In the world of college athletics, Oklahoma's brain trust has developed a reputation for fiscal prudence. Athletic director Joe Castiglione doesn't sit around clipping coupons, but the Sooners rarely break the bank – by major college sports standards, of course.
The outline of the long-rumored upgrades to the football facilities leaked earlier this week to Berry Tramel of The Oklahoman seemed consistent with OU's modus operandi – adequate, but far from extravagant. Maybe someone in the know was yanking Tramel's chain, because the full details and renderings released by the university weren't that.
Fundamentally, I have major reservations about the arms race in college sports. I'd hope the irony of Oklahoma, Texas A&M, Baylor and the like throwing money at coaches and facilities upgrades while the NCAA is fighting in courtrooms to keep players from getting a cut of the lucre isn't lost on anyone.
Yet, from a competitive standpoint, it's hard to see this as anything short of a huge boost for the football program.
The Sooners have recruited well ever since Bob Stoops hit Norman, but there's no denying that the overall level of talent on the roster has slipped slightly in the back half of his tenure.
You could lay that decline on any number of factors. However, as Josh McCuistion of SoonerScoop.com points out, it didn't help that OU had fallen behind the leaders in the facilities game. Like it or not, top-tier weight rooms and stadiums and locker rooms have become a necessary condition for luring elite prospects to your school. If the response that you get from recruits when they see your facilities is "meh," that probably describes the type of player who will be taking the field for you as well.
(In fact, if OU's digs really were/are that uninspiring, it speaks to the quality of work that Stoops and his staff have done on the recruiting trail just to keep the squad within striking distance of the upper-upper echelon.)
After four or five years of chaos in college football, last week's announcement also speaks to OU's position in the grander scheme of things.
I wouldn't blame anyone who feared for the direction of the program as the Big 12 slimmed down. Whereas other name brands ditched the Big 12 for more welcoming environs, OU stayed wedded to the league. (Not entirely by choice, to be fair.)
Combine a conference on life support with a team that looked a little stale on the field, and you could feel the ennui setting in. I suspect the athletic department felt it at the turnstiles on game days, too.
In the last year, however, OU football has gotten a jolt. There were bad losses to Texas and Baylor last season, but OU also:
- Beat Notre Dame for the first time in something like 75 years, and did it in South Bend;
- Scored an improbable upset to crush Oklahoma State's hopes of a second conference crown in three years; and
- Shocked everyone with a balls-out performance to stun Alabama in the Sugar Bowl.
Considering that the Sooners played shorthanded in the second half of the season, the 2013 season ended on a decidedly upbeat note.
Now, take a look ahead. OU appears to have a decent shot at playing in the first College Football Playoff this January. In 2016, the team will open a new stadium with new football facilities that Stoops is already touting to recruits. One of OU's first opponents in its new confines: Ohio State, one of a series of high-profile non-conference games on the docket every year for the Crimson and Cream.
The Big 12 has definitely taken some hits, but it still carries enough weight to remain relevant nationally, especially when the national championship picture now involves four teams instead of two. And OU still enjoys the inherent advantages it has always had over the rest of the teams in the league not named Texas. Stoops – and any coach who follows him – should have more than enough to sell to recruits, and the athletic department will have plenty of ammo to keep the fan base enthused.
The most interesting part to me is that the school's leadership put the program in this position without some kind of short-term stimulus plan. If anything, Stoops, Castiglione and OU President David Boren have been swimming upstream. They couldn't ride another conference's coattails or count on a lifeline from ESPN's hype machine. Under those circumstances, the fact that they've built a fairly robust multimedia infrastructure and have $370 million worth of stadium improvements coming indicates OU will still have hand to play the next time the tectonic plates shift in the college sports landscape.
I can point to a laundry list of things that I wish the school's administration and the big 12 had done differently during all this upheaval – that hasn't changed. Ultimately, however, they staked the football program's future on what OU has built over decades. As things stand now, it looks like a pretty shrewd bet.