It was once said—only half facetiously—that the three greatest organizations the world has ever known were the Imperial German Army, the Roman Catholic Church and the Standard Oil Company. Inasmuch as the Imperial German Army was demobilized in 1918, it is doubtless high time that a new candidate be proposed to fill out the triumvirate, and one strong contender—most sport fans would agree—is the University of Oklahoma football team. For the past decade this team has dominated the U.S. football scene in virtually the same overpowering and aggressive manner that the Kaiser's legions once dominated Europe. And behind their success is the same genius for organization, the same synthesizing of personnel with circumstances that was a trademark of the Junkers.
First, let the record speak. Since 1947 Oklahoma has won 97 games, lost only 7 and tied 3. It has won 60 conference games, lost none and tied only two. It has played in five bowl games, winning four and losing one. It has scored in 123 straight games, which is a national record, and it has won 47 games in a row, again a national record. It has won three national titles, including 1955 and 1956, and will most likely win the third consecutive title this year.
Such consistent success is never an accident, and it certainly is not in the case of Oklahoma. Located in the most favorable football climate in the U.S., Oklahoma has evolved a nearly infallible formula for victory. The conscientious, indefatigable application of this formula has produced and will probably continue to produce the most formidable team in the nation for years to come.
a = MOTHER LODE
November 18, 1957
The red clay of Oklahoma and the sands of the west Texas desert country produce scrubby crops, oil and football players. For the hardy, lean and tough people who inhabit this country, the crops are a last resort, oil a hopeful dream and football a religion. Football is a perfect expression of their way of life—hit harder than you are hit, don't cry when you are hurt, win. The ultimate expression of this rather Spartan philosophy is at the state university, where the 60-odd young men who make up the football squad hit superlatively hard, bear the bruises of the game stoically and, above all else, win.
The university itself is a melange of red brick buildings sprawled untidily across the flat clay country at Norman, 18 miles from Oklahoma City. Since it sits deep in the heartland of the richest vein of football talent in the U.S. it is only fitting that the most impressive structure on the campus is the big horseshoe of a football stadium with seats for 60,000. (The population of Norman is 27,006.) The university lies closer to most of the towns of adjacent west Texas than do the big Texas colleges, and west Texas annually produces more good high school football players than any other section of the country. Needless to say, many of the best of them go to the University of Oklahoma, thus creating a tremendous resentment in the Texas colleges and frequent charges of illegal recruiting, but no one has been able to prove that Oklahoma ever brought a west Texas football player to Norman in a Cadillac given to him by an Oklahoma alumnus. It is extremely unlikely, in fact, that anyone ever will, because Oklahoma does not provide Cadillacs for its football players. Nonetheless, the rewards for playing football for Oklahoma are substantial, and the players who get them are almost invariably worth their salt.
Life in a small Texas or Oklahoma town offers little recreation. Until football became a way of life, the inhabitants scratched along with the pleasures to be gained from the local movie and its diet of westerns, from the local beer joint (most of west Texas and all of Oklahoma is dry, with liquor sales restricted to 3.2 beer) or from church socials. In the last 20-odd years the strongest emotional impact on these people has been high school football, which draws each small town into a close-knit, fanatic collection of fans each fall. No major college with the most rabid alumni can match the intense interest of these small towns in their high school football teams. The towns pay high for their coaches, many of whom draw better salaries than their small-college counterparts. The coaches work with large, efficient staffs and devote their full time to football. Because football in these parts takes the place of the opera, the stage, the ponies and the art galleries in more cosmopolitan areas, it is only logical for high school football players to receive the same careful grooming and community attention as do princes of the realm in the capitals of Europe. They play from 10 to 14 games a year against tough competition, as compared to six to 10 games a year for high school players nearly everywhere in the U.S. A boy who goes from Abilene High School in Texas to the Oklahoma campus has the poise, training and experience of a college sophomore in nearly any other section of the country.
