Carlson: How OU football's 2000 national championship changed everything in the Sooner kingdom
Roy Williams would put a towel on the seat by his locker during his early days at OU.
He didn’t do it to soak up practice sweat or shower water.
“So I wouldn’t get splinters in my butt,” he explained.
The former Sooner and superstar safety chuckled at the memory of the old wooden benches and the sorry state of the football locker room back then.
“I mean, it was bad,” he said
The situation wasn’t much better in other parts of the OU athletic department in the late 1990s.
“We had needs that were screaming at us,” said Joe Castiglione, who took over as OU athletic director in 1998. “We had financial challenges that were related to our operations when I started here, but we had facility issues everywhere.”
Now, those days seem long ago and far away.
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While it has been more than two decades, the transformation of OU athletics is no less stunning when you consider where it was. Gone are the dilapidated facilities and the financial woes, at least the ones not related to the coronavirus pandemic. Instead, OU now has one of the most robust athletic departments in all of college sports, winning 19 national titles in the 2000s in everything from gymnastics to golf to softball.
But the national title that changed everything was football in 2000.
“That, I think, just completely turned everything around,” said Sooner softball coach Patty Gasso, whose program won its first national title six months before the football title. “The impact with softball was nice, but the impact of football, I think we all know that.
“There’s a whole other level, a whole other level of exposure, a whole other level of money, a whole other level of everything.”
It was a season of change.
Even though the overhaul had started before football won it all, that title hit the fast-forward button.
“When I think about winning that game,” Castiglione said, “it validated, it vaulted, it connected Oklahoma back to its great tradition.”
It also hit the accelerator on where the Sooners were going.
Joe Castiglione arrived in Norman with his eyes wide open.
Coming from Missouri, he knew OU athletics had been struggling for years. Struggling to win. Struggling to fundraise. Struggling in just about every way imaginable.
But some of what he found still surprised him.
Tennis courts were thrashed. Locker rooms were leaky. But when Sooner basketball coaches told Castiglione that they sometimes had to practice at churches in Norman when events pushed them out of the Lloyd Noble Center, he was incredulous.
“This is the University of Oklahoma,” he remembers saying. “What in the world is going on here?”
After Castiglione fired John Blake after a third consecutive losing season and hired Bob Stoops to take over the football program in December 1998, the athletic director gave his new football coach a tour of the facilities. Stoops had been interviewed at an off-campus location, so he took the job sight unseen. The Switzer Center was under construction — it would open in April 1999 — but walking through the football locker room under the east side of the stadium illustrated the rundown nature of the program.
The confines were cramped. The lockers were shabby. The seats were wooden benches, the ones that could cause splinters.
As he showed Stoops around, Castiglione noticed a chrome red sign with the words Sooner Magic scrawled on it.
“And the sign was literally split in the middle,” Castiglione said, “and Sooner and Magic were hanging.”
He pointed it out to Stoops.
“We have to reconnect the Sooners to magic,” Castiglione said. “That’s what we have to do.”
Castiglione was already working to change the atmosphere in the athletics. Mark Williams, who had been an assistant coach with men’s gymnastics before becoming head coach in 1999, remembers Castiglione bringing together head coaches from all the sports and feeling a ton of energy in the room.
There was positivity and inclusion where there hadn’t been before.
And when softball and football won national titles in 2000, that only increased the energy around the entire athletic department.
“It was sort of like, ‘Hey, we need to keep up,’” Williams said. “I’m telling my guys, ‘Hey, nobody’s gonna notice us unless we do something special.’”
Those national championships also proved teams could do something special at OU.
“It became more real,” said Williams, whose program won its first national title in 2002 and has won eight more since. “It seemed more possible; it was already happening on campus.”
Belief wasn’t the only byproduct of the 2000 success.
Sooner magic came back, but so did Sooner money.
Joe Castiglione met with ABC’s broadcast crew the night before OU played Nebraska.
It wasn’t to talk football, though that undoubtedly came up. The Sooners had already beaten both No. 11 Texas and No. 2 Kansas State by double digits in their two previous games, and the second-ranked Sooners were set for a showdown with top-ranked Nebraska the next day.
But that evening, Castiglione invited Brad Nessler, Bob Griese and Lynn Swann to be his guests at the kickoff event for Great Expectations, a fundraising campaign the likes of which were unheard of then at OU.
The goal: $100 million.
The plan: something for every sport.
“Which had never been done before,” Castiglione said.
He knew the Nebraska game had a chance to kickstart the campaign, which had been in the works months before Red October was even a gleam in Bob Stoops’ eyes, and Castiglione wanted the TV crew to see the vision and hear the plan so the story might be told more broadly.
