to hang with the Sooners.
“I was there long enough to know that OU is blessed with tremendous talent and size and speed that got a lot more worked with every year than (UTEP),” Nord said. “So I knew that for us to have any chance, we would have to try to get them going in one direction and go the other way because we weren't going to outrun them, we weren't going to run over them and we weren't going to be able to protect long enough to get the ball down the field.”
Nord resorted to trickery, but he was outmatched by the Sooners' preparation. OU senior linebacker Torrance Marshall — who would become the team’s hero later in the season — and freshman defensive back Brandon Everage were suspended due to a violation of team rules, but the Oklahoma defense was unfazed by the absence of two starters.
After an onside kick, the Miners ran a sweep play on the first snap of the game and coughed up the ball as junior defensive lineman Cory Heinecke pounced on the fumble. Three plays later, Heupel’s dive into the end zone gave OU a 7-0 lead.
But Nord wasn’t done playing games with the Sooners. UTEP converted a fourth down fake punt on its next drive, and tied the game on a touchdown pass from senior quarterback Rocky Perez to senior wideout Paul Tessier.
As the teams traded blows, OU held a 17-7 lead at the end of the first quarter. While its defense had been stout, Oklahoma was struggling to run the football. Combine that with some incompletions from Heupel, and UTEP was very much still in the game.
It was in moments like these that someone would always answer the call throughout OU’s 2000 season. When the Sooners needed a momentum-shifting play, they got it.
This time it was Williams, who picked off Perez and returned the errant throw 35 yards for a touchdown, giving Oklahoma a 24-7 advantage from which it never looked back.
“Roy stepping in front and doing what he does all the time, forever — I don't have bad memories of him doing anything at OU,” Woolfolk said. “But that was literally the standard for the year. It didn't matter if we were home, away, or if it was the national championship. When something was going wrong, all of a sudden some defensive player just made some wicked awesome play.”
‘We’re about winning championships’
OU carried the momentum from Williams’ pick-six to a 27-7 lead at halftime, and continued to tear up the turf in the third quarter.
Heupel tossed a touchdown pass to sophomore receiver Antwone Savage before ceding control of the game to an up-and-coming player whose light was about to shine a lot brighter.
Renaldo Works, a true freshman running back from Booker T. Washington High School in Tulsa, entered the fourth quarter as the backfield’s hot hand during a game in which Oklahoma’s offense hadn’t executed well on the ground.
Works had broken off a big run in the second quarter, but fell just shy of the end zone to set up junior kicker Tim Duncan’s field goal. Teammates and coaches knew of Works’ talent, but few could have predicted how much better acquainted he was about to become with the paint inside the pylons during the twilight of the game.
With his blazing speed, Works wouldn’t be denied again. He burst onto the scene and proceeded to run up the score on the Miners. He galloped to the end zone from 19, six and five yards out, registering three fourth-quarter touchdowns to cap off a dominant 55-14 OU victory.
“It was a surreal feeling,” said Works, who later parlayed his success into a free-agent contract with the Miami Dolphins. “I always said that I wanted to be able to play as a freshman, and then to be able to score touchdowns and listen to that crowd roar, it's a high like no other, and it was just an exciting, great experience.”
Works was one of five OU true freshmen who played in the game, providing validation for the members of Stoops’ first recruiting class.
“Obviously we were excited for our classmates to go in and ball out like that,” said then-freshman receiver Mark Clayton, who went on to play seven seasons in the NFL with Baltimore and St. Louis. “We were excited because we're freshmen, and we came in together and we did those stupid workouts (together) on Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday mornings super early, so yeah, (we were) excited for our boys.”
While the Sooner offense poured on the points, Oklahoma’s defense remained unflinching against Nord’s slick play-calling.
Starting in place of the suspended Everage, Thatcher snagged an interception, while junior linebacker Rocky Calmus also showed his mettle. The Sooners’ Butkus Award contender racked up 10 tackles on the evening while forcing a fumble and recovering two more to keep the Miners’ offense in check.
“Rocky was always around the football (and it) never seemed like he would get tired,” Thatcher said. “And that's one good thing to have as a free safety myself and then the rest of the defense — somebody like that who never gets tired and never takes a play off.”
Oklahoma also got a glimpse of the future when starting receiver Woolfolk stepped onto the field as a cornerback for the first time in his college career.
Woolfolk played 31 snaps on defense that night, becoming OU’s first true two-way player since 1969, when Steve Zabel played linebacker and tight end for the Sooners. While he felt like his technique wasn’t great that night and his anxiety was high, Woolfolk said he enjoyed the contest that put him on the path to four seasons with the NFL’s Tennessee Titans.
“It was kind of like trying to catch my breath at once, and you had to find a way to be efficient at the same time,” Woolfolk said. “It was fun and a dream come true.”
Though UTEP scored its second touchdown after converting on fourth down in the third quarter, the Sooners managed to snuff out the impact of a second onside kick and a fake field goal during the course of the game. Oklahoma scored 35 points off turnovers that night. That ferocity on defense would become crucial in a low scoring championship game in January.
Despite an easy win for OU, the Associated Press critiqued the Sooners’ offense as “rusty” and “far from crisp” after three quarters of tough sledding on the ground along with a fumble and an interception from Heupel — the transfer from Snow College who months later would be a Heisman finalist in New York and years later a longtime OU assistant coach himself.
But once again, Oklahoma didn’t take the evaluation too personally. Stoops even admitted after the game the performance was “sloppy” and the team was already focused on improving in time for its next game against Arkansas State on Sept. 9. The Sooners were hungry for a more complete game.
“It was like one pat on the back, we got the win, (that’s) huge, we put some points on the board, great,” Clayton said. “But (when) we play a better team, (we) can't play like that. … We checked certain boxes, that's good, but again, we're about winning championships and this was not a championship performance.”
Correction: This post was updated at 8:55 p.m. Sept. 2 to correct the spelling of Antwone Savage's and Cory Heinecke's names.