The Oklahoma Sooners and the Greatest Winning Streak in College Football
By Jim Dent
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 2001 Jim Dent
All rights reserved.
A football sailed high above the east grandstand of Owen Field, just a brown speck against a cloudless sky while Bud Wilkinson, the man in a gray flannel suit, paced the sideline, watched, and waited. A crowd of 50,878 braced itself for the absolute worst.
"Dangit, Bud, he's gonna screw it up!" assistant coach Gomer Jones yelled. "That boy ain't got the sense of a mullet."
Jimmy Harris, a tall, wiry sophomore, circled underneath the punt and sneaked a peek upfield at the band of TCU Horned Frogs charging toward him in a blur of purple and white. His heart ran faster than Citation. Every eye traced the flight of the football as it dived toward Harris. Wilkinson said a fast prayer for his Sooners, a team as untamed as the Oklahoma wind.
This September afternoon of 1954, the Oklahoma Sooners were walking a tightwire, having already lost four fumbles, along with starting quarterback Gene Dan Calame, one of the most dependable and durable players anyone could remember, who now lay in a painful knot on the bench, his torso so battered he could barely breathe. Gene Dan had prevailed through fifty-seven minutes of the '54 season opener a week earlier against California in spite of this disturbing prognosis from the attending physician: "His eleventh and twelfth ribs are loose, sort of bouncing together like two xylophone boards." Calame inured himself against the pain with a generous pregame injection of Novocain. Numb from neck to waist, he managed to lead the Sooners past the Cal Bears 27-13, and after the game the doctor who had prescribed the needle said, "He's quite a boy, isn't he?"
Doc didn't know Gene Dan had been shooting up with painkillers for various injuries since the ninth grade and could spell Novocain backward if he had to.
Harris took most of the snaps in the practices leading to the TCU game. Everyone already had an opinion about young Jimmy, some of them not so favorable. He had swaggered into Norman a year earlier with an ego the size of Texas, his native state, and an eye for every skirt that shimmied across campus.
Port Robertson, the team's czar of discipline, had approached Jimmy a few weeks earlier and said, "Peahead, I guess I'll have to get a little red wagon to cart your ego around." Robertson, an ex-army captain, struck fear into the heart of every Sooner. Players who broke Port's rules ran seventy-two stadium steps at five in the morning until they threw up. He addressed all of them as "peahead."
Since the fall of 1947, when Wilkinson became the head coach, the Oklahoma Sooners had been a machine churning up the south plains. They had compiled a thirty-one-game winning streak and won their first national championship in 1950. Billy Vessels, one of the best all-round players in the history of college football, won the Heisman Trophy in '52.
Wilkinson stood shoulder-to-shoulder with the best coaches in the college game — Frank Leahy, Paul "Bear" Bryant, Gen. Robert Neyland, and Biggie Munn. The sporting press believed Wilkinson was on the verge of greatness once more. His Sooners had won ten straight, dating to the third game of the 1953 season. Now if only he could put a harness on this wild bunch.
Wilkinson was trim and athletic at age thirty-eight and in better shape than some of his players. He worked out, jogged, played golf, and was deeply tanned most of the year. On the sideline, he wore a red tie, a gray suit, blue socks, deeply glossed dress shoes, and a fedora when the weather called for it. This was the era when most college coaches went days without shaving and chili stains on the shirt were a sign the man had enjoyed a good meal. Television had yet to train its prying eyepiece on the sport, and the better part of a coach's wardrobe was a gray sweatshirt and white socks. A few rare exceptions, like Wilkinson and Leahy, along with Paul Brown of the Cleveland Browns, even bothered to knot a necktie before kickoff. Leahy preferred bow ties.
Talk around the fraternity was that Bud Wilkinson was the product of his own vanity. Coaches were not supposed to dress like bankers and lawyers and Adlai Stevenson himself. But in Oklahoma, where folks were gratified with any symbol of success, you could hang any photograph of Wilkinson over the fireplace. Lifemagazine's photo spread on their dapper coach had been dazzling, and Sports Illustrated was planning a cover story. It truly felt like Oklahomans were raising a favorite son to become the next commander in chief.
So conservative was Wilkinson, at least on the surface, that he had been dubbed the "Great White Father." The Sooners feared him, but in a different way than Robertson. Wilkinson was distant from his players and rarely excused injuries or the tiniest mistakes. He didn't brutalize his players as Bear Bryant had for years. But he did cut to the quick with the cold blade of his calculating mind.
His number-one project at the moment was Jimmy Harris, who had replaced Calame at quarterback in the second quarter against TCU. Though Jimmy's arrogance had pissed off many Sooners, Wilkinson viewed him as a boy with a load of moxie. If the Sooners were to win another national championship, they would do it behind Harris, Wilkinson believed.
Wilkinson couldn't explain why he knew so much about football players, but after eating, drinking, and sleeping the game for twenty years, he had developed a sixth sense. Bud had a way of taking a flashlight to a boy's soul. He also knew how to motivate, though his manner seemed offbeat.
