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OKLAHOMA IMPOSTERS HAVE FOOLED THE NATION

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Before we get started with tonight's Copper Bowl matchup between BYU and Oklahoma, there is something you should know.

BYU's opponent is not really the Oklahoma Sooners. They're imposters.Oh, sure, everybody calls them Oklahoma. They look like Oklahoma. They sound like Oklahoma. Probably smell like Oklahoma, too. They live in Oklahoma.

But they're not Oklahoma.

A lot of people are fooled. "It's Oklahoma," said BYU coach LaVell Edwards when asked about his opponent. "That's enough said. They're such a storied name."

That much is true. Oklahoma is a big name brand. Like Armani. Or Gucci. If Oklahoma were a car, it would be a Mercedes. It has a name and tradition, an image. Whereas schools such as Missouri, Virginia and Kansas are off-brands. You'd buy them at your Lincoln-Mercury dealer.

This team in Tucson that calls itself Oklahoma has the name, but little else resembling the Sooners as we know them. The real Oklahoma doesn't carry a 6-5 record. The real Oklahoma doesn't lose to Colorado, Nebraska and Texas. Losing to Kansas State doesn't even come up. The real Oklahoma doesn't spend the holidays in Tucson. The real Oklahoma doesn't disappear from the national rankings. The real Oklahoma doesn't vote on accepting a bowl bid.

These guys in Tucson haven't even earned an NCAA violation lately. What kind of Oklahoma team is that?

The so-called Sooners have shown up for the Copper Bowl in complete disarray. The head coach, Gary Gibbs, has resigned under pressure but will coach the game anyway. He and his assistants will be unemployed on Friday morning. The new head coach, Howard Schnellenberger, will watch the Copper Bowl from the stands, thus turning an otherwise meaningless bowl game (by the real Oklahoma's standards) into a tryout for the new boss.

Considering such distractions, the Sooners seriously considered pulling out of the Copper Bowl. How could their coaches prepare for BYU and find jobs, too? But they decided to do go anyway, to the surprise of Gibbs' aids, largely because of contractual obligations. Some people wonder if their heart is in it, though, especially for a team used to spending December in Miami.

No, they are really nothing like the real Oklahoma team people had come to love and hate. That has much to do with why Gibbs is coaching his last game tonight, and why he is thinking about ending his coaching career and entering the business world.

He should have seen all this coming a long time ago. Gibbs was doomed to fail. He was given a no-win job when he replaced his boss, Barry Switzer, in 1989. Not only did he have to maintain the Sooner powerhouse, he also had to clean up after a scandal and replace a legend all at once.

When Gibbs took over, the Sooners were on NCAA probation and in trouble with the law. Three players had been charged with rape, one player had shot a teammate with a gun, the starting quarterback had been busted for drugs, and the Sooners had just finished their worst season in years (9-3).

Ah, the good old days.

Gibbs, a former OU player and assistant with Jimmy Johnson's hair and Tom Landry's personality, cleaned up the program, and by all accounts it is better now in every way except on the field. He had a fine 44-22-2 record in six seasons, but this isn't acceptable at Oklahoma, especially considering Gibbs' 2-15-1 record against rivals Texas, Nebraska and Colorado.

The Sooners are used to better than that, of course. They have won more national championships during the past 45 years (six) than any school in the country. They have played in 31 bowl games and won 20 of them. Football is so big at Oklahoma that it takes nearly 300 pages to tell about it in the school's media guide, which covers every detail from the longest win streak to the most patients treated by the Gomer Jones Cardiac Care Center during a single game (101).

As usual, there were high expectations for this year's team, but they were never realized. The team was so disappointed with its performance that on Nov. 14 - 10 days before Gibbs resigned - the coach asked his players to vote on whether they would accept a bowl bid. Most of them voted yes.

"We had mixed emotions about it," says receiver Albert Hall.

Not to worry. Despite winning just six games, despite having to replace their ailing quarterback with a wide receiver, despite winning only six games, despite a lame-duck coach - despite all that - the Oklahoma Imposters are considered favorites for tonight's game. It seems a lot of people have been fooled. They really think this team is Oklahoma.