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The Oklahoma Sooners dominated the world of college football during the 1950s. Under the leadership of Coach Bud Wilkinson, the team won three national titles and established an astounding record of forty-seven straight victories that still stands today. Yet by 1959, Wilkinson?s Sooners were showing signs of vulnerability, marking the start of a new and challenging era in Oklahoma football. Then along came a new offensive strategy, and OU began to dominate college football once again.In Wishbone, veteran ...
The Oklahoma Sooners dominated the world of college football during the 1950s. Under the leadership of Coach Bud Wilkinson, the team won three national titles and established an astounding record of forty-seven straight victories that still stands today. Yet by 1959, Wilkinson’s Sooners were showing signs of vulnerability, marking the start of a new and challenging era in Oklahoma football. Then along came a new offensive strategy, and OU began to dominate college football once again.In Wishbone, veteran journalist Wann Smith provides an in-depth account of Sooner football from the team’s final years under Wilkinson through its remarkable turnaround under Coach Barry Switzer. At the heart of this story is the phenomenal success of the Wishbone offense—a hybrid offshoot of the Split-t formation that Wilkinson employed so successfully in the 1950s. Though not without its risks, the Wishbone offense changed the face of college football and was a key factor in Oklahoma’s resurgence in the 1970s with Switzer at the helm. Drawing on firsthand accounts from coaches, players, and university administrators, many never before published, Smith takes us behind the scenes during this exciting comeback period to reveal not just what happened but why and how it happened. And he brings to life the personalities who played pivotal roles in the team’s renewed success, including Jack Mildren, Greg Pruitt, Joe Washington, Billy Sims, and any, many others. Sooner fans, indeed all fans of college football, will relish this account of the remaking of a football powerhouse and its return to glory.
The Recession Begins
SEPTEMBER 1959 – JANUARY 1960
At the conclusion of the 1956 season, the University of Oklahoma was basking in the glow of its second consecutive national title. The football team had grown accustomed to the limelight, having won three NCAA championships over the past seven years. And while team honors abounded, there was no shortage of individual awards garnered. Clendon Thomas had won the national scoring title followed by Tommy McDonald, who had placed second. McDonald had also won the Maxwell Award, and he and Jerry Tubbs had placed third and fourth respectively in the Heisman balloting. Tubbs also won the Walter Camp Award as the nation's most outstanding college football player. Four Sooners were selected to All-American first teams: Jerry Tubbs, Tommy McDonald, Bill Krisher, and Ed "Beaky" Gray. Additionally, Jerry Tubbs was invited to participate in the annual East-West Shrine game. Playing alongside Jerry on the team was Paul Hornung, 1956 Heisman Trophy winner and quarterback of the Notre Dame team the Sooners had destroyed 40–0 in South Bend two months earlier.
After the first team meeting preceding the Shrine game, Hornung approached Tubbs and suggested that since Tubbs would be doing the deep snapping and Hornung the punting, perhaps they should go to the practice field for a few reps. As the two men walked onto the field, Tubbs asked in his slow, Texas drawl, "Paul, about how far do you stand back from the line of scrimmage when you're punting?"
"About fourteen or fifteen yards, I suppose," replied Hornung. Tubbs slowly shook his head as he continued walking and said, "Well, I don't know if I can get it back that far to you." To Hornung's surprise, Tubbs's first snap dropped two feet short. The second try, while picking up distance, still dropped just out of reach. Hornung retrieved the ball, tucked it beneath his arm, walked over to Tubbs, and asked, "Jerry, I'm a little confused. Weren't you the starting center on Bud Wilkinson's last two national championship teams?" Tubbs hesitated, looked Hornung in the eye, and replied, "Yeah, Paul, but we never had to punt."
While Tubbs's remark was something of an exaggeration, it accurately illustrated both the ability and the attitude of those marvelous mid-fifties Sooner squads. From 1954 through 1956, Tubbs and his teammates had never tasted defeat; indeed, in the two years that Tubbs and his quarterback-partner Jimmy Harris had been battery mates, they had never mishandled a single snap. Following the 1956 season, Wilkinson's 1957 and 1958 teams appeared to have been cut from the same cloth. They would play twenty-two games, win two Orange Bowls, and lose only twice—once per season. The '57 team finished fourth in the final wire service polls, and the '58 team came in fifth.
