As Heupel goes, so go Sooners, perfectly

Under Long's tutelage, quarterback has made OU's offense his own

College Football

January 02, 2001|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

MIAMI - As the principal at Aberdeen (S.D.) Central High School, principal Cindy Heupel often talks with her students about making good choices. At least in the case of one of her former students, she has rarely questioned the choices he has made.

"He makes good solid decisions," Heupel said of her son Josh, now the starting quarterback on the top-ranked Oklahoma football team. "I never underestimate his judgment. He analyzes everything through."

From his decision to leave Weber State after one season and attend Snow College (a two-year school in Utah) to his opting to go to Oklahoma in the winter of 1999, Josh Heupel's choices have proved to be correct.

Now, as he analyzes his team's chances against No. 3 Florida State in tomorrow night's Orange Bowl, Heupel doesn't see what others do in making the Seminoles an 11 1/2 -point favorite.

"They are a very good team," Heupel said, "but so are we."

Most believe that Heupel is largely responsible for the 12-0 Sooners remaining the only undefeated Division I-A team because he was the focal point of season-making victories over Texas, Nebraska and Kansas State (twice).

"The kid is blessed," Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops said after Heupel led the Sooners to a 31-14 victory over then-top-ranked Nebraska in late October. "You can critique all you want; it's there. He anticipates things. He's exceptional. He's a winner, and he's everything you want in a quarterback."

As for those who believe that Heupel has benefited from the offense Stoops installed when he arrived from Florida after the 1998 season, Stoops said, "It isn't the system. He is the system."

It wasn't always that way. Despite playing in a pass-oriented offense at Aberdeen Central, the teams he played on there didn't have a winning record until his senior year.

As a freshman at Weber State, Heupel tore up his knee, watched his coach leave for Utah State and played sparingly in a run-dominant offense as a redshirt freshman the next year.

After a year at Snow College, Heupel was set to rejoin his former coach at Utah State when he got a call from Mike Leach, then the offensive coordinator at Oklahoma.

Leach had come with Stoops, bringing with him tapes of the offense used by Kentucky coach Hal Mumme when Tim Couch played quarterback there.

"I didn't envision that exact offense," Heupel said after practice one day last month in Norman. "When I came here for a visit, we just talked about how I played and how they played. I asked him [Stoops] how quickly they would turn it around, if he felt they would be competitive."

Actually, the question Heupel asked Stoops was more direct.

"Can we win the Big 12 championship and the national championship in my time at Oklahoma?' " Stoops recently recalled to the Daily Oklahoman.

Said Stoops, "Yes, we could."

Though it has seemingly happened overnight, the Sooners and their left-handed quarterback experienced growing pains along the way. Oklahoma went 7-5 last season, losing to Mississippi in the Independence Bowl. It was shortly before that game that Stoops hired Chuck Long from Iowa to work with Heupel.

The relationship between Long, who finished second to Bo Jackson in the 1989 Heisman Trophy race, and Heupel, who would finish second to Florida State's Chris Weinke this season, has been one of the subplots in this amazing run by the Sooners.

"Even last year going into the bowl game, Chuck helped him with his mechanics and fundamentals," said Stoops. "Being around this year, Chuck helped him deal with the expectations [of the Heisman]."

Said Heupel, "He helped me develop as a leader."

It is something Heupel has done throughout his career. As a child, he watched players on his father's teams at Aberdeen Central (Ken Heupel coached there before moving on to Northern State, a local Division II team) and learned from them about work ethic.

"People say, `He's a born leader,' but that's not exactly true," said Heupel. "I remember some guys on my dad's teams who worked extremely hard. They were the first ones to get to practice and the last ones to leave. I always believed that hard work brings confidence and confidence brings success."

From the moment Heupel arrived at Oklahoma, there was no doubt that he was going to lead the team's revival. Even before taking a snap in a regular-season game, his teammates named Heupel as one of their captains. Long has seen Heupel work even harder this season than he did last spring.

"He has raised the bar for the whole team," said Long.

Though Heupel's numbers tailed off toward the end of the regular season - after throwing for 15 touchdowns and only five interceptions in the first eight games, he had five touchdowns and nine interceptions in the last four - Stoops believes his quarterback is ready for the Seminoles.

Heupel has been compared with former Florida quarterback Danny Wuerffel, who despite a lack of physical tools led the Gators to a 52-20 victory over Florida State in the 1997 Sugar Bowl game. Stoops, the defensive coordinator on that Florida State team, sees other similarities as well.

"They're both great leaders, and they both have a strong [religious] faith," said Stoops.

It is his faith that helped Heupel through the more difficult stretches of his career as well as personal adversities, including the death of a beloved grandfather three years ago and the life-saving surgery his mother underwent in 1988 after developing blood clots in her brain.

It is his faith that makes Heupel look at the road from Aberdeen to the Orange Bowl as part of his own journey.

"God has a plan for everything," said Heupel.

So do the Seminoles.

They plan to stop Heupel and the Sooners tomorrow night.

They also plan to limit Heupel's choices.

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