Tulsa fever contagious in Oklahoma

Updated: December 26, 2005, 6:09 PM ET
Associated Press

TULSA, Okla. -- The chance to play in the AutoZone Liberty Bowl on national television already is paying big dividends in recruiting -- particularly when it comes to recruiting fans, Tulsa coach Steve Kragthorpe said Monday.

The team's success has the city buzzing. Tulsa had sold more than 10,000 tickets by Monday to the New Year's Eve game more than 400 miles away in Memphis, Tenn.

But even Kragthorpe was taken aback when George Steinbrenner expressed admiration for the Golden Hurricane.

Three days after Tulsa won the Conference USA title on Dec. 3, Kragthorpe was in New York to see tight end Garrett Mills honored as a Draddy Trophy finalist. When the he found himself in an elevator with the New York Yankees owner, Kragthorpe introduced himself as a big fan who also is head coach at Tulsa.

"He slaps me on the back and says, 'Tulsa! Hell of a year. I saw your game,'" Kragthorpe recalled.

The kind of exposure that gets that kind of attention only bolsters recruiting when it comes to players, too, he said.

The game against Fresno State is Tulsa's second bowl appearance in three seasons. When Tulsa appeared in the 2004 Humanitarian Bowl, then first-year coach Kragthorpe had pulled off the nation's biggest turnaround with a team coming off of back-to-back one-win seasons.

But the euphoria may be greater this time, he said, because far more fans are expected to make the trip.

"Obviously we're excited," he said, before the team's final practice in Tulsa. "At the same time we're very cautious in making sure the euphoria doesn't take over the preparation we need from today through Saturday to get ready to play."

Tulsa and Fresno State are old Western Athletic Conference foes. But because of scheduling changes, the teams didn't play each other in 2003 or 2004. Tulsa joined Conference USA this season.

Both teams are 8-4 for the season and 6-2 in conference play. Despite the fact the Bulldogs lost their last three regular season games, Kragthorpe expects a formidable challenge from coach Pat Hill's team.

"From a fundamental and technical standpoint, Pat and his staff are always going to do a great job of making sure those guys are where they're supposed to be," he said. "And from a game-breaking explosiveness standpoint, they've got it all."

Much of Tulsa's success on offense has come on Mills' receptions. The versatile tight end has caught 83 passes for 1,183 yards this season, the most by a tight end in a single season. His 3.91 grade-point average earned him the Draddy honor.

Sophomore quarterback Paul Smith has passed the 200-yard mark eight times this season, completing 62 percent of his pass attempts.

But on Saturday, Smith faces a Fresno State defense that ranks 19th in the nation in quarterback sacks with 2.92 per game. Fifteen different Bulldogs contributed to that number.

Kragthorpe expressed confidence in Smith's resolve and resiliency under pressure.

"Paul has been a guy that, as the old Timex commercial would say, has taken a licking and kept on ticking throughout the course of the season," Kragthorpe said.

Tulsa hasn't won a bowl game since its 1991 Freedom Bowl victory. Getting another chance to play in the spotlight isn't enough, Kragthorpe said.

"As coaches, players, competitors, I don't think we're ever satisfied," he said. "You're putting one high to bed and looking for the next one."

Copyright 2005 by The Associated Press