In 1959, Oklahoma's economy was booming, the state ego had never been stronger, and the future appeared bright for Sooner football. Oklahoma was ranked second in the preseason Associated Press poll, and the national media was replete with praise fueling high hopes for what was expected to be another Sooner national title run. But Wilkinson had done his job too well. For the past six years, he had taken his teams to unprecedented heights, and the state of Oklahoma had gone along for the ride. As a result, no one was prepared for what was to occur at the decade's end; no one in the state could have anticipated that the Sooners were on the brink of the worst period since 1929–1933 when Oklahoma head coaches Adrian Lindsey and Lewie Hardage produced a combined record of 19–25–8. From September 25, 1959, through October 28, 1961, Bud Wilkinson's teams would lose games at an unheard-of pace as they tumbled to a 10–14–1 record. In 1959, Wilkinson's Sooners posted a 7–3–0 record, the worst since his first year as head coach. In 1960, the Sooners struggled through a 3–6–1 season, and in 1961 they lost their first five games. In order to reach any understanding of this complex problem, several possible causes must be examined.
Some have suggested that Wilkinson's involvement in the Coach of the Year Clinics may have provided a distraction detrimental to his responsibilities as head coach at the University of Oklahoma. By the mid-1950s, he had reached the zenith of national fame; from 1954 through 1956, Sooner football was an irresistible force that had encountered no immovable objects. During this time, Wilkinson joined Michigan State head coach Duffy Daugherty in organizing and presenting the Coach of the Year Clinics. These clinics, held in January and February of each year—critical recruiting periods for any college coach—were conducted by Wilkinson, Daugherty, and the annual winner of the Coach of the Year award. Preparation and travel for these clinics required an inordinate amount of time, and since Daugherty and Wilkinson were doing the lion's share of the work, the demands on Wilkinson's time produced a significant distraction from his recruiting duties in Norman. Bud's son, Jay, commented on the clinics:
They were annual weekend workshops for high school and college coaches and were held in three cities at once with the clinic staff rotating in and out of those three cities. These clinics involved a tremendous amount of travel and they were exhausting. Consequently, there were some occasions when potential recruits were on the Norman campus and Dad wouldn't be there. Boys who had come to meet him were often disappointed, and that undoubtedly hampered the recruiting effort. Some of the players felt that Dad's heart wasn't in recruiting to the degree it had been previously.
The rigorous demands of administering these clinics were felt by other coaches as well. After winning his first Coach of the Year award at the University of Texas in 1961, Darrell Royal participated in the clinic and found it so demanding he swore he would never do it again. And Wilkinson's business partner, Duffy Daugherty, who had led his Michigan State Spartans to top-ten finishes in the final Associated Press polls in 1955, 1956, and 1957, suffered a fate similar to that of Wilkinson and his Sooners; as Daugherty's involvement in the Coach of the Year Clinics increased, his MSU teams fell to 3–5–1 in 1958 and 5–4–0 in 1959.
It has also been suggested that Wilkinson's appointment as director of President Kennedy's Council on Physical Fitness in March 1961 further impacted his schedule. Prior to accepting President Kennedy's offer, Wilkinson polled university president Cross and the board of regents and was given the green light.
"Shortly after he was elected President, JFK appointed Bud director of the President's Council on Physical Fitness," recalls Sooner assistant coach Jay O'Neal. "Bud held the position from 1961 through 1963." O'Neal explains that when Wilkinson went to Washington to evaluate the program, he had found a Byzantine network of physical fitness programs funded through Washington, all widely dispersed under the control of different agencies. "Bud organized and put them all together, a feat which deeply impressed President Kennedy. He and Bud became quite close."
Wilkinson's appointment was received with nearly unanimous national enthusiasm. White House reporter Helen Thomas was of the opinion that Wilkinson would set the tone and raise the national awareness in physical fitness; she believed that Bud fit the administration's formula for "viguh." But the man on the street in Oklahoma who bled crimson and cream was not quite as enthusiastic about the appointment, fearing that a slipping football program, so long the major source of pride in the state, would require more of Bud's concentration, not less.
