Read an Excerpt
"Then Bud Said to Barry, Who Told Bob ..."
The Best Oklahoma Sooners Stories Ever Told
By Jeff Snook
Triumph BooksCopyright © 2008 Jeff Snook
All rights reserved.
The Early Years: Bennie the Great
The new University of Oklahoma football coach arrived in Norman, having been raised elsewhere and having played his football in another state, at another school, and immediately became beloved by his players.
He certainly was innovative for his era, introducing new offensive formations and plays that took defenses years to adjust to. And his teams scored quickly, won games by lopsided scores, and played hard from start to finish.
Naturally, by coaching an undefeated, championship season soon after his arrival, it did not take long for the Sooners faithful to cherish their new head coach.
If you had guessed any, or all, of the above OU head coaches, you would be accurate. It is simply remarkable and astonishing and yet somewhat coincidental that these three Oklahoma legends, and one in the making, had so much in common.
There will be plenty about Bud, Barry, and Bob later in this book, but it was Owen who became Oklahoma's first and foremost coaching legend.
Born in Chicago in 1875, Owen and his family moved to St. Louis, Missouri, when he was 12 and then to Arkansas City, Kansas, following high school graduation. He enrolled at Kansas University at the age of 23 to pursue medical studies, but soon he fell in love with this relatively new game that was captivating America from coast to coast: football.
He blossomed into the star quarterback for Fielding Yost's undefeated Kansas team in 1899.
Following his graduation from KU, Owen received his first head coaching job at Washburn College. Then he moved east to become Yost's top assistant at the University of Michigan, where he helped his mentor develop the famous point-a-minute teams that captivated the early sportswriters.
From there, Owen moved on to become head coach at Bethany College in Kansas, with his primary job as a chemistry professor. The Bethany Swedes, then a regional football power, defeated Oklahoma 12–10 in 1903 in Kansas and 36–9 on November 25, 1904.
That day is significant, for it was the first time Owen laid eyes on Norman and the University of Oklahoma.
For the next 33 years, beginning with the 1905 season, it is where he would build his legacy as one of the game's most successful pioneers. Owen would become one of the nation's most well-known football coaches for 22 seasons, before serving as the school's athletics director.
Before his arrival, the university had dabbled in the sport from 1895 to 1905 but had not taken it too seriously, as many schools in the East did at the time. OU didn't spend much money on its football budget and played a limited schedule of local teams until a first meeting with Texas in 1900.
Five years later, after 10 years and only 49 games (29 wins, 15 losses, five ties) played in front of few fans, the Sooners started to regard the sport in earnest.
Owen replaced Fred Ewing, who lasted only one season, which ended with a 4–3–1 record. Ewing's final game, ironically, had been that 27-point loss to Owen's Bethany team.
Owen immediately turned the Sooners into winners, coaching OU to its first win over the Texas Longhorns on the way to a 7–2 season.
Instantly, Owen's players loved him. Due to a tiny athletics budget, Owen remained on campus during the football season and commuted from Arkansas City. In 1907 Owen lost his right arm in a hunting accident and was soon fired by the Oklahoma legislature, which stated that his salary of $3,500 was too high for something as peripheral as football. They also cited the loss of his arm as another reason for his dismissal following a 4–4 season.
However, when the OU president heard of this news, he quickly reversed the decision, and Sooners players and fans rejoiced.
Owen was innovative and progressive with his ideas, becoming known as the forerunner in the Southwest region of the country for utilizing the forward pass. He also built his teams around speed and quickness, rather than size and strength.
To open the 1911 season, the Sooners walloped Kingfisher College 104–0. It was the first of eight games in which Owen's wide-open team would score more than 100 points in a game, including a record 179–0 win over Kingfisher in 1917. There were 26 more games in which his teams scored 50 or more points.
So when Barry Switzer, who arrived as an assistant coach in Norman 61 years after Owen's arrival, introduced the term "hang a half a hundred on 'em," or "score 50 points" in layman's terms, history shows it was Owen who first accomplished the feat with regularity.
In fact, the 1911 team finished 8–0, averaged 35 points per game and allowed only 15 points all season, which included a 6–3 win over Texas in the final game.
Owen's explosive teams are the primary reason the Sooners today rank number one in NCAA history in points scored, because it was not commonplace for collegiate teams to score more than 30 points pre-1930.
To be exact, 5,026 of those 29,772 points the Sooners have scored throughout history (through the 2007 season) were scored during Owen's 22 seasons.
During Owen's tenure, the Sooners became a charter member of the Southwest Athletic Conference (SWC) during its debut season in 1914, finishing second to Texas in the inaugural season due to a 32–7 loss to the Longhorns. OU finished 9–1–1 that season, but took no prisoners the following year.
The 1915 Sooners won all 10 games, scored more than 50 points in its first three, and beat Texas 14–13. That team, OU's first conference championship team, was widely regarded as Owen's best.
