- Gene Wojciechowski, Senior Writer
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NORMAN, Okla. -- The first four Oklahoma fans arrived outside Gate 7 -- weird, that was Rhett Bomar's jersey number -- of Memorial Stadium at 1:30 Friday morning. By 10:30 a.m., when the "Meet The Sooners" autograph day officially began, the line just to see OU running back Adrian Peterson stretched the length of nearly three football fields.
By then the sun was on rotisserie-chicken setting and sales of bottled water were doing boffo business at the concession tent. OU fight songs blared over the practice field loudspeakers. Children in Sooner unis happily raced across the artificial turf.
In all, an estimated crowd of 12,000 spent the allotted 90 minutes rubbing shoulders and Sharpies with Oklahoma players and coaches. Most left with the autographs they wanted. About 200 were turned away from Peterson's line simply because it was already too long and the morning too short.
Anyway, so much for OU's football program and its followers being curled in the fetal position. In fact, school officials say "Meet The Sooners" attendance was up about 2,000 from this time last year. And call it whatever you like -- moving forward, delusional thinking, a leap of faith -- but nobody here seems to need a hug from Dr. Phil.
Sure, two days ago, when starting quarterback Bomar and starting offensive lineman (and roommate) J.D. "Footnote" Quinn were dismissed permanently from the team, there was the appropriate hysteria. You could hear the screams from here to Oklahoma City. Bomar and Quinn had tried to go all Ocean's 12 on OU and the NCAA by pulling off a work scam at a local car dealership. They got pinched and then they got booted. Two perfectly good OU playing careers ruined by greed and brain freezes.
But that was then. Now that the two cautionary tales have been expunged from the OU roster, the conversation is almost always steered toward tomorrow, toward the Sept. 2 opener against Alabama-Birmingham, toward the players who are still here, not the ones who just left. The steering, of course, is being done by OU coach Bob Stoops, who looks like he ate some very bad fish whenever asked to discuss what is arguably the biggest story of the college football offseason.
Stoops is a football coach, and an honorable one, too. But like most coaches, he craves order, control and calm. There is nothing orderly or calming about players who accept thousands of dollars they didn't earn, about the likelihood of an NCAA investigation, about having to defend a program you rebuilt from near scratch.
The Bomar/Quinn controversy not only has compromised OU's championship hopes, but even worse, it has caused some observers to question Stoops' ability to oversee his team. You can question -- after all, this incident comes on his watch -- but you can't truly doubt.
Stoops won't or can't say it, but Bomar wasn't exactly beloved by his teammates. That might have made it slightly easier for him to dismiss his starting quarterback and replace him with senior Paul Thompson. But if you know Stoops, he would have done the same to the great Peterson ... to his own mother ... to the team chaplain. You commit an NCAA felony, you're history.
With all due respect to those trying to connect the scandal dots of the Barry Switzer Era to the Bomar dots of the Stoops Era, there's no comparison. It's not apples/oranges, it's Uzis/BB guns. Switzer remains a legendary Sooner figure (he's featured prominently in an OU-produced promotional video), but he treated the NCAA rules book the same way he treated, say, Kansas State: with indifference. Bomar might still be on the roster if Switzer were the coach.
This isn't to say the OU program couldn't be more vigilant. Peterson drove a late-model Lexus for weeks -- from the same dealership who employed Bomar and Quinn -- even though he hadn't arranged financing or finalized the sale. He later returned the car because Peterson's mother has said the car payments would have been too high. OU insists no rules were broken, but it feels murky, vague and, yeah, suspicious.
Stoops is a proud, smart and, at times, combative guy. The former All-Big Ten defensive back occasionally looks as if he wants to use reporters for team nutcracker drills. One more question about Bomar and he's going to forearm shiver himself.
Stoops says he's fine, but there's no way this past week didn't leave some bruise marks. Ask him if any of his players have, well, tried to console him, and he grabs the sides of the podium even tighter.
"They know they don't need to do that," he said Friday during a pre-fanfest interview with the media. "I'm good. Believe me, they know that."
Taped to each side of the walls in the team meeting room is a small sign.
- Losers assemble in little groups and bitch about the coaches, the system and other players in other little groups. Winners assemble as a team.
Stoops isn't going to bitch about a thing. An evening earlier, at a "Sooner Caravan" dinner at the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City, about 900 OU boosters gave him a rousing standing ovation.
"It must be football season," Stoops said to the $25-per-plate crowd. "Y'all wound up, aren't you?"
They were. They wanted ... needed ... reassurance. Stoops gave it to them.
"I promise you, I'm going to address this for the last time tonight," he said.
"This" was the Bomar/Quinn thing. "I'm pretty black and white," he said, explaining his decision-making process. "Cut and dry. I make it and I'm done."
More cheers. In fact, Stoops was so done with Bomar that he didn't refer to him by name. Instead, it was, "The guy Paul is replacing only played one year." The guy.
By the end of the night you would have thought you were at an OU revival meeting. Every so often you'd hear someone yell, "Boom-er!" Someone would answer, "Soon-er!" Another yell: "Texas?" Followed by: "Sucks!"
Oklahoma will be OK. So will Stoops. That's because if a single incident can be one of the worst and finest moments of a program, this is it. Worst, because of the greed of two players who knew better. Finest, because Stoops didn't hesitate to act.
The trick now is to make sure it never happens again.
Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for ESPN.com. You can contact him at email@example.com.