The country and the football curriculum produce a curiously consistent pattern in players. If you visit the Oklahoma dressing room, you are, at first, a bit surprised that the players are not bigger. The heftiest player on the Oklahoma squad, for instance, is Guard Bill Krisher, who weighs a mere 221 pounds. But then you notice that, while the muscles of these athletes are not as bulgy as those you find in a Big Ten dressing room, the players are cast in the leathery, stringy, tough mold of the longhorn cattle which lived on cactus and a spoonful of water during the early days of Texas and Oklahoma. They look lean and hard, and the soft sound of their speech comes as a surprise. They have the spare toughness of a mesquite tree and the endurance of a coyote, and they have a deep affection for their windswept, rugged homeland. They come from ranches and small farms and from backbreaking work on oil rigs and from a country where courage is an expected and usual quality.
It would never occur to the high school youth of Oklahoma and Texas to seek employment among the teams of the Big Ten or the Southeast; raised in the red clay and sand, they have a farmer's attachment to the homeland, and they prefer to remain close to it. This predilection simplifies recruiting for the big schools of the Southwest Conference and for Oklahoma. They have no competition from major colleges elsewhere in the U.S. because the other institutions long ago discovered that the most generous inducement was inadequate against the sectional loyalty of the Southwest.
Oklahoma is in a peculiarly favorable position to mine this rich territory. In the Southwest Conference, recruiting pressures became so tremendous on the high school youngsters of that area a few years ago that the very powerful University Interscholastic League, which runs the Texas high school football program, laid down some stringent new restrictions on college recruiting. One of the things the league insisted on was the letter of intent—in effect, a contract between the college and the prospect saying that the football player will, in exchange for the customary athletic scholarship, attend no other college in the Southwest Conference. Once a youngster has signed such a letter of intent, the other colleges in the SWC must leave him be.
The Big Eight Conference, of which Oklahoma is a member, has no such proscription. Consequently, a letter of intent signed by a Texas player does not relieve him of the courtship of Oklahoma. Indeed, Texas schools have often accused Oklahoma of capitalizing on their letter of intent as a device for salting away promising Texas high school stars until the Oklahoma scouts can get around to making the young man a better offer. They like to point to the recent case of Jerry Tubbs, Oklahoma's All-America center last year.
In 1953 Tubbs had signed a letter of intent with Baylor University, and the cloud of college scouts who had holed up in his home town of Breckenridge, Texas forthwith departed. In September of that year Tubbs had a change of heart and decided the college he really wanted to attend was Oklahoma, so he tossed his copy of the letter of intent with Baylor in the waste-basket and hied himself to Norman. A bitter Baylor alumnus claimed that an Oklahoma banker had planted a $12,000 nest egg in the bank for Tubbs to induce him to change his mind, but the NCAA, which was investigating Oklahoma at the time, found no such bank account. The NCAA did, however, rap Oklahoma gently on the knuckles for three minor violations of its code and put the university on probation for two years. The violations: Oklahoma had given an extra year's scholarship to athletes who needed more than the customary four years—presumably because they were unduly preoccupied with football—to wind up their studies in the time-consuming petroleum geology course which is the scholastic pride of the school; Oklahoma had, on some occasions, paid medical expenses for players' wives; and, in the case of Tubbs, an enthusiastic alumnus had lent Tubbs his car for a trip back home over the weekend.
The charge that Oklahoma has subverted the letter of intent to its own best interests may be well founded. Oklahoma officials maintain, however, that a choice high school prospect will often sign with a Southwest Conference school just to get the platoon of football ivory hunters out of his parents' front parlor, but that his real desire all along has been to attend the University of Oklahoma if he got an acceptable offer. Nonetheless, coaches in the Southwest Conference still tend to regard the Oklahoma recruiters as the worst menace to Texas border security since Pancho Villa gave up his raids from Mexico.
When Gomer Jones, Oklahoma's assistant coach, appeared as an envoy of peace before the Southwest Conference meeting this year with a proposal to work out some kind of nonaggression pact between Oklahoma and the SWC, he was turned down cold after an hour-and-a-half session. Jones's somewhat lopsided peace offer proposed that the Texas colleges and Oklahoma respect each other's staked-out claims among Texas high school players and that Texas schools quit prospecting entirely in Oklahoma. Since Texas colleges seldom send prospectors into Oklahoma, the SWC coaches felt that this gave Oklahoma essentially the same free-raiding privileges it has enjoyed for the last 10 years—particularly in west Texas. As of now, Oklahoma has a no-trespassing agreement with Southern Methodist only; OU does not raid the SMU remuda and vice versa. Oklahoma may have reached this agreement in self-defense, since, in the five cases this year in which the two schools were after the same players, Southern Methodist enrolled four and Oklahoma one.