Five years later, OU departed the SWC and joined the Missouri Valley Intercollegiate Athletic Association (MVC). (As a side note, the conference split two years later, and Oklahoma remained aligned with the teams that formed the new Big 6 Conference. Naturally, it later became the Big 7, then the Big 8, where it stood through 1996. When the former SWC disbanded, Texas, Texas A&M, Baylor, and Texas Tech were added to form the current Big 12 Conference.)
By 1920 the sport was growing rapidly throughout the United States and was no longer considered an intramural hobby — and the state of Oklahoma was caught up in its increasing popularity. Owen realized that a new, larger stadium was needed and stated he wanted to begin raising the $340,000 to build the Sooners a new home.
The first game at Memorial Stadium was played October 20, 1923 — Owen's team dismantled Washington, Missouri, 62–7. At the time, the new stadium was called Boyd Field. It later was renamed Owen Field, in honor of the coach who began Oklahoma's winning tradition.
His teams won three conference titles (two SWC and one MVC), Owen's teams never won the MVC championship, and he retired from coaching in 1926, following a 5–2–1 season, to become OU's athletics director. His record was an impressive 122–54–16.
National champions were not named during his coaching era by the wire services (Associated Press started the practice in 1936) or surely he would have produced one, if not two, for the Sooners.
Furthermore, Owen coached the Sooners' first four All-Americans, including Forest "Spot" Geyer, a running back who was known as one of the finest passers the growing sport had ever seen. Hence, his nickname originated from his pinpoint accuracy. Geyer had a spectacular season for the 1915 SWC championship team, which averaged 37 points per game.
Owen wasn't one-dimensional, either. He knew basketball almost as well as football, and served as the Sooners' head hoops coach for 13 years, orchestrating two undefeated seasons and having only two losing seasons.
As OU athletics director from 1927 to 1934, Owen oversaw construction of a new field house, golf course, tennis courts, baseball field, and other facilities that have been expanded and modernized over the years but remain today. He then became director of intramural athletics before retiring in 1938.
A charter member of the College Football Hall of Fame (Class of 1951), Bennie Owen died on February 26, 1970, in Houston, Texas, at the age of 94.
So while Bud Wilkinson is considered the author of Oklahoma's dynasty during the 1950s, Switzer the caretaker of the ultimate success in the '70s and '80s, and Bob Stoops the current-day savior, Bennie Owen has to be considered the patriarch of the Sooners football program.CHAPTER 2
George Lynn Cross: A President Who Didn't Punt
"We want to build a university our football team can be proud of."
Of course, George Lynn Cross was joking, although today's critics of the enormity of intercollegiate athletics would have you believe he was dead serious.
Nevertheless, Dr. Cross, the University of Oklahoma's longest-serving president (1943–1968) had a vision when he was hired that was ahead of his time, realizing that college football could serve as a centerpiece for camaraderie, pride, and enthusiasm among students, alumni, and all residents of the state.
And he realized this more than 60 years ago.
Cross, born May 12, 1905, the same year in which Bennie Owen arrived in Norman as head football coach, served in the U.S. Navy following World War I and became OU's president at the height of World War II.
By the war's end in 1945, when thousands of servicemen returned to the country to begin college in their early- to mid- twenties, many universities were beginning to build their athletics programs with the bounty of great athletes.
Likewise, Cross's foresight was for a strong OU football team in which not only all students and alumni could rally around, but one that would make all Oklahomans proud.
"I remember how all of it started here," Cross said during the 1980s. "It was 1945, and the war had ended, and here in Oklahoma, we were still feeling very depressed from those tough days that Steinbeck wrote about in The Grapes of Wrath.
"Then, during a board of regents meeting, it was suggested to me that I try to get a good football team. It would give Oklahomans a reason to have pride in the state."
Even Barry Switzer, who made a point to study Oklahoma history when arriving in Norman as an assistant in 1966, later marveled at how and why the football program was revived in the 1940s.
"After the war, maybe when Oklahoma didn't have much to be proud of, George Cross and some other people said, 'Let's create something good, something that Oklahoma can be proud of,'" Switzer said recently. "The time was right. The war was over. Lots of guys coming out of the service. I know their stories well. One day I went into Dr. Cross's office, and he told me the whole story."
Until World War II, the bulk of the Sooners' success in football came during the 22 years under Bennie Owen, but that had been more than two decades earlier. Since Owen's 1920 team, OU had won only one conference championship (1938) in more than a quarter of a century.
By the end of the 1945 season, what Owen created was floundering in poor health. It was on life support, at least as far as beating rival schools, capturing conference championships, and earning revenue. Since the national wire services started awarding national championships in 1936, the Sooners' cupboard was empty. What football trophies it had were old and dusty.
