Dear Jay, Love Dad
Bud Wilkinson's Letters to His Son
By Jay Wilkinson
UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESS Copyright © 2012 University of Oklahoma Press
All rights reserved.
Only in the agony of parting do we look into the depths of love.
Mary Ann Evans, author of the classic Silas Marner, written under her pen name George Eliot
My father, Bud Wilkinson, was not your run-of-the-mill football coach. He cast a sizable shadow across the Oklahoma landscape and that of college football as a whole. His teams won in prodigious fashion and he led his teams in innovative ways.
As a tall, graceful, and handsome young man, he stepped off the train in Norman in 1946 and looked at his new surroundings with both uncertainty and confidence. After being honorably discharged as a naval officer in World War II, Dad came to the University of Oklahoma as an assistant coach to Jim Tatum. After one year, and at the age of just thirty-one, he became head coach of the Sooners.
Through his leadership and personality he quickly began to make significant and decisive changes in the program. He had a unique style and approach; a certain grace, spirit, and diplomacy that transformed not only an athletic program and a university but also an entire state. As his teams began winning with consistency, with the victories came a rebirth of the citizenry's enthusiasm, confidence, and pride. Rodgers and Hammerstein's groundbreaking musical Oklahoma! had begun promoting a positive and popularized image of the state only a few years earlier, and Oklahomans were quick to embrace the new self-esteem that both the musical and the football wins generated.
Growing up, my brother Pat and I were affectionately known as "Bud's boys," sons to Mary and Charles "Bud" Wilkinson. While it would be easy to say we were the typical middle-class and middle-American family down the street, the truth was that none of our friends had fathers who were nationally famous or were featured on the covers of prominent magazines of the day. My father was Dad to us, but he also carried the title Coach for his University of Oklahoma football players and was more universally known to sporting enthusiasts throughout Oklahoma and across the country simply as Bud.
As Bud's boys, we held ourselves to self-imposed higher standards than our peers, both at home and in the community. Fortunately, we were almost never an embarrassment to our parents. This is not to say that we did not have our fair share of fun. But in growing up with the legendary Bud Wilkinson as your father, you had a pretty good idea of what was expected.
By the time I was a senior in high school, Dad's teams had made a habit of winning. In fact, it was not until Halloween of my senior year in 1959 that he finally lost his first conference game. And yet, his Sooners still won their thirteenth consecutive conference championship that year. He definitely knew something about winning, both on the scoreboard and in his own personal affairs.
My father was extremely well organized. He famously taught that the will to prepare is more important than the will to win. Through a soft-spoken and professorial-yet-believable manner he instructed his players always to do their best; to conduct themselves as gentlemen; and to treat others with kindness, dignity, and respect. His leadership skills were constantly in evidence based on the actions he took and the examples he set. He made time for and truly cared about the people around him.
Oklahoma has a proud Native American heritage. The state name comes from the Choctaw words okla, meaning "people," and humma, meaning "red." The so-called Five Civilized Tribes settled there—or were forcibly relocated—before the territory became a state in 1907. There were members of as many as twenty-six other tribes also scattered throughout the state. Dad's players, with the enthusiastic support of Indian leaders in the state, dubbed him "The Great White Father," a term of reverence and respect for his wisdom, towering presence, and preternaturally silver hair.
Winning at OU did not happen by accident, nor was it the only thing that mattered. Dad constantly emphasized to his squad that the primary reason they were in school was to get an education. He treated players on the fourth and fifth teams the same way he treated players on the first team—with esteem and respect. My older brother and I knew the way he spoke to his players was the same way he communicated with us. It was not that Dad was rigid and demanding with his sons. On the contrary: it was that he treated his players like family.
At Norman High School, my teams finished as state runners-up in football and state champions in basketball. My desire was to continue pursuit of that kind of success, at least in football, on the college level. The easy, natural, and obvious choice would have been for me to become a Sooner. I was the number one football recruit in the state of Oklahoma. There was a good chance that I would be in line to earn the starting quarterback position at OU since I was familiar and comfortable with Dad's offensive scheme.
Because of his iconic status as a coach, my father felt the pressures on his sons would be enormous if we attended the University of Oklahoma. Pat left home for college first, two years ahead of me. Injuries curtailed his athletic pursuits, and so he chose to head west to Palo Alto, California, and Stanford University, where his academic studies ultimately led him to a successful medical career as an acclaimed ophthalmologist. My circumstances were different. Although Dad went on record with the family saying he believed I would be wise to go off to college, he ultimately left that decision in my hands.
