Commentary

Times change, but OU stays on top

Originally Published: January 23, 2009
By Ivan Maisel | ESPN.com

Oklahoma's position atop the Prestige Rankings is a triumph of consistency over flash -- of steak over sizzle.

[+] EnlargeBud Wilkinson
AP PhotoBud Wilkinson coached the Sooners to 145 wins and three national titles.
In the 73 seasons since The Associated Press began polling in 1936, other schools with winning traditions and larger national profiles have ebbed and flowed toward the top. The Sooners arrived there shortly after World War II and signed a long-term lease.

The Prestige Rankings are a snapshot. Although, given the amount of numbers crunched by ESPN researchers, it's a snapshot built by megapixels. In every snapshot taken at 10-year intervals over the past 50 years, however, the same team is at the top.

It is not Notre Dame, which has dropped from second to fourth in the past decade of wildly swinging fortunes. It is not USC, the dominant team of the BCS era. It is not Alabama, which has fallen from second to sixth in the past 20 years.

It is Oklahoma.

"That's amazing," University of Oklahoma president David Boren said Wednesday. Boren is a Sooners lifer. As a teenager, he sat in the stands in 1957 when Notre Dame defeated Oklahoma 7-0, ending the Sooners' 47-game winning streak. "No one left the stadium for 30 minutes after the game," Boren said. "We just sat there. We were shocked into disbelief."

To give you an idea of how college football has changed, through the 1958 season, a half-century ago, Georgia Tech stood No. 4 according to these Prestige Rankings. Duke -- Duke! -- stood at No. 9.

Oklahoma stood at No. 1. Still does.

It was one of Boren's predecessors, George Lynn Cross, who set in motion the monster that stands astride college football today. The state of Oklahoma barely survived the 1930s, when the Depression and the Dust Bowl sucked the life out of the Oklahoma soil and the pride from Sooners bones.

[+] EnlargeBarry Switzer
Stephen Dunn/Getty ImagesOklahoma ran away with 157 wins and three national titles under Barry Switzer.
The university hit on football as a way to make Oklahomans feel good about themselves. Little did anyone know.

When Bob Stoops won his 100th game this past September, he made Oklahoma the first school to have four coaches who won at least 100 games in the same program. Bennie Owen put the school on the map in the early part of the 20th century. Since World War II, Bud Wilkinson, Barry Switzer and Stoops each have won 100 games and at least one national championship.

And that excludes the six-year reign of Chuck Fairbanks (1967-72), who won 77 percent of his games and is no better than fourth on the school's winning percentage list.

That is the measure of success at Oklahoma.

Cross is best known for the quote, "I would like to build a university of which the football team can be proud," a sarcastic remark he made to a state Senate committee that hadn't been listening to his plea for funds. The remark, made public without context, turned Cross and Oklahoma into a national example of the ills of the athletic tail wagging the academic dog.

[+] EnlargeBob Stoops
Otto Greule Jr/Getty ImagesBob Stoops has guided OU to 109 wins and a national championship.
The Sooners won when academics took a backseat to football. They won as an NCAA renegade under Switzer. And they have won under Stoops, a coach known for adhering to the letter and spirit of the NCAA manual.

Through the years, the one constant has been that the Sooners won. In his 1977 book "Presidents Can't Punt," Cross said, "A winning team had done a great deal more for the state of Oklahoma than for the university."

Sooners fans still hang on every play. Football, Boren said, "affects the rest of the state more than the price of wheat, cattle and oil."

Now in his 15th year as university president, Boren labors to bolster Oklahoma's academic credentials. Boren is proud that Oklahoma has enrolled more National Merit Scholars per capita than any other public university in the nation.

"In many ways, over the years, the football team and the attitude toward athletic excellence … have allowed us to shine a light on Oklahoma and for people to see that academic excellence," Boren said. "… Our excellence in athletics has given us a chance to give others a window into the university."

It is a window into the most prestigious address in college football.

Ivan Maisel is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Send your questions and comments to Ivan at Ivan.Maisel@ESPN3.com. His new book, "The Maisel Report: College Football's Most Overrated & Underrated Players, Coaches, Teams, and Traditions," is on sale now. For more information, go to TheMaiselReport.com.

Ivan Maisel | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com