Tale of the Coaching Tape: Nick Saban vs. Bud Wilkinson

Sports Illustrated
Christopher Walsh

He was a Minnesota guy and former aircraft-carrier deck officer on the USS Enterprise who quickly grew bored with the family mortgage-trading business. But did Bud Wilkinson ever have a knack for football, which he used to turn Oklahoma into a perennial power, and started a wave of success that the Sooners continue to ride to this day.

Just a year after agreeing to join Jim Tatum’s staff in 1946, he was the one to take over as both coach and athletic director when Tatum left for Maryland a year later. Wilkinson was just 31 when he unleashed his split-T formation on college football, which would never quite be the same again.

“His teams dispelled the Dust Bowl, Grapes of Wrath image of the Depression years,” said former university president George Cross, who hired Wilkinson. “They made Oklahoma proud and called national attention to the state’s potential.”

The Sooners went 7-2-1 during his first season in 1947, winning the first of 13 straight conference titles when the league grew from the Big Six to the Big Eight. He followed that initial season with records of 10-1, 11-0 and 10-1, with Paul W. “Bear” Bryant’s Kentucky Wildcats snapping a 31-game winning streak with a 13-7 victory at the 1951 Sugar Bowl. The 1949 team outscored opponents 364-88, and topped the season with a 35-0 victory against LSU in the Sugar Bowl.

Bud Wilkinson on the cover of Sports Illustrated

In 17 seasons, Wilkinson had an incredible record of 145-29-4, 93-9-3 in league play, with just one losing season. Oklahoma won consensus national championships in 1950, 1955, and 1956, and finished off an 11-year run in which the Sooners always finished in the top five of the final Associated Press poll except once.

From 1953-57, they racked up a major-college record 47 consecutive victories (snapped by Notre Dame in 1958, 7-0) despite having stalwarts like Nebraska and Texas on the schedule. Center Jerry Tubbs was one of the players who after three varsity years finished his career without experiencing a single loss.

Additionally, the 1956 Sooners averaged 46.6 points per game, handed Texas its worst loss since 1908, 45-0, and pounded Notre Dame at South Bend, 40-0.

“Losing is easy,” Wilkinson said. “It’s not enjoyable, but easy.”

Nick Saban vs. Bud Wilkinson

(Statistics through 2018 season)

Category Saban; Wilkinson

Seasons 23; 17

Consensus national titles 6; 3

Top five finishes 9; 10

Top 25 finishes 16; 15

Overall record 232-62-1; 145-29-4

Percentage 78.5; 82.6

Losing seasons 0; 1

Bowl/CFP record 14-10; 6-2

Percentage 58.3; 75.0

Conference titles 9; 14

Conference record 138-42-1; 93-9-3

Consensus All-Americans 41; 15

First-round draft picks 34; 9

Record against ranked teams 82-40; 28-18-1

Percentage 67.20; 60.64

Record against top 10 teams 42-21 12-15-1

Percentage 66.77 44.64


National title seasons One every 3.8 seasons; 5.7

Consensus All-Americans (through 2013) 1.78 every season; .88

First-round draft picks (through 2013 draft) 1.48 every season; .53

Average wins vs. ranked teams 3.57 each season; 1.65

Wins over top-10 teams per year 1.82 every season; .71

A version of this originally appeared in the book, “Nick Saban vs. College Football,” Triumph Books, 2014


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