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More Gaga Than La-La

Times Staff Writer

It did not take long for Adrian Peterson to grasp the importance of college football in this plains town.

A few weeks into a sensational freshman season, the Oklahoma running back noticed more and more people waiting for him outside the locker room. Study hall. The cafeteria.

Not long ago, while eating at an off-campus restaurant, he caught other diners eyeing him as they left. Twenty minutes later, he walked outside to find them lingering in the parking lot.

“Just to get me to sign something,” he said.

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It’s enough to scare his parents.

“Those people are football crazy,” his mother, Bonita Jackson, said. “I mean, I guess it’s a good thing, but it’s wild.”

Football runs thick as red clay through Oklahoma culture, and not only because the Sooners have made it to the Orange Bowl, where they will play top-ranked USC for the national championship Tuesday. As Kenny Mossman, an associate athletic director, said: “It’s way more than a game. There’s a lot of state pride wrapped up in this.”

The devotion reaches 75 years back to the Dust Bowl, dark winds that ravaged much of the state, desperate images etched into the popular conscience by John Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath.”

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Not long after that historic drought ended, the rains coming in 1939, Bud Wilkinson arrived as coach of the Sooners. Over the next two decades, his teams won three national championships and, during one stretch, went undefeated for nearly four seasons.

A winning team helped Oklahomans regain their sense of worth, former university president George Cross wrote in his book “Presidents Can’t Punt: The OU Football Tradition.” Decades later, current President David Boren echoed the sentiment: “Bud Wilkinson and the Sooners were the first real comeback for Oklahoma.”

Trace this bloodline to the present, to Kyle Wright, a 19-year-old junior eating lunch in the university’s student center on a rainy afternoon.

“OU football is something that’s been going on for so long,” Wright said. “My parents were huge fans and now I’m a huge fan.”

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The day of home games, people travel to Norman from across the state. By some estimates, the city’s population of 95,000 doubles on those Saturday afternoons.

Not all of the visitors can fit into the 82,112-seat Memorial Stadium, but they come anyway.

“It’s an event,” said Matt Matulis, a local bartender. “The stores have kegs of beer out front. They put a big-screen TV in the street.”

The Sooners have sold out every game since Coach Bob Stoops arrived six years ago, including his first season with a very average 7-5 team. Mossman says the waiting list for season tickets now stands at 8,000.

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All of this might seem odd in Southern California, where star running back Reggie Bush says there are lots of places he can go without being recognized. USC has ranked among the nation’s best teams the last three seasons but still must share the sports pages with Shaq vs. Kobe and hot-stove chatter about the latest move the Dodgers did, or did not, make.

This fall, the Trojans went undefeated and set an attendance record, yet failed to sell out three games at the Coliseum.

“This is L.A.,” said Daryl Gross, USC’s senior associate athletic director who is leaving to become athletic director at Syracuse. “You’re competing against a lot of great things to do.”

It is neither a stretch nor a slight to say life is simpler in Norman, half an hour south on Interstate 35 from Oklahoma City.

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The town is built around its sprawling university, which is also the area’s largest employer. Beyond the campus, with its brick buildings and stately gardens, the most distinctive landmark is a water tower.

Everywhere you look, people have Sooner flags and license plates on their cars. Every few blocks is another store hawking crimson caps, shirts and banners with the OU logo.

“Let’s face it. What do you think of when you think Norman?” the website for the convention and visitors’ bureau asks. “Of course you think of the University of Oklahoma Sooners.”

Matulis, the bartender, said, “Football runs this town.”

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On campus, if there are students who do not follow the team, “they probably wouldn’t tell anyone,” said Ross Johnson, a freshman in a beaten-up Sooner baseball cap.

Their fervor made headlines earlier this season when a 90-year-old spirit group called the Ruf/Neks, whose members are on the field at games, got into an altercation with a Nebraska player.

Though authorities have charged the player with assault and battery for striking one of the Ruf/Neks, the group was criticized for heckling and firing blanks from 12-gauge shotguns into the air, a long tradition. Nebraska Coach Bill Callahan angrily called Oklahoma fans “hillbillies.”

USC has no equivalent, its spirit group known for nothing more contentious than crisp white sweaters and megaphones. Likewise, students who were at the Rose Bowl for the UCLA game early this month hesitated to argue with the suggestion that Oklahomans take the game more seriously.

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“Football is huge at our school,” USC freshman Sarah Corruccini said. “But I know people who haven’t gone to a single game this season. They have better things to do.”

Nearby, where several alumni were throwing a tailgate party, Dr. Craig Thiede said that, as a sports fan, he envied the people of Norman.

“A small, college town,” the Newport Beach oral surgeon said. “Someplace where all they talk about is football.”

Football isn’t all they talk about, said Jack Mildren, a former lieutenant governor of Oklahoma who played quarterback for the Sooners in the early 1970s.

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Even without Disneyland and the beach -- or any professional sports teams -- there are other things to do, he said. Boren, the university president, has overseen a fund-raising campaign that tripled the number of endowed faculty positions for a school trying to improve upon its 120th ranking in the U.S. News & World Report’s “America’s Best Colleges 2005.”

But, Mildren adds, “it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out [football] is important.”

And its popularity is not limited to fall.

“You have spring football [practice] and that’s pretty big,” Matulis said. “Then comes summer training camp ... it’s pretty much a year-round thing here.”

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So, as Peterson became an All-American for the Sooners this season -- he finished second to USC quarterback Matt Leinart in the recent Heisman voting -- his coach and parents counseled him on dealing with the passion.

Be gracious but firm with fans. If you’re in a hurry, say that Coach Stoops told you not to sign autographs.

That usually works. For a while.

“I try to have a normal life,” Peterson said. “But there are always more of them.”

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