Ranking the Sooners, top to 10th
Oklahoma claims 19 Division I athletic programs. Here's where they stand in relation to each other.
You may not know, but the University of Oklahoma’s athletic department, in which athletic director Joe Castiglione reigns (yet many of his generals receive greater compensation) counts 19 NCAA programs.
Even football, for now.
Did you know there’s a Sooner women’s rowing program? Not a club squad, but a varsity team that recruits, divvies up scholarships, the whole thing.
Or that OU’s one of the last universities to claim both men’s and women’s gymnastics; and if it’s all about national championships, nobody’s won more than men’s coach Mark Williams’ squads: nine over the last 23 years.
That’s three more than softball coach Patty Gasso’s sluggers and four more than coach K.J. Kindler’s women’s tumblers, who’ve nailed down five since 2014.
Sooner football’s won it all seven times, same as the wrestling program, though 2000 was the last on the grid and 1974 the last on the mat.
I’m here to educate.
And to rank because ranking things is fun.
Of 19 programs, we’re going to name the top 10, success being just one of the criteria.
Fan interest, national profile, historical prominence, “it” factor or utter lack of it and, my own term, psychic weight.
When done, feel free to argue amongst yourselves.
Or to engage me. I don’t mind.
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Even were it 1997, John Blake’s second season, when it became incontrovertibly clear he had no idea what he was doing, there’d be no knocking football off its perch.
It’s the driver.
It pays for everything.
It makes all things possible.
And when it sucks, as it did under Blake and, arguably, this past season, though national interest wanes a bit, local interest may actually increase because winning is fun but losing is earth-off-its-axis impossible and cannot be tolerated.
Blake got three years — three too many — before university president David Boren got him fired and not easily, winning a tight board of regents vote.
Brent Venables figures to get at least the same, but should OU lose four conference games next season or more than four total, nor will it be pretty.
Believe it for three reasons.
One, the program’s insane success: six national championship, four since 2016, two straight entering the coming season, which begins Thursday against ninth-ranked Duke in Irvine, Calif.
So dominant, it’s reached the point of being incomparable to every other softball program, the way Tennessee and Connecticut women’s basketball were for a couple of stretches.
Two, the collapse of OU’s men’s basketball program, which ought to be No. 2 on any list like this no matter how big softball’s become, but isn’t because Porter Moser’s not the guy and, to be honest, if you look at the schedule, it’s hard to find even a single victory left on the schedule.
Three, no Sooner coach has Patty Gasso’s national profile. Venables would be the only one close, but is he really that famous outside of Oklahoma, Kansas and South Carolina?
Meanwhile, Gasso owns ESPN for a week-plus every year.
3. Men’s Basketball
It’s slipped only to third (for now).
There was a time — Jeff Capel’s last couple of seasons, ending in 2011 — the men’s program fell behind coach Sherri Coale’s women’s program and not just on the court but in interest, too.
The women were selling out against Baylor, Texas A&M, maybe Texas and Oklahoma State, and the men weren’t selling out against anybody.
This time next year, especially if Moser remains in charge, it could be like that again. We’re just not there yet.
Coach Jennie Baranczyk’s program has passed the men on the court, but not the other stuff. The fans are only now beginning to come around. A big win at Baylor tonight and that process should accelerate.
4. Women’s Basketball
When they take the court at Baylor, the Sooner women will be looking for their 19th win overall and their ninth in the conference.
The program still boasts the talents of Taylor Robertson, the best and most prolific 3-point shooter in the history of the women’s game and maybe the men’s and women’s game, both, by season’s end.
Though you can make a case it should trade places with this list’s next entry, basketball has inherent advantages others can’t match.
The season lasts forever, the conference tournament is a big deal, the NCAA tournament is a much bigger deal. Among the women’s sports, only softball gets a similar stage.
5. Women’s Gymnastics
How can you put women’s hoops in front of a program that’s not only won all those championships, but draws fans, too.
Because K.J. Kindler’s program is the nation’s best over the last 10 years and No. 1 again right now, marginally in front of Michigan, Florida, Utah and Auburn, whose team average totals this season are all between 197.385 and 197.755, while OU’s is 198.020.