With an intimate knowledge of the OU program, my recruiting trips took me to Stanford, UCLA, Ole Miss, Illinois, and West Point, all top-caliber football schools at the time. Shortly before a visit to the U.S. Military Academy, I got a phone call from Duke University's assistant athletic director, Carl James, making an eleventh-hour recruiting pitch. When I told him about my intent to visit West Point, he suggested I make a stop in Durham on the way. Carl was persuasive and I agreed to visit his school.
Something magical happened on my stopover at Duke. The campus was beautiful. There, they acknowledged me both as a prospective athlete and as a student. Duke was the only college to recruit me academically. James arranged for me to spend a significant amount of time with the chair of the school's history department and the dean of men, each of whom made a strong and positive impression.
The Duke football program of my day was highly regarded, playing a top-flight schedule each year. In the 1958 Orange Bowl I had watched the Atlantic Coast Conference champion Blue Devils battle the Sooners. Oklahoma won 48–21, but the game was much closer than the final score. Although I traveled to North Carolina regarding Duke as nothing more than an afterthought, I left thinking that I would probably become a Blue Devil.
Still, the final decision was painful and difficult. In my heart, I had a great love for the University of Oklahoma. For more than a dozen years I had dreamed of one day playing for my father. Yet in the end, I sided with him; going away to school was probably the right decision. Just as he was concerned about my well-being if I became a Sooner, I also was worried that I could become a distraction for him, particularly if he was ever accused of giving me preferential treatment. When Dad came into my bedroom shortly after my visit to Duke, I burst into tears and told him how much I wanted to play for him, but that I had reached my conclusion and decided it would be best for me—and for him—if I went away to school. I remember his support, kindness, and comforting words as his strong hands rubbed my back. A few days later a headline in the Daily Oklahoman's sports section proclaimed: "Jay Wilkinson to go to Duke."
On my way to begin classes and freshman football at Duke, I truly felt alone for the first time in my young life. I knew that my feelings of separation were normal and similar to those of other teenagers leaving home to start a new job, join the military, or simply find themselves. What was not normal was leaving a football tradition that had been part of my emotional makeup since my family's arrival in Norman when I was four. Thirteen years later, Dad's teams had achieved an incredible record of 121–13–3; a winning rate of almost 93 percent!
I was at the beginning of a journey that would take me from everyone and everything I knew in Norman, Oklahoma, to the great unknown of my freshman year at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina. Bud's boys were soon to be three thousand miles apart.
Dad and I were very close before I left home for Duke, but my life-defining "coming-of-age" chats would take place, in large part, over the next six years in the series of handwritten letters he sent to me at school. During and after those years, it slowly occurred to me that my father's success was not defined by his achievements on the field. It was shaped by his wisdom, his understanding, his compassion, and his love.
The letters that follow take you through a crucial time of my life, during which my father's consistent emotional support and personal leadership made a true difference in helping me deal with change and cope with failure. The substance of these letters also became a framework for the life I would lead as an adult, with his words indelibly etched in my mind and his abiding love always carried in my heart.
His first letter responded to my concern after arriving at Duke and being a typically lonesome and homesick young man who had a hard time transitioning to a new coaching philosophy and way of doing things.
Entering the Unknown
It was good to talk to you—I know things will get better because you are the kind of person who can adjust and find the good in all situations.
When I read your letter, I recalled vividly many similar times in my life. When I left home to go to Shattuck, I was truly blue. Yet I know now how fine a thing it was for me and my future. The training I received has made my life good. When I left you, Pat, and Mother to go to sea during the war, I was really shaken. I loved you and wanted to watch you and help you as you grew up—and I was leaving not knowing if I'd ever get back again. But once more, the experience and training I received more than compensated for the heartaches. Then too, I had the personal satisfaction of knowing I had done my duty.
One of the first things an education brings to people is the realization that the world is a big place—full of many different ideas and ways of doing things. You have watched our team practice and quite naturally are attuned to our ways of doing things. Bill Murray has been a fine coach for many years. Instead of wondering why they do things differently, you should be studying what they do so you will understand that their approach will get the job done more effectively—maybe more easily than we can.
When any person leaves a pleasant situation to enter the "unknown," there is always the realization of how nice, good and comfortable things were before. Yet only by facing the future and accepting new and progressively more difficult challenges are we able to grow, develop, and avoid stagnation. You have more total, all-around ability in all fields than anyone I have ever known. You will certainly be a great man and make a great contribution to the world. But to do this you must take on new and progressively more difficult challenges. You will grow and develop in direct relationship to the way you meet and overcome what at first seem to be hard assignments. You will learn to love Duke—to take great pride in the school and their football team. You're that kind of person. By developing as a student and an athlete, you will prepare yourself to do bigger and better things when you graduate.