The ability of opposing defenses to diminish the effectiveness of Oklahoma's Split-t offense may also have played a salient role in the decline of Wilkinson's fortunes from 1959 through the first half of the 1961 season. Although the Sooners dominated college football in the 1950s using this offense, there had been other successful variations of it on the national scene that made their mark during that era. Bobby Dodd's Georgia Tech squads produced top-ten teams running the Belly-t; Army ran the Bear-t; and Texas, later under Darrell Royal, ran a modified version of the Wing-t. And, as is the norm in football, each of these variations resulted in defensive adjustments by opponents who, in many cases, adopted the very 5–4 defensive formation created by Bud Wilkinson and Gomer Jones—a defense that is still known today as the "Oklahoma defense." But, as TCU proved while taking the Sooners to the wire before succumbing 21–16 on September 25, 1954, when attempting to corral the Split-t offense, quality of personnel is at least as important, if not more so, than defensive formation.
"TCU had talented athletes that were disciplined and well coached," comments former Oklahoma Outland Trophy winner and coach John David "J. D." Roberts. "While defenses may have been catching up with the Split-t, their effectiveness against us was probably more attributable to their talent than to their set. And by 1959, teams were beginning to develop ways to defend the Split-t more effectively. Coach Wilkinson had wanted to develop some new wrinkles that we could run from our basic offense to keep defenses off guard." Former Sooner championship quarterback Jimmy Harris also believes that teams were beginning to catch up with the Split-t. "Bud was already aware of it because he had us doing a few spreads, the swinging gate, and so on." But although defenses and talent may have been gaining on Wilkinson during the latter stages of the 1950s, it is unlikely that Oklahoma's decline was precipitated by that factor. The Split-t had proven itself a resoundingly flexible mode of attack, having gone through a remarkable evolution in Norman. The formation had been predominantly a rushing offense while Jack Mitchell and Darrell Royal were under center; it had become an effective passing offense with Claude Arnold and Eddie Crowder; and by the mid-fifties, with Jimmy Harris and Jay O'Neal, it had morphed into a combination of both, with a large dollop of halfback pass tossed in.
Some have also proffered the theory that changes in coaching personnel in the latter part of the decade might have contributed to a dilution of strategic philosophy. During Wilkinson's first years at Oklahoma, his coaching staff was comprised of men who had cut their teeth in other regions, men who had brought a divergence of experience and opinion along with them to Norman. While OU assistant coaches Frank "Pop" Ivy, Bill Jennings, Frank Crider, and Dee Andros had each played for and graduated from the University of Oklahoma, Ray Nagel had coached at UCLA, Pete Elliott had quarterbacked the 1948 Michigan Wolverines to an undefeated national championship season, Dutch Fehring and Bill Canfield hailed from Purdue, John Shelly had coached under Red Blaik at Army, Ted Youngling had coached at Duke, Gomer Jones and George Lynn had played for Ohio State, and Wilkinson himself was a product of the University of Minnesota.
* * *
Sooner running back Clendon Thomas suggests that the loss of long-established coaches in the second half of the decade may have had an effect on the team:
Pete Elliott left for Illinois, Sam Lyle went to the Edmonton Eskimos and Pop Ivy also went to Edmonton before going on to the Chicago Cardinals and then to the New York Giants. We lost a significant core group of coaches that had been so instrumental in keeping the team motivated. And later in the decade, Bud began to hire some of the players who had completed their eligibility and remained at the University to finish degrees. As a result, I think the staff may have become a bit insular. While they were fine coaches to a man, their experience was derived from playing on the collegiate level whereas had Coach Wilkinson brought in outsiders, he might also have imported some new ideas, which never hurts.
