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Carlson: How a sports trailblazer became a casualty in OU coronavirus cutbacks

Debbie Copp has been a fixture in OU's sports information office since 1975. Seen here on the day in 1995 that football coach Howard Schnellenberrger resigned, she recently lost her job amid coronavirus cutbacks in the athletic department. [AP PHOTO]
Debbie Copp has been a fixture in OU's sports information office since 1975. Seen here on the day in 1995 that football coach Howard Schnellenberrger resigned, she recently lost her job amid coronavirus cutbacks in the athletic department. [AP PHOTO]

NORMAN — Debbie Copp remembers her dad always having a copy of the serenity prayer in his billfold.

He was a recovering alcoholic, so keeping those words of comfort and consolation close at hand was essential. And because they were important to him, they became important to her.

“And I carry it,” she said.

These days, she’s praying it more than ever.

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change …

Earlier this month, Copp was let go after working in the OU athletic department for 45 years. She was a pillar in the sports information office, keeping stats and promoting athletes and telling stories for literally thousands of athletes over the years. She was a trailblazer, too, a woman who was among the first in America to work in sports media.

But she got caught up in coronavirus cutbacks at OU. While the athletic department has not publicly announced layoffs like some of their Big 12 brethren, including OSU, Texas and Texas Tech, Copp was part of a reduction in force.

Sept. 6 was her last day.

“I didn’t expect this to happen at all,” she said. “I was completely blindsided.”

In an instant, her plans to work this academic year, then retire were scuttled. OU was so many things to her. The only place she ever worked. Her alma mater. Her life’s work.

She didn’t dream of such a career as a kid growing up in Oklahoma. Sure, going to OU was a goal — her dad had started there before transferring to play basketball at Oklahoma City University — but she never thought about a life in sports.

Girls in the 60s didn’t have that option.

But Copp grew up around sports. Her dad, J.T., was a high school basketball coach, and at a young age, Debbie learned to keep a scorebook for him on the bench. When her dad became an athletic director at Anadarko, he started having her do the public-address announcing for wrestling, baseball and basketball, too.

Her senior year, the local newspaper needed someone to cover sports, so Copp added those duties.

Still, when she went to OU, she wasn’t planning a career in sports. She started as a journalism major — “I just loved writing,” she said — but like many college students, she changed majors. Education. Spanish. Back to education.

She also got involved in sports again when one of her roommates, a basketball player, convinced her to become a team manager. Copp knew all about keeping stats, but having been around her dad’s teams growing up, she also understood the inner workings.

Coaches and players alike loved Copp.

In early 1975 when Title IX started expanding opportunities for women’s sports, Johnny Keith, then OU's director of the sports information office, decided he needed someone who would handle results and PR for the half dozen women’s teams. One of the women’s basketball coaches recommended Copp.

Keitht hired her on the spot.

Over the next four-plus decades, Copp wrote press releases and set up interviews and covered games and had a hand in nearly every sport at OU. The only programs she doesn’t remember working directly with were rowing and soccer.

Copp slowed down physically a bit in recent years, but she never slowed in her passion for her work. She loved co-workers, her coaches, her athletes, her Sooners.

But during the pandemic pause, Copp decided she would retire next summer. She has been eligible for retirement for several years, but turning 65 this year, she felt like the end of the academic year was a good time to go.

Then on August 5, she received an email saying she needed to attend a meeting in the office the next morning. She hadn’t been in campus closed on March 13, and when she arrived, she was greeted by Larry Neifeh, executive associate athletic director, and Suna Cicekli, director of human resources.

“Darn,” Copp said, “this kind of looks like an inquisition.”

She remembers Neifeh saying, “Well, it’s not an inquisition, but it’s not a good thing.”

The next few minutes were a dizzying blur of words Copp never expected to hear. Reduction in force. Eliminated the position. Administrative leave. Thirty days notice.

“Am I the only one?” she asked.

“No,” she remembers being told, “there are others.”

“How many others?”

They wouldn’t say, but Copp knows at least two other employees of the athletic department were let go. And no matter how much she was told the decision wasn’t a reflection on her or her job performance, it did little to soothe her soul.

“There’s still anger,” she said. “There’s still bitterness. There’s still sadness.

“There’s still grief because that’s a whole lot of my life.”

And because of the pandemic, she didn’t get to properly say goodbye. She didn’t get to have the thank-you lunches with co-workers. She didn’t get to enjoy the retirement parties with cookies and punch.

She deserved all of that.

Copp says she’ll manage financially, though there may be a few lean months before her retirement benefits begin, but it’s the emotions that have been most difficult. Texts and emails from friends and family have buoyed her, and even though a couple nonprofits have asked about serving on their boards — it’s community work she’s done throughout her career — she knows a vacation, even just a few days away, would do her good.

“COVID’s not letting anyone do anything,” she said.

She laughed.

“From March 13 until August 6 … I left our house nine times. Three of those nine times was to go to the dentist, two were to get a haircut, one was to go to a doctor’s appointment, and two were to go over to a friend’s.

“The ninth one was to go to the department to find out I’d be RIFed.”

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change …

Debbie Copp is taking these days one step at a time, but even as she does, she has found serenity can still be difficult to come by.

“I can honestly say there are some things about how I felt about the University of Oklahoma that have definitely changed,” she said.

She paused.

“And I don’t know if they’ll ever go back.”

Jenni Carlson: Jenni can be reached at 405-475-4125 or Like her at or follow her at

Jenni Carlson

Jenni Carlson, a sports columnist at The Oklahoman since 1999, came by her love of sports honestly. She grew up in a sports-loving family in Kansas. Her dad coached baseball and did color commentary on the radio for the high school football... Read more ›