Coach Dewey "Snorter" Luster's teams had lost five straight games to Texas during his 1941 to 1945 tenure. Even worse, his last two teams had lost to Oklahoma State. And as Sooners coaches have learned from Owen to Bob Stoops, Commandment 1 in the OU coaching handbook is that one does not lose to Oklahoma State and keep the masses happy.
Following a 5–5 season in 1945, Luster was fed up with the intense pressure, the losing and not being able to satisfy the Sooners faithful. He also was having some health problems, so he resigned.
This was two years into Dr. Cross's tenure as president, and it left him facing his first hiring for the coveted position of head football coach. During a board of regents meeting to discuss the matter, several regents realized that the thousands of returning veterans would include top-notch football talent.
Two questions dominated the agenda: How to find them? And how do you recruit them to the University of Oklahoma?
OU's athletics director, Jap Haskell, formed a list of names as head-coaching candidates, including Jim Tatum, the head coach of the Iowa Pre-Flight Seahawks, the top-flight Navy team. They agreed on an interview, and Tatum asked if he could bring one of his assistants along for the meeting. Haskell agreed. During the meeting, the regents, as well as Dr. Cross, fell in love with Tatum's assistant.
His full name was Charles Burnham Wilkinson, but he went by "Bud."
Tatum was loud-mouthed, cocky, and boisterous, and next to the stately Wilkinson, he came off as the immature pupil rather than the seasoned mentor. And, as the state of Oklahoma would come to discover over the next few decades, Bud Wilkinson was mannerly, eloquent, and a 6'3" walking testament to dignity.
Plus, he knew a little about football, as well.
After some negotiating, Cross secured Tatum — and Wilkinson — in a package deal to lead the Oklahoma football program into the future, but it didn't happen easily. Tatum was peeved that Cross and the regents made the offer contingent on Wilkinson's inclusion.
The initial season, 1946, under Tatum proved successful — the Sooners finished 8–3 and won the Gator Bowl. Tatum knew his football all right, but the main reason for OU's turnaround was a boatload of new talent in players such as linemen Buddy Burris, Plato Andros, John Rapacz, and Wade Walker, as well as quarterback/running back Jack Mitchell, who once played for the University of Texas.
What Tatum ultimately proved, and perhaps Dr. Cross realized even during the interview, was that he didn't have the ideal temperament or personality to fit perfectly for Oklahoma. He also figured correctly that his top assistant, however, did.
Plus, there was this little matter of Tatum giving the Sooner players more than $100 each on the trip to the Gator Bowl, just days after Cross ordered him not to do so. That insubordination infuriated Cross. And Tatum suddenly wanted more control, including the firing of some athletics department personnel.
Rather than fire the new coach on the spot — remember, he just had produced an 8–3 season — Cross created a new contract offer he predicted the combative Tatum would refuse. His plan worked perfectly, as Tatum turned down the offer, left in a huff, and became the University of Maryland's new coach. That opened the door for Cross to hire Wilkinson, who had planned to quit coaching and return to work for his father's business in Minnesota.
It was as if Cross were a master chess player, making all the right moves for the future of the Oklahoma football program. And over the next 17 years, Wilkinson's Sooners would become a dynasty unlike any other in college football before — or since.
It was checkmate for Dr. Cross.
As the years progressed over his tenure, Cross was intimately involved in many facets of the program, including the hiring and resignations of head coaches and assistants, rare for a collegiate president. Remember, no head coach was fired under his tenure: Wilkinson (1963) and Gomer Jones (1965) each resigned; Jim Mackenzie died of a heart attack following the 1966 season; and Chuck Fairbanks resigned to take an NFL job following the 1972 season.
Thus, he never had been forced to endure a task collegiate presidents deem as pleasant as root canal — firing a football coach.
Still, Cross, like most every university president in America, didn't want athletics to overshadow or interfere with academic achievement. His academic background was in botany, and he knew the tail was not to wag the dog, no matter his infamous aforementioned quote.
Cross actually made this statement in 1951, following the Sooners' first national championship season. He stated it to the Oklahoma legislature during a presentation asking for more money in which to run the university. He admitted during several interviews over the years that it was just a wisecrack, growing from his frustration over having to beg for money to run the state's largest and most prestigious university.
For more than an hour, Dr. Cross thoroughly explained the specifics of his request, backed up by detailed analysis and data. When he finished, one "sleepy old senator," as Cross later labeled him, raised up in his seat.
"Yes, that's all well and good," the state senator said, "but what kind of football team are we going to have this year?"
Cross then replied, "We want to build a university our football team can be proud of."
Years later, he admitted, "It was a cynical remark because I thought my whole presentation had been wasted, but the quote was picked up all across the country."
In reality, it made him sort of famous, or infamous to others.
If anything, it proved he had a great sense of humor, as well as a great sense of how crucial football and athletics could become for a university the size of the University of Oklahoma.
Excerpted from "Then Bud Said to Barry, Who Told Bob ..." by Jeff Snook. Copyright © 2008 Jeff Snook. Excerpted by permission of Triumph Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.