Senior Writer

Decades after the Dust Bowl, Oklahoma looks West once again


The Sooners may lower the 'boomer' on the college football landscape, if they ditch the Big 12. (AP)  
The Sooners may lower the 'boomer' on the college football landscape, if they ditch the Big 12. (AP)  

In the days before marketing firms and image specialists, the state of Oklahoma was in dire need of a self-confidence makeover. The dust had taken not only the state's topsoil but also its heart.

In The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck created the face of the Great Depression. Tom Joad was a struggling, underdog "Okie" fighting a class struggle. Over the decades, Joad's words have been analyzed and embraced by everyone from college professors to union organizers to Bruce Springsteen:

Wherever there's somebody fightin' for a place to stand
Or decent job or a helpin' hand
Wherever somebody's strugglin' to be free
Look in their eyes ... you'll see me."

An Okie, if you didn't get the message, fights long and hard against injustice. The ethic became the foundation for a state and its budding football power in the years following "Grapes."

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"Men," OU regent Erl Deacon is quoted as saying in Jim Dent's fine book, The Undefeated, "There is only one way to get this state back on track and that's football, football, football."

That was in 1946. Oklahoma football remains the pride of the state. The school and program have long been rich, privileged and -- suddenly like those Okies in the book -- about to tear up roots and look west.

Soon -- perhaps this week -- OU could leave its ancestral home in the Big 12 for the Pac-12. Forces that have nothing to do with Landry Jones' Heisman candidacy have worked their way to the surface again. It was only 15 months ago when the Big 12 first started losing members. Pac-10 commissioner Larry Scott's bold move to lure six Big 12 teams last year failed. Now with Texas A&M almost certainly bolting for the SEC (also this week), the Big 12 is again teetering on the brink and college sports is congealing into a pool of superpowers.

That doesn't necessarily make Oklahoma bad. It just makes it the central figure in the latest round of realignment. With A&M gone and Texas having lost some of its leverage, it's up to the Sooners to decide which way college football heads.

OU president David Boren took the issue to the next level Friday when he suggested that the school's conference affiliation could be decided by Monday. By Saturday, a source had told The Oklahoman that the school's "sole focus" was with the Pac-12.

That same day Oklahoma State billionaire booster Boone Pickens all but announced his school would be following the Sooners.

"If you can't fix the Big 12, you might as well go west," Pickens told reporters.

Whether superpowers' whims eventually lead to super conferences is hardly the argument today. It's going to happen. It's just a matter of when; the upheaval causing decades-old traditions, cultures and rivalries to be ripped asunder.

The question is: Does college football know what it's doing? Tom Joad was a noble figure who inspired an entire underclass. The central figures involved today really have no idea how history will view them.

Are they keepers of the amateur ideal or corporate raiders? Media rightsholders are glomming onto college football because it is a clear No. 2 next to the NFL in viewer interest. The commissioners are merely doing their jobs, making money for their leagues.

The fallout doesn't seem to matter: Lost jobs, lost rivalries and a certain crassness staining to college football's populist appeal. It is still amazing that the clumsy rollout of the Longhorn Network caused the latest shift underneath our feet.

Arguments over high school games, really?

It's going to be difficult to get accustomed Oklahoma flying halfway across the country, the team bus rolling down Berkeley's famous Telegraph Road.

Oklahoma State, long perceived as OU's little brother, will suddenly become equals with USC. There's something morally wrong about Cowboys mascot Pistol Pete being able to stroll the Coliseum sidelines while Snoop Dogg can't. (Ever since the NCAA sanctions, USC has limited sideline access.)

Dodd's Power Poll
1. Oklahoma
2. LSU
3. Boise State
4. Alabama
5. Wisconsin
6. Virginia Tech
7. Florida State
8. Stanford
9. Texas A&M
10. Nebraska
11. Oregon
12. Oklahoma State
13. Ohio State
14. Michigan State
15. South Carolina
16. Arkansas
17. West Virginia
18. Baylor
19. TCU
20. Mississippi State
21. Arizona State
22. Penn State
23. Auburn
24. Florida
25. Houston

While another 11th-hour change of heart is possible, it seems that everyone is too far down the road to change their minds this time. Sooners coach Bob Stoops has long been a proponent of going to the Pac-12. He could recruit (more) in California and play his brother Mike at Arizona.

Staying put does not seem to be an option. Stoops was asked last week if a "watered-down" Big 12 would cause him to consider his future at Oklahoma. He did not respond. Draw your own conclusions.

"Think about it," Stoops told reporters, "a [league] championship game in the Rose Bowl, going to USC to play ..."

When Boren shook up the college world on Friday, he most likely left a lasting mark. Powerful college presidents usually don't make such public proclamations unless discussions are down the road.

What we're witnessing with this latest round conference realignment is similar to a collective bargaining negotiation. Once an agreement it is reached, everything else is details. Let the lawyers wrap it up.

When Arizona AD Greg Byrne was approached Saturday about the possibility of more Pac-12 expansion, he said:

"If I were a betting man, yeah, I think there's a decent chance it could [happen]," Byrne said. "But I also think we're in a really good position. We've got a really good conference. We're fortunate that we're in a position of strength."

That's the thing. The Pac-12 is not going to beg. It doesn't have to with a $3 billion contract from ESPN and Fox ready to kick in next year. Having two of the biggest name brands in sports would be huge but the Pac-12 has been down this road before. Oklahoma and Texas decided at the last minute in June 2010 to stay in the Big 12.

"I will say schools have reached out to us ...," Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott said at the back of the Cowboys Stadium press box Saturday moments before the Oregon-LSU kickoff. "We have not initiated anything."

It has become less about what is going to happen and more about how it is perceived by the lawyers.

"I don't think Larry is the vulture here," said former Arizona president Robert Shelton, now the Fiesta Bowl executive director.

Meanwhile, Nebraska, Colorado and (supposedly) A&M have left the Big 12. Texas started that network and lost some clout. The message now seems to be: Oklahoma and Oklahoma State are going to the Pac-12. If Texas wants to come, that's fine, but that LHN contract might have to be rewritten -- to Texas' ultimate detriment.

"Larry is ready to make sure this conference remains strong," Shelton said. "But strength isn't always bigger. Sometimes it's just bigger, not better."

Shelton is in the minority lately with that statement. The land rush that started with a trickle last year is about to become the sound of a thousand hoof beats. Late in that Oregon-LSU game, I got a text. "Got a minute?" asked one college official with a stake in the realignment.


"What's going to happen?" he said.

The short answer is, no one really knows. The power conferences will get paid. A new underclass of schools will likely emerge. If you thought a non-BCS designation was bad, try staying relevant after being left out of a super conference.

BCS history tells us that the oppressed aren't going to be treated any more equally going forward. Where is their Tom Joad to make things fair?

Anyone in need of a credential from all the BCS title games? Dennis Dodd has them. In three decades in the business, he's covered everything from the Olympics to Stanley Cup to conference realignment. Just get him on campus in a press box in the fall. His heart lies with college football.

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