This is by no means typical of the usual Oklahoma recruiting performance, which is as efficiently organized as life in an ant hill. Oklahoma's contact work with high school athletes is divided equally among Assistant Coaches Sam Lyle, Ted Youngling and Eddie Crowder, while Assistant Coach Gomer Jones, who is also assistant athletic director, handles the desk work back at Norman and seldom goes into the field. While the assistants do not work in sharply drawn territories, Crowder usually concentrates on Oklahoma City and the northern half of the state, Youngling on south and southeastern Oklahoma, and Lyle on southwestern Oklahoma and west Texas, with Youngling occasionally visiting a Texas prospect, too. A familiar story in Texas alumni circles is that OU has four red airplanes for the exclusive use of its coaching staff on quick forays into Texas; actually, the coaches do on occasion use a university plane for an emergency trip to bolster a wavering prospect, but the planes are the property of the University Extension Service, and there are only two of them. University officials insist that the coaching staff has only third priority—after the president's office and the extension service—but it is unlikely that this strict protocol is observed when a high-scoring halfback is about to slip out of the Oklahoma dragnet.
$ = REWARD
Oklahoma has much to offer prospective football players without throwing in $12,000 bank accounts or Cadillacs. To an Oklahoma football player, a successful football career can do much to relieve financial cares during his undergraduate days and simultaneously furnish a springboard toward truly impressive financial achievements in later life. This is oil country, and to provide the petroleum industry with the geologists and engineers it needs, the University of Oklahoma claims it has the world's largest petroleum geology school and says it has turned out over 2,400 of the nation's geologists—one-fourth of all those in the petroleum industry and one-fifth of all the geologists in the Western Hemisphere. The football player who studies geology at Oklahoma has summer jobs open to him with the big petroleum companies like Kerr-McGee Oil Co. and Phillips Petroleum, for whom he can work on drilling rigs as a roughneck. While the hourly pay ($1.32) is not high, the rigs work around the clock and overtime is available in nearly unlimited amounts, so that an average weekly pay check is around $100. The work is hard and physically demanding and semidangerous (but not so dangerous that OU has ever lost a player) but the rewards are big enough so that a football player is expected to return to the campus in September with at least $500 saved from this summer work to cushion him against the financial burdens he must carry while occupied with both football and studies. It is carefully pointed out to the most desirable high school football prospects that the kind of opportunity available to an OU graduate—and especially to one who has given his all for OU football for four years—is to be found in the career of Harry Moore, who was a senior on the 1950 Oklahoma team. Moore, a boy from a poor family, was graduated with a degree in petroleum engineering in 1951. He worked on salary for a year for another Oklahoma graduate named Eddie Childs, an oilman in west Texas. Then he branched out into speculating on oil leases, with the help of other OU graduates in the oil business. Now he owns an interest in some 30 oil wells and two strings of expensive oil well drilling tools and is well on his way to becoming a very wealthy man who will keep the cycle going by assisting other deserving young OU football players. To make sure that prospective athletes get the point, the Oklahoma football press book, an annual compendium of facts and figures about the current team, carries a list of 47 players of the last 10 years, describing their success in business since graduation. By way of contrast, Princeton, in its 89th season of intercollegiate football and with some pretty successful football graduates of its own, is content to talk only of the 1957 squad in its press book. Naturally enough, the graduates of OU football have, for the most part, found their success in the oil business.
The 75 to 80 scholarships awarded Oklahoma football players are standard in the Big Eight Conference: board, room, tuition, books, fees and laundry money. They cost the university an average of around $75 to $80 per month, except in the case of Texas athletes, who cost an additional $200 per year to cover the tuition charged out-of-state students. Most of this scholarship expense is defrayed by the Touchdown Club of Oklahoma, which contributes a good deal more to the success of Oklahoma football than the annual check it sends to the school to be administered by school officials.
