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John E. Hoover: After its worst PR week in decades, did OU football dip to 1989 standards?

John E. Hoover: After its worst PR week in decades, did OU football dip to 1989 standards?
Joe Mixon and Dede Westbrook have had a great season, but their past transgressions caught up with them this week and the OU football program is embarrassed.

Joe Mixon and Dede Westbrook have had a great season, but their past transgressions caught up with them this week and the OU football program is embarrassed.

It’s been more than a quarter century since Oklahoma football has suffered like this from its own iniquities.

In the span of just six days, the Sooners have had a Heisman Trophy finalist exposed for two arrests that the program’s leadership inexplicably claims to have known nothing about, and arguably its best player turned into a heinous YouTube sensation for punching a woman at a restaurant.

Friday’s release of the Joe Mixon video was 2 ½ years in the making. But, just like Sunday’s report in the Tulsa World that Dede Westbrook was arrested twice on family violence charges in 2012 and 2013, the slow inevitability of the bad news does little to lessen its impact.

OU is on its way to the Sugar Bowl, a Jan. 2 game against Auburn in New Orleans. Mixon leads the Sooners with 1,183 yards rushing. Westbrook leads the Sooners with 1,465 yards receiving. They have combined for 31 of Oklahoma’s 72 touchdowns this season, and 4,006 of the Sooners’ 7,763 all-purpose yards.

And for various reasons, their youthful, violent transgressions have come to public light.

How bad is it?

Think about the PR tidal wave that consumed Barry Switzer, The King himself, winner of three national championships, ultimately costing him his job.

The year was 1989. Defensive back Jerry Parks shot d-lineman Zarak Peters in the chest in the Bud Wilkinson dormitory. Quarterback Charles Thompson sold cocaine to an undercover police officer. And Nigel Clay and Bernard Hall raped a 20-year-old Oklahoma City woman also in The Bud.

Clay and Hall each served 4 ½ years in prison. Thompson served 17 months. Parks served three months.

David Swank, interim president at the time, publicly said he was confident Switzer could pull OU football out of its nosedive, but privately mulled firing the outrageously popular coach. Regents at first backed Switzer — a full-page ad in The Oklahoman, paid for by alumni, fans and former players, included the phrase, “If his teams have ever brought you cheering to your feet, we invite you to stand with us and stand up for him now” — but they eventually reversed field and forced Switzer’s resignation.

The shooting, the rape and the drug ring of 1989 surely was worse than Westbrook allegedly getting physical with the mother of his children while forcing his way into the kids’ lives, surely worse than Mixon’s lightning-fast, biblically bad decision to defend himself against a woman’s slap with a vicious right cross.

But then consider that Westbrook was recruited out of junior college in 2014 … and that Mixon punched Amelia Molitor in 2014 … and that Frank Shannon was still OU’s starting middle linebacker during training camp with a university-administered Title IX sexual assault investigation hanging over him in 2014 (he eventually got a one-year suspension from school) … and that OU had desperately tried to sign (it did) and appeal for immediate eligibility of (it didn’t) wideout Dorial Green-Beckham, who was dismissed from Missouri after domestic violence accusations … yes, in 2014.

The standards at Oklahoma in 2014 surely were higher than the standards at Oklahoma in 1989.

Weren’t they?

Switzer’s teams got away with quite a bit back in those days — Sports Illustrated’s infamous cover of Thompson in an orange prison jumpsuit portrayed “How Barry Switzer’s Sooners terrorized their campus” — because they wowed the fans and scored touchdowns and won football games and brought home championship trophies. That success, and the revenue it produced, made it easy for those in power to look the other way.

What of coach Bob Stoops’ Sooners now?

OU football is more popular than ever. The stadium is bigger, and so are the crowds. Every game is televised. The team — led by Mixon and Westbrook — wows the fans and scores touchdowns and wins football games and brings home championship trophies.

Stoops and athletic director Joe Castiglione and president David Boren certainly have added to the empire in Norman. But at what cost?

Have a conversation with Stoops or Castiglione or Boren, and one comes away with the unmistakable certainty that these are principled men of character, men of integrity, men who refuse to look the other way like so many folks at OU did in the 1970s and ‘80s.

But when they viewed the Joe Mixon video in 2014, then chose to “suspend” Mixon from the program for all of five months, looking the other way — figuratively speaking — is exactly what they did.

Maybe they determined that Mixon, who only turned 18 on the day he punched Molitor, was worth saving so long as he didn’t step out of line again. That’s the honorable take on all of this, helping a troubled young man turn his life around.

But maybe they also determined that Mixon, a five-star prospect and the No. 1 high school running back in the nation, could help the team win games, and he has, 21 so far, and two Big 12 Conference trophies.

Mixon may well be a changed man since 2014 (although his one-game suspension this season for allegedly berating and threatening a university parking attendant over a parking ticket suggests otherwise), but if he had been a walk-on or even a backup, he’d have been off the team a long time ago. His being “removed from all team activities” would have been permanent. Instead, he got his college education paid for and so much more. Such is life for a college football superstar.

So what happens now?

Mixon, a third-year sophomore, will play in the Sugar Bowl — if he wants to. His decision to release the video now may be an indicator that he’s ready to skip the bowl game and jump into his NFL Draft training. Westbrook, a senior, will play one more game, too. And at this point, both players should be allowed to play. Their wrongdoings happened years ago, they served their punishment (in Westbrook’s case, one charge was rejected, the other was dismissed when the alleged victim disappeared; a third, from an arrest last spring, was dropped) and, frankly, OU punishing them now after taking the stance it has for the last 2 ½ years would be disingenuous.

The real problem now lies in the offices of OU’s Memorial Stadium and Evans Hall. After seeing the Mixon video for the first time, many local, regional and national media spent Friday demanding accountability from Oklahoma’s power trio, ranging from tough questions for Stoops in New Orleans to the unemployment line for all three.

OU football is now two years removed from 2014. Castiglione is embarrassed that Westbrook’s arrests weren’t found by a simple background check. Boren quickly shut down a campus fraternity and expelled students for singing racist songs, and now likely cringes at the recurring sight of Mixon’s savage fist crushing four bones in Molitor’s face.

And Stoops, 56, author of the most coaching victories in OU history, surely wonders if his nadir of 2014 will one day be regarded as the equivalent of Barry Switzer’s 1989.


Columnist John E. Hoover is co-host of “Further Review with Hoover & Rew” and can be heard on The Franchise Tulsa from noon to 3 p.m. every weekday with co-host Lauren Rew and most mornings on The Franchise in Oklahoma City. Listen on fm107.9, am1270 on the 107.7 Franchise app, or click the “Listen” tab on The Franchise home page.

Columns

Hoover wrote for the Tulsa World for 24 years before joining The Franchise, where he's now co-host of "Further Review" on The Franchise Tulsa (weekdays 12-3, fm107.9/am1270) . In his time at the World, Hoover won numerous writing and reporting awards, including in 2011 National Beat Writer of the Year from the Associated Press Sports Editors for his work covering the Oklahoma Sooners. Hoover also covered Oklahoma State, Arkansas, Oral Roberts and the NFL as a beat writer. From 2012 to 2016, Hoover was the World's lead sports columnist. As a columnist, Hoover won national awards in 2012 and 2014 from the National Athletic Trainers Association for reporting on sports medicine and in 2015 won first place in sports columns from the Oklahoma Society of Professional Journalists. After receiving a journalism degree from East Central University, Hoover worked at newspapers in Ada, Okmulgee, Tahlequah and Waynesville, Mo. He played football at Ada High School and grew up in North Pole, Alaska. Hoover and his family live in Broken Arrow.

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