Dillon Gabriel looked a lot like Josh Heupel the last two years quarterbacking Oklahoma.
Both left-handed. Both more dependent on precision than strength when firing deep from the pocket. Neither mistaken for Vince Young or Johnny Manziel in the open field.
Now that Gabriel has shared his “thank you” letter with Sooner Nation and embarks on Chapter 3 of his college football storybook, it’s time we recognize that he was a lot like Heupel. That Gabriel’s gift to OU football wasn’t in what he did so much as what he meant.
Like Heupel 25 years ago, he joined the Sooners amid upheaval, took control of their most important position and stabilized the program more than any other player.
Heupel helped everyone adjust to Bob Stoops and Mike Leach when nobody knew a whole lot about either coach. He helped settle everyone into the idea that a brash, young head coach and an offbeat, imaginative offensive coordinator could throw the ball all over Owen Field and usher in a promising new era.
Everyone knew about Brent Venables in December of ’21, but that didn’t ease the turbulence from the departures of Lincoln Riley and Caleb Williams to USC. Sooner Nation boiled over until Venables landed at Westheimer Airport, and it felt like everything might be OK.
Jeff Lebby arrived next. Then Gabriel.
When OU’s new starting quarterback shared a story at Big 12 Media Days in July of ’22 — six weeks before taking his first Sooners snap — about something social media had dubbed “Dime Time Retreat,” it felt like everything was going to be OK.
“I’ve always watched Russell Wilson and what he’s been able to do on a bigger scale with his team. So I tried to replicate that, model that,” Gabriel told the Big 12 gathering. “Booked an Airbnb in Lawton, kind of away from everything, and had some throwing sessions. Had some time on the lake with the guys and made sure to eat every meal together. Breakfast, lunch and dinner, that was a big point for me just to connect with one another.
“No phones, just enjoying each other’s time whether playing pool, out in the back, playing corn hole, it was just a good time. I think that’s had a big impact on us connecting.”
The Sooners doubled over with growing pains during Gabriel’s first season, but that’s as inconsequential to his legacy as Heupel’s Independence Bowl loss to Ole Miss on New Year’s Eve ’99 is to his.
The Sooners pivoted and won the national championship in 2000. That cemented Heupel’s impact but didn’t define it. His willingness to camp out in the film room and gut out aching shoulder pain was more the point, his presence as someone the team could count on.
The ’23 Sooners aren’t in a New Year’s Six bowl, much less a national title game. They’ll debut the Jackson Arnold Show against Arizona in the Alamo Bowl Dec. 28 in pursuit of an 11-2 season.
11-2 is as inconsequential to Gabriel’s legacy as 13-0 is to Heupel’s.
We’re better off considering the loudest late-fourth-quarter-of-a-game-already-decided Owen Field roar that anyone can remember, fans thanking Gabriel as Venables thanked him by pulling the quarterback, curtain call style, against TCU Nov. 24.
We’re better off considering Gabriel’s 20 minutes on the field after that game, when he couldn’t take a step without posing for a picture, singing a memento or hugging a teammate, coach, administrator, band member or gosh knows who else is going to miss him.
We’re better off considering what Gabriel said when he reached the interview room: “I really love this place. I think when I needed it the most, it showed up. That’s people, that’s Norman, that’s Oklahoma as a whole.”
When the Sooners needed him the most, he showed up.
The team, the program and the fan base were in compromised positions two years ago. They needed someone to believe in. Venables filled that void, initially, same as Stoops once.
Then along came Gabriel, same as Heupel.
Neither was equipped with a Biletnikoff-level wide receiver, a Doak Walker-worthy running back or an Outland-strong left tackle. There was as much doubt as certainty about their ways forward, same as their teams’ at the time.
The two quarterbacks settled in nonetheless and took effect.
Right before detailing the “Dime Time Retreat” at that Big 12 Media Day, Gabriel was asked about being the new face of OU football.
“For me, man, I just want to represent my university, my teammates in a positive way,” Gabriel said. “Any way I can do that, shoot, I’m gonna be that for my team.”
What Gabriel was for the Sooners went deeper than his 6,585 passing yards and 71 touchdowns accounted for the past two seasons.
“He’s a guy you want to follow,” wide receiver Jayden Gibson said a half-hour after Gabriel’s TCU curtain call.
“He means the world to me,” Lebby said.
“Stability. Consistency. Leadership. He’s made everyone around him better…” Venables said. “That’s what leadership looks like.”
A quarter century ago, that looked like Heupel. By the time he left the Sooners after two years, he was more center of gravity than producer of highlights.
Gabriel had some moments, his 75-yard drive to OU-Texas lore among them.
But it’s his gravitas, as he exits, that resonates.