The Touchdown Club comprises some 900 members, who are scattered all over Oklahoma and Texas and as far away as oil is found. Dues are $50 per year giving the club $45,000 per year to operate on. Administrative expenses run around $8,000 to $10,000 per year, and this takes care of an office in downtown Oklahoma City run by a manager and secretary. They keep the membership advised of the progress of OU football and handle ticket allotments.
The membership of the Touchdown Club includes practically all of the influential citizenry of the state—men like Henry Browne, president of the club and also president of the Oklahoma Coca-Cola Bottling Company; Eugene Jordan, an attorney and president of the City Bus Co.; Roy Dale Jones, a wealthy oil operator; and Mark Dykema, president of the Progress Brewery. Among the most useful assets of the Touchdown Club is the tremendous power and prestige of its membership. This is evident in legislative proceedings whenever the university needs an appropriation and in the fact that the administration of the university itself would be unlikely to de-emphasize football in the face of the unanimous disapproval of such distinguished citizens.
The Touchdown Club's actual financial contribution to Oklahoma football is fairly modest as those things go; last year it was $26,000, and it is seldom more than that. This money is deposited in the university's general fund, ear-marked for football scholarships, and it is administered by the University Athletic Council under Dean Earl Sneed Jr., of the OU law school. "We have a surplus we're saving for any possible lean years," explains Paul Brown, an Oklahoma attorney and oilman who was the moving spirit behind the foundation of the Touchdown Club ten years ago. "Last year Gomer Jones said they needed $26,000, and that was the check we made out."
The enthusiasm for football which has become endemic in the state of Oklahoma is fostered, too, by the Touchdown Club, which has membership in all the small towns in the state. This gives the university a network of people interested in furthering OU football; no high school prospect in the state of Oklahoma can play a football game without an interested OU alumnus watching him. The network spreads into Texas, too, so that OU alumni can keep their alma mater informed on the bright prospects in the vast complex of Texas high schools. Although the Oklahoma coaching staff discourages any alumnus from contacting a high school player, it obviously does no harm to have someone on hand to remind the youngster quietly—and by example, since many of the alumni are well-to-do oil people—of the advantages of education on the red clay flats of Norman.
X = SPIRIT
Once a football player has decided to enroll at Oklahoma, he is caught up in the kind of unabashed college spirit that characterized U.S. campus life in the 1920s. At OU, a fifth-team guard is a hero on the campus, an idol in his home town and a celebrity wherever he goes. The stars of the Oklahoma teams are accorded all the adulation football heroes used to receive in the less-sophisticated glory days of the game, and this is true not only on the campus but all over the state. Much of this campus hero-worship is due to the fact that the Oklahoma athletes are a homogeneous part of the student body. They talk with the same western accent, wear the same faded blue jeans and join the same fraternities as do the nonathletic members of the student body. The team is affectionately known as the "Big Red," and Big Red is a favorite name for Oklahoma small businesses. Driving through the state you see Big Red hamburger huts, cleaning and pressing establishments, grocery and furniture stores.
One happy by-product of football fever in Oklahoma is that it has finally cured the state of a swollen inferiority complex stemming from the Depression days of the Dust Bowl when so many Oklahomans were forced off their farms and had to move west to California and subsist as migratory farm laborers. The "Okie" label of those days—immortalized for all to see in John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath—was a long time dying. Now with the Sooners blasting football opposition far and wide, E. K. Gaylord, publisher of the state's most influential newspaper, the Daily Oklahoman, is having little trouble popularizing a slogan which goes—a trifle defensively—"I'm an Okie and I'm proud of it!"
This might be the slogan of the Oklahoma football team, too. The tremendous pride the state and the school has in its football team places tremendous and possibly an unfair pressure on the youngsters to win; the coaches have little trouble getting them psychologically ready Saturday after Saturday. Clendon Thomas, Oklahoma's All-America halfback candidate, waxed philosophical on this point the other day. "You can't pinpoint it," he said. "The guys way back started it. Then it rubs off on you. We go out to win and we play to win. None of us wants to be on the team that ends this streak. I guess no matter what else you ever did, people would remember you were' on the football team that lost the game that ended the streak."
