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February 19, 2014

OU selling the passion of Big 12 football

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When national signing day came for Oklahoma, they extended their reach to the west once again. The Sooners signed six players with California ties in 2014. Two of those players, Joe Mixon and Michiah Quick, were both Rivals100 selections.

Bob Stoops' flirtation with California became a full-blown relationship this season. The tales of the Cali Trio have turned into a pipeline for the Sooners since Kenny Stills, Tony Jefferson and Brennan Clay arrived in Norman in 2010.

That year, Clay and Jefferson were both members of the Rivals100. But Mixon gives Stoops his first five-star prospect out of the Golden State since the Cali Trio first arrived.

While the Sooners have always tried to dip their toes out west under Stoops, they are now finding widespread success battling Pac 12 schools for top prospects.

"When that great player isn't here in Oklahoma or that great player isn't in Texas, we need to go find them elsewhere," said co-offensive coordinator and receivers coach Jay Norvell. "We've been pretty fortunate to go find some pretty good players in California."

The California connection couldn't have worked much better for Oklahoma in 2013-14. During Mixon and Quick's official visits Oct. 4, Brennan Clay, the last of the Cali Trio still at OU, had one of his biggest days as a running back for the Sooners.

He rushed for 111 yards on 9 carries, including a 76-yard TD run against TCU.

In the postgame locker room, Stoops took longer than usual to reach the postgame podium as he was celebrating with his prized recruits and players in the locker room.

"Sorry I'm late," Stoops said then. "I was recruiting a little bit."

Clay was also happy to have that night in front of the star recruits from his home state.

"I'm excited to see that pipeline myself, Tony [Jefferson] and Kenny [Stills] opened," Clay said following that TCU victory. "It's exciting see these Cali kids start to come together. They want to play together. They want to be at OU. They want to get championships, so it's exciting to start something new."

With Stills starring in the NFL with the New Orleans Saints, with Jefferson making his mark with the Arizona Cardinals, the reasons behind Oklahoma's attractiveness to California recruits is evident on Sundays.

Norvell gave some insight into their sales pitch to kids from California during an interview last month.

"The Pac-12 doesn't have the fan base, it doesn't have the excitement around a lot of the programs, the stadiums, just the fervor that our conference does and our state does," explained Norvell. "So that attracts kids.

"Kenny Stills said he wanted to go somewhere that had a fervent fan base. Because a lot of those schools out there don't have that. Maybe one or two games a year they have it, but not every week."

Clay made similar remarks during his time in Norman.

NCAA attendance statistics can back up some of those claims.

Texas and Oklahoma both rank in the top 15 of NCAA attendance records for the 2013 season. The Longhorns finished with the fourth highest attendance per game in the NCAA this past season (98,976) while Oklahoma finished 13th averaging 84,722 fans per game.

The biggest average crowds to watch Pac-12 contests this past season were at Southern California, which averaged 73,126 fans per game. USC's totals were the 19th best totals in the country.

In the Big 12, 7 out of 10 schools average over 50,000 fans per game.

In the Pac-12, only 6 out of 12 schools average over 50,000 fans per game.

The Big 12's worst offender on the attendance scale is the lowly Kansas Jayhawks at 37,884.

That's pretty bad, but the Pac-12 has two teams hovering below or near those meager totals - Washington State (29,738) and Colorado (38,463).

The Pac-12's attendance numbers aren't terrible. They rank fourth (53,619), just behind the third place Big 12 (58,899) in average attendance for an entire conference.

But the Sooners have the added benefits of playing in the Red River Rivalry in front of 90,000 insane fans as well. The Pac-12 doesn't have a game to match that intensity. Maybe USC and UCLA starting getting back to a level where that rivalry becomes nationally significant again.

Even though the passion of the Big 12 may not match that of the SEC, there's no denying the Big 12 has a lot more passion about college football than the Pac-12.

And don't forget, Norvell coached at UCLA.

Oregon and Stanford have made great strides as smaller schools with growing fanbases. But so have Oklahoma State and Baylor.

The groundwork in California has been laid for the Sooners to continue plucking top prospects out of that state. Take Quick's recruitment for instance. The Sooners say goodbye to the Cali Trio, but his former teammates from Fresno (CA) Central East High School, Hatari Byrd and L.J. Moore, were already in Norman.

Because the Sooners have that foundation built, it made it much easier for one of the nation's top athletes to select Norman as his future home.

"We kind of just zeroed in on Michiah because of those connections," said Norvell. "And we loved him as a kid as well. Mike (Stoops) did a great job with the connections there, and obviously having his teammates from last year, Hatari and those guys, was critical."




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