Always remember that I believe in you no matter what. You must do what seems right to you. Don't ever be swayed by what "other people will think." My grandmother, a great lady—one of the finest I've ever known—always told me when I was a young boy growing up to "dare to be a Daniel; dare to stand alone." It is the best advice one can have for happy, successful living. After analyzing and evaluating the circumstances—always do what seems best to you in the light of your own good judgment. Only in this way can you find peace of mind because you cannot be happy doing "what other people think you should do." You must do what you think you should do.
I didn't quite finish this letter yesterday before practice so am doing so this morning, Saturday. Norman tied Capitol Hill last night 26–26. They miss their "Big Tiger" on defense—as well as offense.
I love you, Jay, more than anything in life. Don't worry about things—live each day by doing your best. Will look forward to talking to you tomorrow.
Love always, Dad
When I arrived for my freshman year at Duke, I was the proverbial stranger in a strange land. The University of Oklahoma was a state-supported school located less than two miles from my home; Duke was a private institution founded in 1832 and nestled in the Piedmont region of North Carolina, about three hours west of the Atlantic Ocean.
The sons and daughters of some of the nation's leading families attended Duke. Beginning with my senior year, 1963, the school opened its doors to racial integration. Academically, Duke is ranked today among the nation's top institutions of higher learning. Such was the case in my day as well. A degree from Duke was and is on par with those from any of the finest schools along the East Coast.
Athletically, the Duke of my day was known for the success of both its football and basketball programs. Football coach Bill Murray won seven conference titles in the 1950s and early 1960s, including Orange Bowl and Cotton Bowl victories, and was respected as one of the finest coaches in the country. Basketball coach Vic Bubas, who arrived at Duke one year before me, quickly built the basketball program into a powerhouse, achieving an Atlantic Coast Conference tournament record of 22–6 and a Cameron Indoor Stadium record of 87–13 during the next ten years. The basketball team, now legendary under the direction of Coach Mike Krzyzewski, would later claim four national titles.
Arriving at Duke's Wallace Wade Stadium, I was accustomed to Dad's offensive and defensive philosophies at Oklahoma, the rhythms of his practices, and even the nature of the equipment his players used. For the first couple weeks, as I made my way from the locker room to the Duke practice field everything around me seemed all wrong. It was like turning one's nose up at a delicious homemade cobbler simply because it was not like the ones Mom used to bake.
Dad's first letter to me at school was as welcome a sight as one of Mom's homemade desserts would have been. In the dorm room I shared with fellow freshman football player Kenny Stewart, a mountain of a young man from West Virginia, I eagerly opened the envelope and unfolded the letter, written on Dad's University of Oklahoma head coach stationery.
My father's character had been shaped in many ways: by family, by his time spent away from home at boarding school, by his multifaceted college experience, and by his service to country as a naval officer in World War II. His demand for excellence was sizable, both from himself and from those for whom he bore responsibility, but he never led with a whip. Encouragement and positive reinforcement defined his leadership style, and I would come to understand better, appreciate, and embrace that philosophy during my time at Duke.
In his words I held before me, Dad's reassurance was soothing. His endorsement of Duke football coach Bill Murray was important. His faith in me was profound. I could also identify with the feelings of sadness he shared with me. It had been hard on him to leave home as a boy to attend prep school at Shattuck in Faribault, Minnesota, but it had helped to prepare him for what was to come. I knew full well about his experiences serving on the USS Enterprise in the Iwo Jima and Okinawa campaigns of World War II. He had come close to dying in a kamikaze attack on his aircraft carrier, but he had survived, unlike many with whom he served. He came through those experiences tougher and wiser, and he wanted the same kind of growth for me.
Away from home myself, I began to gain new perspective, realizing that the world was a much bigger place than I had ever imagined. I was coming to grips with the fact that life was filled with complexities, ambiguities, and at times, sadness. How people adjust and find the good in all things was an important quality and a key ingredient in maintaining happiness. When times are tough, I knew, there was a natural tendency to withdraw, surrender, and feel sorry for oneself. Dad's focus remained upbeat and optimistic. His guidance and support helped me understand that only by accepting new and progressively more challenging circumstances are people able to develop and grow as individuals. (Continues...)
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