This inordinate pride has led the crowds at Oklahoma home games into something less than sportsmanship once in a while. During the Colorado game this year Colorado, which pushed Oklahoma around with considerable ease for three quarters, was driving hard for a touchdown. With third down and two yards to go on the Oklahoma 7-yard line, Colorado bustled out of the huddle only to find that the crowd was screaming so loudly that it was impossible to hear the quarterback's voice. The quarterback held up both hands in the mute appeal quarterbacks make for quiet under such circumstances, but the crowd only howled louder. Finally, in desperation, the Colorado quarterback tried to call the signal. He called a change on the play originally signaled in the huddle, but his center could not hear him and thought he had called the snap signal. He moved the ball and Colorado drew a 5-yard penalty for illegal procedure. The drive died, and Oklahoma went on to win 14—13. While the ethics of the crowd are open to criticism, they reflect the fanatic loyalty of Oklahomans to the Big Red.
f = FOE
Seldom, however, is the crowd called upon to lend such concrete vocal aid to Oklahoma in a Big Eight game. Since 1947 Oklahoma has won 60 and tied two conference games without a loss. This very clearly reflects the quality of the competition within the conference, which is something short of the competition in the Big Ten, Southwest or Southeast conferences. Colorado is the only team in the Big Eight which has consistently played Oklahoma on nearly even terms. Oklahoma State, just admitted to the group, has been a traditional OU rival as has the University of Texas. These teams, then, with the six conference foes, make up eight of the 10 games on the OU schedule. The other two games, scheduled five or six years in advance, are selected for drawing power and are usually with relatively strong teams. With only a minimum of tough games Oklahoma can prepare, psychologically and technically, for the really strong opponents on its schedule and expect to take the rest in stride. And the weak schedule allows the Oklahoma sophomores nearly a full season of preparation, since they see action rather early and stay late in the big-score victories.
b = BOSS
The final, and the decisive factor in Oklahoma's success is a tall, soft-spoken, almost illegally handsome Minnesotan named Bud Wilkinson. He came to Oklahoma, not intending to stay long, back in 1946 as an assistant to Jim Tatum. He took over as head coach in 1947 and doubtless could be elected governor of the state now if he so desired. He has an engaging, flawless personality, which, after you have been exposed to it for a long time, you examine closely for cracks because it seems too perfect. But the cracks are not there.
Wilkinson organizes Oklahoma football as carefully as a general preparing an invasion—from recruiting to game preparation to public relations. He can conduct a practice, speak to a quarterback club or charm the mother of a high school halfback with equal felicity. And he has a coldly brilliant, inventive football mind. It was Wilkinson, for instance, who came up with the idea of the racehorse huddle which serves two purposes. It allows Oklahoma to exert the strongest leverage on the opposition with its always fresh and eager forces, and it minimizes the time to get set for any changes in Oklahoma's offensive strategy.
The other day, sitting in the rather small and austere office he inhabits at OU, Wilkinson was fiddling with two sets of miniature football players, arranging defenses for the upcoming Colorado game. He was, as usual, dressed impeccably in a soft gray tweed sports jacket, dark gray trousers, button-down shirt. His hair, which is prematurely gray at the age of 41, was brushed back as usual in rather dramatic waves from a high forehead. As he talked he moved the little men, constantly improvising new defenses.
"When you say this, people think you're kidding," he said. "It's trite to say football builds character. No, I would say it takes character to play football. Physique, sure. But it takes mental as well as physical agility and the ability to make the sacrifices you must. The patterns flow and change so quickly."
He moved the little blue men on the defensive team again and set up a single-wing offense with the little red men and studied it a while, lost in thought.
