LINCOLN — Scott Downing says the smallest school at the Football Bowl Subdivision level isn’t afraid to think big.
Tulsa might have fewer than 4,200 students (3,090 undergraduate) and play in Conference USA, but Downing said the Golden Hurricane don’t feel as if there is any kind of ceiling above them.
That’s one of the things the former Nebraska assistant coach likes about being at the private school, where he is finishing his second season as the assistant head coach under Bill Blankenship.
“Obviously there have been people in our situation — you look to people like a TCU, like a Boise State — who have gone and put themselves into the BCS bowl conversations,” Downing said. “And that’s where our thoughts are in planning and looking at the future of the program, and how the program will grow and continue to develop.”
Tulsa already is a 10-win team and the Conference USA champion as it heads to the Liberty Bowl, where it will play Iowa State on New Year’s Eve. The 2:30 p.m. game on ESPN will be a rematch of a Sept. 1 contest Iowa State won 38-23 in Ames.
Tulsa (10-3) also played at Arkansas this season, losing 19-15. Downing said the future will include more games against teams from BCS conferences, and recent seasons have included matchups with in-state powers Oklahoma and Oklahoma State.
“We don’t shy away from anybody,” Downing said. “You can run the table, but if your strength of schedule is not very good you’re not going to get any recognition.”
Downing will be on the Tulsa sideline and former Nebraska players Cody Green and Khiry Cooper will be in Golden Hurricane uniforms for the Liberty Bowl. Green has passed for 2,499 yards and 17 touchdowns in his first season as Tulsa’s starting quarterback, while Cooper has three receptions in 10 games.
Downing said Green has done a “wonderful job” after sitting out the 2011 season as a transfer, when he first gained the respect of his teammates running the scout-team offense.
“He’s blended in with our team just like he’d been here for four years,” Downing said. “He’s a natural born leader who’ll do anything for his teammates. When he says something, the guys listen to him, because he’s been there.”
Same goes for Downing, who made two three-year stops at Nebraska, from 1984 to ’86 and again from 2003 to ’05. Downing worked the first time under Tom Osborne at NU, and said Blankenship and his staff try to run the Golden Hurricane with some of the same ideals.
“Bill’s word is his bond, and he’s going to look out for his players and he’s going recruit players with character, and he’s going to let you do your job,” said Downing, who handles the Tulsa tight ends and coordinates the special teams. “I think the way Bill treats our players and the way we coach — and the expectations on and off the field — are very similar.”
Tulsa is 18-8 in two seasons under Blankenship, who was a Golden Hurricane assistant the previous four seasons and played quarterback at the school in the late 1970s. Tulsa is playing in a bowl game for the eighth time in 10 years, and owns a 47-17 league mark (.734 winning percentage) in eight seasons of Conference USA play.
The goal is to shoot higher, though. A year ago, Houston went 12-0 in the regular season and was ranked as high as No. 6, but lost in the Conference USA championship game and settled for the TicketCity Bowl (where it beat Penn State 30-14) instead of a possible BCS bid.
For now, Downing said, the Tulsa faithful are happy with a Conference USA title, which the Golden Hurricane claimed with a 37-31 overtime win over Central Florida on Dec. 1. “The campus is fired up,” he said.
Downing also is pretty happy with his own situation after serving as head coach at Northern Colorado from 2006 through ’10. The Tulsa staff also includes offensive coordinator Greg Peterson, who is from Stromsburg, Neb., and played at Nebraska Wesleyan. Peterson spent a dozen years with Bill Snyder at Kansas State and even a season with Downing at Northern Colorado.
“Things have worked out very well,” Downing said. “We’re very happy here and very fortunate. It’s a great university and a great city to work (in), and I love working with these guys.”
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