A year earlier, when the freshman class of '53 arrived on campus, he had called a meeting on the fourth floor of the Jefferson House, the jock dorm on the Oklahoma campus. The roomed was filled with such blue-chippers as Tommy McDonald, Jerry Tubbs, John Bell, Billy Pricer, Jay O'Neal, Edmon Gray, and Harris.
"If you will dedicate yourselves, you will win a national championship before you leave this campus," Wilkinson told the boys. "But it will require a commitment like you have never given before."
Now those boys were sophomores and on the verge of becoming the heart and soul of the Sooners. Naturally, some jealousy was developing among the upperclassmen who were now losing starting jobs to the new kids.
One player you didn't want to cross was senior center/linebacker Kurt Burris, a six-two, 220- pound package of muscle and grit. In the one-platoon era, when players played both offense and defense, Burris was hell on wheels and the meanest man in college football. He grew up on an eighty-acre farm in Muskogee, plowing behind a team of mules, and as a teenager could stand on a flatbed truck all afternoon and toss bales of hay fifteen feet into the barn's loft. He beat up at least one of his four younger brothers every day just for practice.
At the moment, the target of his ire was the cocky sophomore quarterback.
"If that Jimmy Harris don't stop struttin' so much, he's gonna dislocate a hip," Burris said to anyone who would listen, and they all did.
Burris was a bully. It had been an Oklahoma football ritual for years that any uppity underclassman would be broken like a wild mustang, and Burris gladly appointed himself as the cowboy in charge of this rodeo.
The week before the TCU game, Burris drew a mental bull's-eye on Jimmy's jaw as the mouthy boy lined up in the backfield on the punt protection team. Most upperclassmen had been tipped on what was coming and held their breath for the moment when Burris would unload. Bursting between the guard and the tackle, Burris drew back his right fist. Since there were no facemasks in college football, he had a clean shot at the target. With a loud pop, two front teeth were disengaged. His mission accomplished, Burris then peeled back and ran upfield, hunting for somebody else to abuse. He didn't know that Jimmy was right on his tail, spitting out pieces of broken teeth.
About twenty yards up the field, Jimmy jumped on Burris's back and began pounding the sides of his helmet with both fists. Blood from Jimmy's mouth poured onto Burris's white jersey. Teammates tore them apart before Burris could land another punch.
As the two were separated, Burris wheeled and said, "Remember what I'm tellin' you, boy. No sophomore oughta be startin' for this football team."
Harris smiled a gap-toothed smile and walked away.
Wilkinson grimaced at the sight of blood. But Jimmy, he knew, could talk a big game, and also back it up.
Wilkinson had several other options to replace Calame. He could have chosen steady senior Pat O'Neal or his brother, Jay, the most highly recruited quarterback from the state of Oklahoma two years earlier. Harris and Jay O'Neal were sophomores. Jay O'Neal was more low-key and seemed a better fit for Wilkinson's conservative formula, since the coach firmly believed in moving the chains and protecting the ball.
"Never depend on the big play," Wilkinson preached.
Harris was the antithesis of that sermon. The boy had lightning quickness and a flair for the dramatic. While Wilkinson worshiped his own system, he knew it was time for a change. The offense ached for a kick in the backside, and if the Sooners were to win another national championship, the chips would ride on the young stud from Texas.
* * *
Oklahoma-TCU was the matchup America lusted for — two great teams, two great coaches, and enough part-time roughnecks on both teams to bury six thousand feet of drilling pipe before sundown. The Sooners were ranked number three in the Associated Press poll and the Frogs number four.
On one sideline stood Wilkinson, tall and fluid, the portrait of the movie star as coach.
On the other sideline was Orthol "Abe" Martin, the good-ol' country boy from Jacksboro, Texas, who chomped an unlit cigar constantly. Some folks took him for a hick, but the perceptive ones knew him to be a nabob of the subtle psychological ploy. The vilest oath he ever uttered was "Shistol Pot," a spoonerism for "Pistol Shot." In practice, he liked to crawl on hands and knees into the huddle, peer up at the boys, and say, "Run Thirty-four."
About twenty minutes before kickoff, he had walked to the center of the TCU locker room, removed his hat, placed it over his heart, and stared at the floor for several seconds before speaking: "Laddies, hold tight to your left nut today, because we're playin' one of the best teams in America."
To keep this ten-game winning streak alive and remain a contender for the national title, Oklahoma would have to slow down one of the best offensive units in the country, led by quarterback Chuck Curtis and jitterbug halfback Jim Swink. TCU was one of the powerhouses of the Southwest Conference, having risen to glory in the midthirties on the arm of Slingin' Sammy Baugh, then capturing the1938 national championship with Davey O'Brien at quarterback. O'Brien became the fourth player to win the Heisman Trophy.
Oklahoma trailed the Frogs 2–0 at halftime, and every Sooner expected to hear one of Wilkinson's patented halftime speeches. He had been known to quote Churchill, Byron, and Teddy Roosevelt in the same paragraph.
