- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 8, 2009

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

COMMENTARY:

I’ll be in the stands tonight in Miami rooting on the University of Oklahoma Sooners against the Florida Gators in the BCS college football championship game. As a lifelong Marylander and a sports fan, one that can pinpoint exactly what I was doing when I heard Len Bias had died of a cocaine overdose and still gets goose bumps when I see replays of Cal Ripken’s victory lap, my newfound passion for Sooner football requires an explanation.

Having attended schools on the East Coast and later taught at a small liberal arts college in Maryland, athletics were always important, but lacrosse and sailing were the sports of choice. When I accepted a job at the University of Oklahoma (OU), a family member asked, “Tell me again where you are going? Kansas or Nebraska?” Oklahoma was fly-over country, known for conservative politics, oil and gas and college football.

Norman, Okla., is a progressive college town that had so many Obama signs up on front lawns this fall one would have a hard time imaging that the state is (next to Utah) the reddest in the Union. People introduced me as someone from the East. In a great parallel, I had someone ask me if I was from Delaware or New Jersey.

I had only a fleeting understanding of the mania around college football. After all, watching the ACC basketball tournament is required viewing, but tuning in for the Terps at the Humanitarian Bowl in Boise (or the like) year in and year out is not. Coming of age as a sports fan in Maryland college football was easy to miss, eclipsed first by the Colts, later by the Ravens and always by the Redskins.

OU football is like nothing I had ever seen in Maryland. Home games are expressions of state pride. Close to 90,000 fans jam the stadium emblazoned with every imaginable type of gear celebrating all things OK. The pre-game rituals begin with the singing of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Oklahoma!” (“where the wind comes sweeping down the plain”) as a giant state flag is unfurled. Half the stadium chants “Boomer” (those settlers who observed the official start of the Oklahoma land run in 1889 and began at the sound of a starting boom) while the other chants “Sooner” (the settlers who got there, often times illegally, a bit earlier). Touchdowns are celebrated with gunshots and the entry of a horse-drawn covered wagon onto the field.

In the early 1940s, just a decade removed from the dust bowl, the university’s president personally hired the new head coach, Bud Wilkinson (who replaced Jim Tatum, who would lead Maryland to its best decade of college football), to build a program that would help erase the “Okie” image of John Steinbeck’s “Grapes of Wrath.” Mr. Wilkinson, who would coach for 17 years and later fall just short of being elected to the U.S. Senate from Oklahoma, won three national championships and a record 47 straight games from 1953 to 1957. Barry Switzer, another legendary OU coach who won a national championship in 1985 and later a Super Bowl with the Dallas Cowboys, told Sports Illustrated, “By the time I became the coach in 1973, Oklahoma was football. My job was to feed the monster.”

The monster came home from kindergarten with my 6-year-old during our first few weeks in Oklahoma. My son begged me to buy him an OU football jersey. The kids teased him when he wore his Maryland Terrapins sweatshirt. Crayola drawings of crimson and cream clad football players soon followed. Heisman Trophy winner Sam Bradford answered a letter from my son with an autographed picture. We were hooked. This fall we joined the Sooner Kids Club and along with 25,000 other excited elementary schoolers from around the state, waited in 100-degree heat for two hours so we could participate in Meet the Sooners Day in August.

Big-time college athletics certainly has its drawbacks. Graduation rates for Division I athletes can always be improved. Recruiting violations make one question the difference between college and professional sports. Yet, the joy and self-esteem that a college team can bring to a community or a state is significant.

So while my sports home will always be Maryland, tonight I will yell with pride, “Boomer. Sooner. Go OU! Beat Florida!”

Zach Messitte is the vice provost for international programs at the University of Oklahoma, where he holds the William J. Crowe Chair in Geopolitics. He was the director of the Center for the Study for Democracy at St. Mary’s College of Maryland from 2002-07.

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