Stoops even made an appearance at the event in the Santee Lounge. He says OU administration was great during his time as the Sooner coach about not asking much of him on the eve of a game, but that night was an exception.
The next day, Nebraska jumped out to a 14-0 lead, but OU came roaring back
“Boom,” Stoops said. “We go out and win 31-14, and of course, that just boosted the fundraising. The elation just made it a lot easier to fundraise in that climate.
“It just exploded.”
Every win that season added momentum, but when the Sooners beat Florida State to win the national championship, it put rocket boosters on the fundraising campaign. Great Expectations had a three-year timetable, and when Castiglione and Co. reached that mark, they were $22 million above their $100 million goal.
“I’d love to be able to say that we were that clairvoyant and had planned exactly for it to happen that way,” Castiglione said. “But we always want to put ourselves in a position to capitalize on opportunities, and that’s what we were trying to do back then.”
The dollars transformed OU athletics.
Williams, for example, remembers thinking in his early days at OU he would likely move to another program after a few years. Places like Minnesota and Michigan had better facilities and more support for men’s gymnastics.
But as time went on, Williams stopped looking around.
“There was never any reason for me to go anywhere else,” he said. “What was offered there wasn’t as good.”
It wasn’t just that the Viersen Center was upgraded and has since been expanded and upgraded some more. There was more money for recruiting, for travel, for equipment, for apparel.
Williams didn’t have to buy a warmup that would last five years.
“We were getting new stuff every year — and cool stuff,” he said, adding that OU’s deal with Nike was a game changer. “It didn’t even have to come from our budget. They were supplying us with all our gear.”
Those ripples were felt all across the athletic department.
“We got to fly charter where normally we’d be flying commercial,” Gasso said with a laugh. “We drank out of real glasses instead of plastic glasses. We had a motorcade when we were out there.
“It did enhance our experience, no doubt.”
And the successes built on themselves. A couple national titles turned into more than a dozen. That first capital campaign kick started fundraising that continues to be strong even today. Over the past decade, OU has had annual contributions of $26 million or more and hit an all-time high of $63 million in 2018, according to the NCAA athletic department revenue database compiled by USA TODAY in partnership with Syracuse University’s S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications.
Maybe all of that happens without football’s national title. Maybe if the Sooners would’ve just won the Big 12 and gotten to the national title game, the impact across all OU athletics would’ve still been great.
But those in athletics believe that championship took things to another level.
“I think that a lot of boosters came back, a lot of the donations started to pour back in because in a lot of respects, people don’t want to support teams that aren’t champions,” Williams said. “You’ve got to prove that to them.
“That was the icing on the cake where, ‘If we’ve been holding back at all for the last decade, let’s get on board now and make this something really special.’”
The changes wrought by football in 2000 impacted the entire crimson-and-cream kingdom.
But make no mistake, football benefited, too.
The locker room in the Switzer Center was an upgrade — no more rough wooden benches — but then after the championship, the upgrades got upgraded and the renovations got renovated. There were leather seats and flat screens, video games and foosball tables.
There was even a juice bar.
“We went from getting one jumpsuit to three,” said Damian Mackey, a Sooner wide receiver from 1998-2002. “We got a black one, we got a crimson one and we got a sweat suit. We went from getting one pair of shoes to three, went from two helmets to three.
“So we saw the money start to come in.”
Mackey’s fellow receiver Andre Woolfolk remembers changes in recruiting. More four- and five-star recruits were making official visits after the 2000 championship.
“The attraction of coming to Oklahoma was completely different after that, which was good,” Woolfolk said.
But those players from 2000, very few of which were big-time recruits, will always hold a special place in Sooner hearts. Even now when they return, there is a sense of the change that they sparked, the powerhouse that they reawakened.
“All those guys coming back and still being a part of the program, you always feel the history here as a part of it,” Sooner coach Lincoln Riley said. “It makes a difference, I promise you. It’s not like that everywhere.”
Joe Castiglione often gets to see those players when they return to campus. A reunion of the 2000 squad was supposed to be held this season, by the way, but because of the coronavirus pandemic, it has been pushed back a year. When they return, Castiglione expects some will marvel at where the program is now.
“I wish we had this when I was here,” he suspects some will say.
“We have this,” he will tell them, “because you were here.”
At least one Sooner already knows that. Roy Williams, who had the longest NFL career of any player from that 2000 team, has been a regular around the program for years. He lives in the metro and visits when he can.
He sees the fingerprints of that national championship everywhere.
‘We started this,” he said. “Let’s get that clear.”
“We’d better get our d--- credit.”
Jenni Carlson: Jenni can be reached at 405-475-4125 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Like her at facebook.com/JenniCarlsonOK, follow her at twitter.com/jennicarlson_ok, and support her work and that of other Oklahoman journalists by purchasing a digital subscription today.