Curtis Fagan had never seen anything like it.
It was dark as No. 8 OU’s bus pulled back into Norman after the short flight from Manhattan, Kansas. Many of the sophomore receiver’s teammates were asleep after a long, tiring game day.
But when the bus reached Owen Field via Lindsey Street, any slumbering Sooners were aroused by the ruckus outside. Upon their return to the stadium, they had expected to quietly slide out the door, grab their bags, hop in their cars and drive home. What awaited them instead was a sight greater than a warm bed.
Exuberant fans, not caring about the late hour, were flamboyantly welcoming OU (6-0) home from a 41-31 victory over Kansas State (6-1) that sustained a legendary run still known 20 years later as “Red October.” The Sooners’ accomplishment on an overcast day in Manhattan with a sea of purple surrounding them did much more than bolster an undefeated record and shock an opposing fan base that had witnessed 25 straight home wins. It awoke a slumbering giant. As the Sooners celebrated with their supporters under the streetlights of Norman, they realized something for the first time.
They were one of the best college football teams in the country.
“You know how you’ll see on TV those movies where celebrities first realize they’re famous (and) there’s all these people that are outside for them? It was like that moment,” Fagan said. “We’ve had people wait for us after our locker room, after the game, but never did you come home from a visiting game and people were in the streets, running down the streets with signs, honking horns. … We get off the bus to a crowd of people screaming and yelling, and that right there — that moment sticks in my memory. … We’re smiling and looking around like, ‘Yeah, you know what, we’re here.’”
Fresh off a 63-14 rout of then-No. 11 Texas, Oklahoma’s confidence was growing. A blowout win over a vaunted rival was great progress for a team that was chasing a title after a 7-5 season in 1999 and had lost no less than three games each season since 1988 — Barry Switzer’s last run as head coach.
But the Sooners had yet to be given their first true test of the 2000 season. Before upending the Longhorns, they’d clobbered nonconference weaklings UTEP, Arkansas State and Rice and perennial Big 12 punching bag Kansas.
Oklahoma found a shot to upgrade its championship resume on Oct. 14, facing No. 3 Kansas State in a game embroidered with old ties.
Sooner head coach Bob Stoops had played for and coached alongside legendary Kansas State head coach Bill Snyder at Iowa from 1979–87. From 1989–95 he was on Snyder’s Wildcat staff — first as defensive backs coach, then as co-defensive coordinator.
When Stoops departed Florida for Norman in 1999, he took with him several of Snyder’s young Kansas State staffers, including his brother Mike, co-defensive coordinator Brent Venables and offensive coordinator Mark Mangino.
With four coaches on OU’s sideline who knew Snyder’s tendencies — and him knowing theirs — there was equilibrium and some tension between the squads as they prepared to face off for the first time since 1997.
Kansas State was returning 17 starters, among them quarterback Jonathan Beasley, who entered the game having thrown 92 straight passes without an interception. He was the main focus for a relentless Sooner defense that had forced 10 turnovers in its past two outings.
“I wouldn't say the defense was the best defense at OU ever, but it was a good defense to where we took pride in being on that football field,” said then-senior safety J.T. Thatcher. “We took pride in each other. We took pride in making sure that we back each other up. We took pride in making sure that nobody was gonna score on us and nobody was gonna outscore our offense.”
After kickoff in front of 53,011 fans, Oklahoma struck first with junior Tim Duncan’s field goal before Beasley ran 15 yards to put the Wildcats on top.
Kansas State prepared to kickoff as Thatcher waited for the ball. He’d been a pleasant surprise for OU’s special teams group as its kick returner.
“I mean, (Thatcher) knew that it was his senior year ... so knowing that it was his senior year, he made the most of his opportunity,” said then-freshman running back Renaldo Works. “I mean, he ended up having an All-American year.”
Thatcher swiftly swung the tide back in his team’s favor. His 93-yard return nearly resulted in a touchdown before senior running back Seth Littrell scored from two yards out on the next play.
Minutes later, Fagan took senior quarterback Josh Heupel’s pass to the end zone for his first score of the season to give Oklahoma a 17-7 advantage at the end of the first quarter.
“For me, personally, it felt great,” Fagan said. “I mean, we had a good team and when we looked around at each other, we saw the talent. I remember the receiver core: Josh Norman, Damian Mackey, Andre Woolfolk. Essentially, it was like, ‘Who’s gonna score?’”
In the second quarter, Beasley ran for another touchdown, but OU answered with two more of its own. Heupel’s 1-yard dive and sophomore running back Quentin Griffin’s 17-yard dash swelled the Sooners’ lead to 31-14 at halftime.
Oklahoma poured it on in the third quarter thanks to sophomore wideout Antwone Savage’s 74-yard catch, dodge and run, with Kansas State’s only answer being a field goal.
OU held a 38-17 lead entering the fourth quarter, but Kansas State wouldn’t quit easily.
The Wildcats cut the deficit to 38-31 on a 69-yard pass from Beasley to senior receiver Quincy Morgan and redshirt sophomore defensive back Terence Newman’s punt block touchdown return. After Works threw an interception on a trick play, Kansas State threatened to knot the score before a defensive stand negated the Sooners’ offensive blunder.
As the pressure continued to mount, the Sooners — and in particular their quarterback — were undeterred. Heupel, the junior college transfer, wasn’t ready to see a win fall from his grasp.
“People tried to intimidate him with questionable late hits on him, and he was unfazed,” said then-sophomore safety Roy Williams. “He did not get rattled, and that was the perk of getting a guy from JUCO because he’s been there. … He had to rough it to get to where he was at, so he was unfazed by anything that was thrown at him because he didn’t go straight to a (Division I school). He had to go the long route, and you know what, he made the most of it.
“He won over all the players on the team, and then in 2000 he was like, ‘Either get on the ship or get your ass left,’ and he led us.”
Heupel drove the offense downfield, leading to a field goal with just over three minutes left. With a 10-point lead, the Sooner defense iced the game to secure the upset.
Oklahoma’s Heisman contender finished with 29 completions on 37 attempts for 374 yards and zero turnovers. Meanwhile, Beasley saw his interception-free streak end on picks from Williams and senior Ontei Jones.
In the locker room afterward, the Sooners felt something they hadn’t experienced before. Even with a matchup against No. 1 Nebraska looming after a bye, the national championship trophy was in OU’s sight.
“I remember after that, we all were looking at each other ... (and) it felt like a light was shining on us from above,” Fagan said. “We knew, ‘OK, we have something special here.’”
That self-confidence was reinforced when soon-to-be No. 3 Oklahoma’s bus pulled up at Owen Field.
“It was just one of those things,” Fagan said. “We knew it was a big game, but when we got home and you saw that, and you saw the people there, that's when you definitely knew.
"OK, we're the truth. Now let's get ready for Nebraska.”
To see highlights of the game, click here.