Tramel: John Blake remained popular with OU football, despite losing
John Blake had a big personality. Friendly and warm and genuine. If he had any animosity in his bones, no one between Sand Springs and Norman ever saw it.
Maybe that’s how Blake achieved the rarest of football titles: He was a popular losing coach.
Easier to find a single wing offense or capital H goal posts than a losing coach in good standing at a place that cares about football. But that’s what Blake was during his dismal three seasons as the OU head coach.
Blake died Thursday at age 59, and he’s been out of the Oklahoma psyche virtually since his last day on the job in November 1998. Blake went into football endeavors elsewhere, Bob Stoops started winning big and fast, and the Blake bust was shoved into the deep corners of Sooner memory.
Fans mostly remember Blake fondly. He was an OU player — a good nose guard on Barry Switzer teams from 1979-82 — and a valued staff member as a player liaison and assistant coach. He was a Sooner and proud of it; one of only three OU alumni to coach his alma mater, joining Snorter Luster and Gary Gibbs.
Some fans grew tired of the losing; 12-22 overall, with three of the four losing OU seasons from 1960 through the present. But some fans grow tired even of big winners; the impatient crowd even soured on Bob Stoops and will on Lincoln Riley.
But the majority stayed with Blake. He was the anti-Howard Schnellenberger, who in one season turned off more Sooners than did John Steinbeck with “The Grapes of Wrath.” Many OU fans wanted so much to believe in Blake and vowed that success was just around the Campus Corner.
Which is why Nov. 22, 1998, is such a pivotal date in Sooner history. The night after the final game of Blake’s third season, OU’s board of regents met in the Oklahoma Memorial Union after newish athletic director Joe Castiglione recommended that Blake be fired.
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The regents went into executive session, then emerged for a public vote that was televised live. The vote was 4-2 to fire Blake. Regent Robin Siegfried missed the meeting.
If one regent had flipped, the vote would have been tied and chaos could have ensued. Would Blake have retained his job? Would the regents have reconvened later with Siegfried? Would Castiglione have stayed around and worked with a coach who wasn’t winning?
We’ll never know. Nine days later, Castiglione hired Stoops. If Blake had kept his job, Stoops almost surely would have become the coach at his alma mater, Iowa, for which he also interviewed during that time. The Sooners soon enough would have been in the market for another coach who wouldn’t have been Stoops, and today, Mack Brown might be in his 23rd year as the coach of Texas after two decades of dominating the Big 12.
Blake was 34 when hired by OU. Age was not the problem. Bud Wilkinson was 31 when he took the office. Chuck Fairbanks was 33. Barry Switzer was 35. Later, Stoops was hired at 38, a veritable old-timer compared to Lincoln Riley, 33 when handed the mantle.
Blake’s leadership skills were scarce in 1996 and never really developed. As a North Carolina assistant coach a decade later, Blake drew severe sanctions from the NCAA for pushing players toward agent Gary Wichard, mirroring whispered accusations made against Blake by OU coaches early in the Stoops era.
Blake hired some good coaches — Bill Young and Rex Ryan were his defensive coordinators, for crying out loud, and now-Arkansas head coach Sam Pittman became Blake’s offensive line coach in 1997. But staff turmoil seemed a constant, as the Sooners, especially offensively, never seemed committed to anything, be it quarterback or scheme.
Blake’s recruiting was good, though his contribution to Stoops’ 2000 title team always has been overrated. Blake left behind no usable quarterback and dang few usable tailbacks. Stoops inherited some outstanding athletes and turned them into football players, changing many positions, including sides of the ball. The 2000 national championship seems as much an indictment of Blake as an endorsement.
That’s harsh to say. Blake was not a bad man. He just often made dubious football decisions, whether it was who to play at quarterback or how to develop young men. Then-athletic director Donnie Duncan’s decision to hire Blake shows even sharp people make mistakes; Duncan miscalculated the value of leadership and the difficulty of running a football program.
Blake was appealing to revered football men. Gary Gibbs hired Blake at OU. Jimmy Johnson hired Blake with the Dallas Cowboys. Jackie Sherrill hired Blake at Mississippi State. Bill Callahan hired Blake at Nebraska. Butch Davis hired Blake at North Carolina. Ryan hired Blake with the Buffalo Bills.
But Blake was miscast as the OU head coach. It’s to his credit that the worst three-year stretch in Sooner football history is not much held against him by the masses.
Berry Tramel: Berry can be reached at 405-760-8080 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. He can be heard Monday through Friday from 4:40-5:20 p.m. on The Sports Animal radio network, including FM-98.1. You can also view his personality page at oklahoman.com/berrytramel.