Isn’t it great there’s a sport where scores determine rankings?
But on the off chance you knew OU to be No. 1, could you have come up with anybody else in the top five, or a single Sooner since Maggie Nichols left the program.
Hoops has a never-ending platform.
Gymnastics competes just 11 times before conference and NCAA competition begin and only five of them at home.
This seems way too far down the list, especially for a program that finished runner-up in Omaha last year. But Sooner baseball doesn’t draw fans, or fans like it should, nor media coverage until deep into the conference season.
Given last season’s success, maybe that changes this year, but it’s had other chances before.
What Sooner softball and women’s gymnastics have done is develop their own fans, something baseball’s never managed.
It’s like this:
There are football fans; there’s a portion of football fans who move on to men’s basketball; there’s a much smaller portion of football-turned-basketball fans who move on to baseball. What there isn’t, beyond a few hundred, are straight-up baseball fans.
It might be different if L. Dale Mitchell Park could trade places with John Jacobs Track and Field Complex, which is actually on campus, but that’s not happening.
7. Men’s Gymnastics
Mark Williams deserves better.
I’ve liked him from the start and if any coach has appreciated coverage I’ve delivered more, it’s a high school coach whose name I’ve forgotten or maybe Larry Cochell, who resigned back in 2005.
And all those championships.
But he’s trapped in a small sport.
The Sooners are one of just 15 varsity men’s gymnastics programs in the nation and, until recently, the number was less.
That’s not Williams’ fault.
Nor does it aid his program’s profile.
8. Men’s Golf
It pains me to put this in front of the program coming next, but it would pain me more to offer an inaccurate list.
In fact, coach Ryan Hybl’s program could maybe be placed a notch higher.
It’s profile is greater and it’s success top notch, winning a national championship in 2017, finishing national runner-up in 2021 and not missing the top-eight match play structure since 2015.
But all of that success Williams’ has tutored on the mat, horse, vault, rings and bars has to count for something.
In a pre-Title IX world, a top-five list might have looked like this: 1. Football. 2. Wrestling. 3. Baseball. 4. Men’s Basketball.
Because that’s how big wrestling was, how middling men’s hoops was and how good Enos Semore’s baseball program was, all at a time almost nothing was on television, yet all of it was in the newspaper, which has a way of equalizing import. And if you grew up in that space, though you love Title IX, there’s still nostalgia for it, especially if you once walked to baseball games with your dad from your grandparents’ home on Timberdell Road to Haskell Park.
That’s how far wrestling’s fallen.
It’s still a healthy NCAA sport, with 78 Division I programs. But OU, once a top-five and top-10 constant hasn’t been for a very long time and currently resides outside the top 25.
It just changed coaches, Lindsey Gray-Walton exiting and Aaron Mansfield arriving from Loyola-Marymount.
It hasn’t reached the NCAA’s field of 64 since 2019 and hasn’t reached it in back-to-back seasons since coach Santiago Restrepo took it there six straight seasons, 2009 to 2014, reaching the Sweet 16 in 2010.
But among all the others, it may have the most upside.
It plays at McCasland Field House, a fantastic small venue in the heart of campus that’s just waiting for a sport to fill it up, be it volleyball, wrestling or men’s gymnastics, each one calling it home.
It’s a beautiful, athletic sport and it’s good on television, too. It ought to draw more fans. Perhaps it will sometime soon.
Though others might come up with a different list, this one’s hardly crazy and, what do you know, three of the top five are women’s programs.
That’s Title IX, which has not only delivered exciting college sports we can’t now imagine going without, but has empowered millions of girls and women over the last 50 years, a fact all should celebrate.
Two, watch out for two others, because coach Mark Carr’s soccer program just signed the nation’s No. 14 class and the No. 1 class in the Big 12 for a second straight year, while improving each year on the pitch since his 2020 arrival.
Next fall, it could so something.
Also, Audra Cohen’s women’s tennis program, though it just fell to No. 10 North Carolina State, is ranked 15th
Let the debate begin.