The play was “Green 24-448,” and Jeff Dover didn’t see the end of it. He could only hear it.
“Green 24-448” was 21 years ago, when Jeff Dover was a redshirt freshman quarterback at TCU making his first collegiate start, against Oklahoma in Norman.
“The first play they called for me was this short little screen and I was so nervous I threw it right into the ground,” Dover said.
“Green 24-448” came later in the first quarter. It was a play-action pass that Dover turned into a 52-yard touchdown throw to receiver Jason Tucker to give TCU a 10-0 lead at Oklahoma on Sept. 7, 1996.
“I just threw it as far as I could and I didn’t see. But then the crowd got real quiet,” Dover said. “Honestly, I don’t even remember doing it. It wasn’t until we watched it on film the next day. I jumped so high I could have blocked one of Shawn Bradley’s shots. This was back when we had VCRs and tapes, and after that game everyone I knew sent me their tapes of the game.”
Dover is 41 now, married with a baby girl, and is the head baseball coach and assistant offensive coordinator at Trinity Valley School. Somewhere in his mom’s garage is a giant tub containing the VHS tapes of that 1996 afternoon in Norman when TCU pulled off one of its biggest upsets in decades, which was a new low for the Sooners.
TCU vs. Oklahoma is now a nationally relevant game with implications on the College Football Playoff, but we may have forgotten that at the turn of the century, when these programs, which played each other twice in a three-year span, both were junk bonds.
When OU hosts TCU on Saturday night, there should not be a vacant spot in the 86,112-seat Gaylord Family Memorial Stadium.
In 1996, there were roughly 5,000 empties and 66,000 on hand for OU’s game against TCU that was carried regionally on “ABC Sports,” which no longer exists. That season marked the first year of the bad joke called the John Blake years.
Blake was the third coach in as many years for OU, and one of the worst hires in the history of the Big 12. The man could recruit, but he was not a head coach.
His tenure could not have begun any worse than this home loss to a team that was in its first season in the Western Athletic Conference. As a footnote to the game, one of Blake’s quarterbacks was future TCU assistant coach and current Virginia Tech head coach Justin Fuente.
TCU’s win ostensibly set up then-coach Pat Sullivan for a good season, one big enough to secure his tenuous tenure in Fort Worth. The Frogs’ win that day ended a three-game losing streak against the Sooners, and was their first win in Norman since 1947.
Didn’t happen. Sullivan lasted one more season in Fort Worth before he quit to avoid being fired.
While Sullivan’s name around TCU no longer means much, for men like Dover and his former teammates, that coach and that afternoon in Norman are eternally special.
“He’s the guy who gave me my chance,” Dover said. “I still text him and things like that.”
Sullivan returned to Fort Worth and TCU for a game this season. He’s 68, and his prolonged battle against cancer has, according to his friends, become more of a struggle.
What no one knew that humid afternoon in Norman was that there were things in place for Sullivan’s successor to succeed.
Two years after that win, first-year TCU coach Dennis Franchione and defensive coordinator Gary Patterson hosted Blake and the Sooners at Amon G. Carter Stadium.
On the field that evening for Oklahoma was running back Seth Littrell, the current “hot name” as the head coach at North Texas.
TCU led 9-0 deep into the fourth quarter, until Oklahoma scored a late touchdown, and recovered a perfectly executed onside kick that the Sooners nearly returned for a touchdown. The Sooners won 10-9.
“We were up the whole time and we really felt like we had it,” Dover said. “The whole thing just flipped upside down.”
Despite the win, Blake’s Sooners posted a third-consecutive losing season. His 12-22 record at OU is the worst three-year run in the history of the program. No one could have known on that wet evening in Fort Worth that there were so many pieces in place for Blake’s successor to succeed.
Blake was replaced by Stoops, who two years later won the national title.
Coach Fran stayed at TCU for two additional seasons before he left for Alabama, and GP was named his successor.
At that point, Oklahoma was successfully re-branded as a national power. TCU was on its way but needed the type of win where all of the nation noticed.
That happened in 2005, when GP’s crew sold their soul to stop Oklahoma running back Adrian Peterson in Norman, and won 17-10.
Since the 1990s, both programs’ status has improved 100 fold. The teams have faced each other six times since 2008, and every time one of the teams has been ranked in the Top 25. Three times, both teams have been ranked.
Oklahoma has won five of those games, and remains the standard for all teams here among us forgottens in Middle Earth.
If 7-point underdog TCU can pull off another upset in Norman on Saturday night, like Dover did in 1996, none of them will forget it. Only this time they will re-live it not on their VCR but their DVR.
Mac Engel: @macengelprof