But Wilkinson traveled a rare road this day, preferring to stick to Xs and Os. The only inspirational words were, "Men, this is the toughest game we'll play all season. They're a great team, and they won't let up until the final gun. But win today and we'll keep winning for a long time."
It was early in the third quarter when Harris stationed himself beneath the punt that sliced through the south wind. Wilkinson was about to learn if Harris was the right choice to lead the Sooners. As he fielded the punt at the Oklahoma thirty-one, he was trapped by a gaggle of Frogs but angled toward the sideline and began picking up blocks. Fans in the north end zone spotted a running lane unfolding ahead of Harris, and the boy dimly heard a thunderous roll from behind him. Before the Frogs could blink, he split the first wall of defenders and was quickly at the fifty with only one TCU defender in his path. Out of the blue rumbled Jerry Tubbs, a Sooner lineman, who weighed 210 pounds but was faster than most of the backs. Tubbs's chin thrust forward and his gangly arms pumped wildly. He actually passed Harris and managed to chop down the last man at the forty. As Harris cruised alone toward the end zone, his teammates swore they saw the familiar swagger. The Sooners now led 7–2.
Oklahoma held the upper hand for all of about three minutes. The Frogs moved down the field eighty-one yards on ten running plays. At the five-yard line, from the spread formation, quarterback Chuck Curtis rolled right and, when he found no receiver open, hip-faked Sooner cornerback Bob Burris and sprinted into the end zone. The Frogs led 9–7.
This day, the Sooners would fumble ten times, losing five, a sign of their immaturity. Following Curtis's touchdown, Harris led the Sooners on a fifty-six-yard drive to the TCU two before halfback Bob Herndon fumbled into the end zone and linebacker Hugh Pitts recovered.
The game was slipping away from Oklahoma as the Frogs' offense grabbed control. They moved eighty yards for another touchdown, with Swink doing most of his damage on the ground. Curtis picked up good yardage on two end runs. Swink scored around right end from the three-yard line, and Wilkinson paced and wondered if his raw quarterback could lead them back.
Oklahoma trailed 16–7 with ten minutes to play when Harris trotted confidently into the huddle.
"Look, you guyths," he said, his tongue hampered by two missing teeth. "We're gonna run the theventy, I mean seventy series. Got it?"
Harris peered across the huddle at a grinning Burris.
"Got it," Burris said. Then he leveled his eyes on Jimmy and said, "We're gonna win this damn game. Just don't screw it up, meathead."
"Don't worry about me," Jimmy said. "Worry about yourthelf."
That was all that anyone needed to lisp. Harris moved the chains, just as Wilkinson had ordered. Eight yards, five yards, seven yards, five yards, eleven yards, five yards. He didn't call a single pass. From the twenty-eight-yard line, Herndon slanted through a huge hole opened by Burris and wasn't tackled until he reached the TCU seven. Running the Split-T option to the left, Harris kept the ball and scored standing up. Now the Sooners trailed by two points.
The defense held, and minutes later TCU's Ben Taylor drove a high spiral through the south wind to Buddy Leake, the only senior in the Sooners backfield and a young man who had grown up fast in 1951. That year, Leake was rushed into the lineup as a freshman when Billy Vessels tore knee ligaments in the Texas game. Leake would start six games at left halfback and lead the Big Seven Conference in scoring. It was the last year that freshmen were eligible for varsity play under NCAA rules.
The Sooner faithful were quite familiar with Leake's speed and versatility, and more than fifty thousand fans were on their feet when he fielded Taylor's punt and took off down the left sideline, his knees churning, his face glistening in the September sunlight. Leake was quickly behind the picket fence and picking up speed. Only one Horned Frog had a chance of stopping him, and that was TCU captain Johnny Crouch, who pulled him down at the ten-yard line. The return had covered fifty yards.
Herndon scored on the next play, taking the option pitch from Harris, and the Sooners led, 21–16.
Wilkinson had been so right about the Frogs. They just wouldn't give up. With Curtis now passing and Swink skittering between the tackles, TCU picked their way through the Sooners for another drive of eighty yards. Curtis hit Crouch with the winning touchdown pass in the right corner of the end zone. It covered twenty-one yards as the clock ticked toward triple zero. Owen Field fell deathly silent as an entire state lapsed into mourning. The ten-game winning streak had been sweet but far too short. Fans sat rigidly in their seats, some drawing deeply on cigarettes, and refused to go home. Defeat bored into their hearts. The philosophical ones were already telling themselves that the Sooners would simply have to regroup. Of course, the pollsters would drop OU out of the Top Ten, and everyone could just forget about the story planned for the cover of Look magazine.
Then, out of the blue, the fans witnessed a rare event that only Hollywood could have invented. Crouch sauntered toward field judge Don Rossi and held out the ball.
"Ref, I didn't catch it," he said. "I trapped it."
Backjudge Don Looney ran from the other side of the field. He'd had a clear view of the play and wanted to discuss it with Rossi.
While the man in the gray flannel suit waited, watched, and paced, a crowd of 50,878 held its collective breath and prayed. (Continues...)
Excerpted from The Undefeated by Jim Dent. Copyright © 2001 Jim Dent. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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