"Why have we won so many?" He thought a few moments, the big hands still on the manikins. "Nothing is as good for a team as winning. I don't mean that the way it sounds. What I mean is the people who come into the pattern mold themselves to fit it. If it is a winning pattern, they fit that. You need good moral character, and we look for that. It's not hard to find around here. Most of the small town people in Oklahoma and Texas are good church people and the kids we get are church kids. Then the juniors and seniors set a pattern of behavior for the youngsters coming in."
Wilkinson set up a wing T, another Colorado offensive formation, and fiddled with defenses for that.
"We try to create the atmosphere that the last boy on our squad is as important as the No. 1 boy. The fifth-team boys should do well enough not to slow down the first two units in practice. That's very important. That's why we spend so much time with the boys who play on the lower units."
Clendon Thomas, as an example, started on the fifth unit. "I guess they didn't really want me here an awful lot," he smiled. "I played at Southeast High in Oklahoma City. We only won two games in the three years I played and once we got beat 82-6. When I was a sophomore here I was on the fifth unit, but the coaches work hard with everyone on the squad and I moved up. Even the units have team spirit among themselves."
"It takes four hours of preparation by the coaches for one hour of practice," Wilkinson continued. "We ask the boys to give a lot, but we never ask them to make any more sacrifice than the coaches. We divide preparation into two phases. First, establish the foundation of football you're going to play—fundamentals, offense and defense and setting players in their position. While we're establishing this fundamental soundness, we come up with the 22 best football players on the squad, regardless of position, and we fit them into the positions we figure they can play best. We find that good football players are good at any position. This phase is extremely difficult for both players and coaches, and it takes lots of hard physical work. Then you get into the season when most of the work is mental and that's hard, too, in a different way."
Wilkinson's preparation for any game is meticulous to the point of being finicky. It begins on Sunday morning when the assistant who has scouted the team coming up reports to the Oklahoma field house and dictates his report to a stenographer. Sunday afternoon the whole coaching staff gets together to study the report, and late Sunday afternoon the team hears it. At 6:30 Monday morning the staff meets again, and each coach diagrams the offense he feels will work against the upcoming opponent.
"If we agree pretty substantially, that's it. Otherwise, we kick it around until we do agree," Wilkinson said. Tuesday morning the coaches go through the same cycle with the defense. Once offense and defense are set, the plans are typed up and each player given his assignments on a separate sheet. They get this on Wednesday at lunch and are expected to digest the information by practice time which begins at 4:15. More detailed instruction sheets are made up for offensive and defensive quarterbacks. The habits of opposing players are charted to develop patterns of play and often Oklahoma goes into a game knowing as much about the opposing team's style as its own coach.
"If we have a weakness, maybe it is that we don't adjust too well during a game," Wilkinson said. "We know how we want to play a game and we play it that way. We feel that any adjustments you might make to an unfamiliar offense or defense would cost you more in efficient execution than you would gain. We also try to scout ourselves, so we don't develop any bad habits as a team. I've got three or four boys as graduate assistants who played here, and they will look at films of our games and scout Oklahoma. When you're too close to the team, you tend to lose objectivity."
He leaned back in his chair.
"You know," he said, "we ask these boys to give their best and a little more. If the coaches don't do the same, then they have no tenable relationship with the team."
Wilkinson, who is known as one of football's hardest-working coaches, has certainly given his best to football, and football, in return, has been extremely kind to Wilkinson. Before the University of Texas hired Darrell Royal—a Wilkinson-trained coach—exuberant, well-heeled Texas alumni cast longing eyes toward Wilkinson. "We knew he would come high," one of them said the other day. "We had a guy who found out his income for us, and then we gave up on him. We had it from a good, believable source that he paid income tax on $102,000 in 1954." A good deal of his income came from a 39-program television sports series Wilkinson had made, since his salary is only a fraction of this sum.
Wilkinson still spends four hours on Sunday afternoon preparing and presenting a TV show for Kerr-MaGee Oil Co. on an Oklahoma City station. Then he must hurry back to Norman, where he arrives at the Oklahoma field house just in time for the Sunday afternoon meeting with his assistants which begins another long week of meticulous preparation and hard work.
He is an impressive man as he strides up the steps to the field house, tall and strong-looking. He looks exactly the part of a man whose best and a little more has returned dignity and pride to a whole state.