DALLAS — When does leadership become important? Really, what is leadership? Where does it come from?
At Oklahoma, leadership became important in 2015, and it emerged, like it so often does, during trying times.
And it came from a group of seniors that included Eric Striker, Sterling Shepard and Charles Tapper.
When the Sooners needed leadership following the Sigma Alpha Epsilon scandal last spring, after members of the campus fraternity were captured on video signing racist songs on a bus, Striker became the face of the program, passionate, angry, strong, spiritual.
And when adversity struck during the season in the form of another mind-blowing loss to a lousy Texas Longhorn side, Striker and Shepard and Tapper and others from the senior class stepped up and led their team to a Big 12 Conference championship and a visit to the College Football Playoff.
“They were very big,” running back Samaje Perine said Tuesday during Big 12 Media Day.
“It was definitely needed,” said linebacker Jordan Evans. “Strike and Shep and Tap and some of the guys last year definitely stepped in that position.”
Now, of course, those three guys are gone, youngsters again in the National Football League.
So when times get tough at OU this season, who will emerge and lead the 2016 team?
Sometimes a team’s leadership can’t be identified until adversity comes about. Sometimes it takes the hard times to bring out someone’s best qualities.
“This year, we don’t have very many vocal leaders like Shep or Strike or Tap,” Perine said. “We’re still trying to figure that out.”
Bob Stoops thinks he has a pretty good idea which players will emerge to provide this team’s leadership. He identified Evans and Perine and safety Ahmad Thomas and quarterback Baker Mayfield — the Sooners’ contingent at the Omni Hotel on Tuesday — as well as handful of others like defensive tackle Matt Romar, safety Steven Parker and offensive tackle Orlando Brown.
“In college,” Stoops said, “you’re always losing leadership. You’re always losing seniors. And new guys are not always in a position to do it.”
Leadership in a place as diverse as a college football locker room can be many different things to many different people. It’s intangible, even gossamer, unseen, unquantifiable.
Thomas, though, quantified exactly what it means to him.
“Leadership, to me, means just because somebody else is doing something doesn’t mean you have to do it too,” he said. “Especially if you see somebody else doing something they don’t need to do, you need to let them know, ‘This is not something you need to do, something that’s not appropriate for yourself or the brand of this university.’ Because some people do things just because they think it’s cool. A leader is going to do what’s right, no matter how you look. You can look like a geek because you’re studying, but that’s what you’re supposed to do. That’s a leader.
“You don’t need to be out late unless you’re studying, especially on game week. If it’s past 11 o’clock, you need to be leaving the library. If you are out on the weekend, you need to be careful. If you’re out drinking, you need to take an Uber home, or a cab or something, or walk, things that (Striker, Shepard and Tapper) taught us how to do.
“Especially if you do things like that off the field, it’s gonna show on the field.”