Thomas's opinion is shared by Jimmy Harris. "Bud surrounded himself with a group of his ex-players, and I suppose that has its negatives along with its positives." Harris's comments must be afforded an extra measure of credibility since he falls into the very category he calls into question, having been an undefeated Sooner quarterback from 1954 through 1956 and a member of Wilkinson's staff in 1959. However, J. D. Roberts disagrees with this theory. Roberts points out that during the 1950s, while there may indeed have been an influx of former Sooner players on the staff, there had also been a consistent contingent of coaches without Oklahoma roots on campus as well. Roberts suggests that if there had been a problem arising from a lack of new ideas on the staff that it was far more likely to have occurred in 1964–65 under head coach Gomer Jones. During Jones's tenure, his coaching staff was composed almost exclusively of ex-OU players in Jay O'Neal, Carl Allison, Bob Cornell, Brewster Hobby, Dick Heatly, Joe Rector, and Jerry Thompson. However, to conclude that the 1964 and 1965 teams suffered under Gomer because of the homogeneous nature of the coaching staff would be highly questionable. While it is correct that Gomer's coaches were OU products, they were hardly just out of pads; Jerry Thompson had spent time coaching with Frank Kush at Arizona State, Joe Rector had coached at Texas Western, Brewster Hobby had taught high school ball in Oklahoma City, and Dick Heatly coached at Washington. Also, Bobby Drake Keith, who had coached for Bear Bryant at Alabama, joined Wilkinson's staff in 1963 and remained with Jones through 1965.
From the renaissance of Oklahoma football in 1946 through the end of Bud Wilkinson's regime in 1963, the Sooners concentrated their recruiting efforts in Oklahoma and northern Texas. Could Wilkinson's failure to expand recruiting on a national scale have caught up with him and contributed to the slump? In the 1950s, it was extremely difficult to gather information about high school players outside the region, but on a few notable occasions Wilkinson did bring in players from parts of the country the Sooners normally did not prospect. Wade Walker from North Carolina (who joined Wilkinson and Tatum in 1946), Buddy Leake from Tennessee, and Tommy McDonald, Leon Cross, and Ralph Neely, all from New Mexico, were notable exceptions to Wilkinson's regional recruiting policy. But this failure to expand Oklahoma's recruiting efforts into other parts of the country certainly left the Sooners susceptible to periodic talent droughts. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, the pool of talent produced within Wilkinson's target regions dropped off, leaving the team with fewer quality athletes coming in to fuel the machine.
Former Sooner Charley Mayhue believed that the recruiting suffered somewhat due to Wilkinson's loss of enthusiasm, and former Sooner player, Oklahoma assistant coach, and University of Colorado head coach and athletic director Eddie Crowder expressed similar feelings. "We had been drawing our players from Oklahoma and northwest Texas, but this wasn't sufficient anymore," said Crowder. "So we started going outside. Also, the Texas schools began to recruit more intensely. I felt that after our 47-game winning streak ended, our entire staff underwent a decline in motivation. And I thought I could discern in Bud a waning of his usual coaching exuberance." J. D. Roberts describes what he also observed to be a decline in Wilkinson's enthusiasm, "In my opinion, Coach Wilkinson didn't seem to have the same fire that he'd displayed earlier in the decade. It was difficult, at times, to get him to accompany us on recruiting trips; his time was so taxed by his other commitments." After leaving Oklahoma, Wilkinson himself reflected on the subject: "It would have been different if I'd been a little more farsighted. At the time, I'd not realized that Oklahoma had earned enough publicity and enough accolades that we could recruit beyond our own geographic area. We felt our recruiting [area] was the state of Oklahoma and the Texas panhandle. [During that period] I didn't have the normal athletic talent graduate from high school in our region. Had I been more farsighted, we could have expanded the recruiting area quite a bit, but at that time, I didn't do it."
In addition to the paucity of incoming fresh high school talent, attrition likely played a role in the Sooners' slump. In 1955, the program was placed on a two-year probation for lending an automobile to a player, paying medical expenses for a player's immediate family member, and providing players miscellaneous fringe benefits. However, as a result of what the NCAA considered "the excellent cooperation and assistance" extended to its investigating committee, the penalties were relatively light and resulted neither in bans on television appearances nor on participation in bowl games.
Excerpted from Wishbone by Wann Smith. Copyright © 2011 University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, Publishing Division of the University. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESS.
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