It started as a slight case of poisoning and ended as a slight case of murder. In both respects the decline and fall of the Oklahoma football team last week was more than somewhat mystifying. Headlines across the country screamed the news that 12 Oklahoma players fell violently ill from food poisoning Thursday night, but no one was prepared to say exactly how it happened. Millions of people, watching television, saw Northwestern dazzle, stun and finally crush the Sooner team 45-13, and probably found it difficult to believe their eyes.
Nowhere could the shock have been greater than in the state of Oklahoma, where pride in the university's football is boundless and admiration for Coach Charles Burnham Wilkinson verges upon worship. After all, Oklahoma had won three national championships, six of seven bowl games and its conference title 11 times in the dozen years of Bud Wilkinson's regime (tying for the other). This was the juggernaut, the irresistible force, the Big Red Team.
A reporter, looking into the state of the love affair between Oklahomans and Oklahoma football last week, found not the slightest evidence of disaffection. From the state's senior Senator right down to the newest freshman on the campus at Norman, the old, prideful talk was as vigorous an ever.
The chuckle of the week had to do with an 8-year-old who ran importantly to his mother after school and told her his friend Billy would surely flunk.
October 4, 1959
"Whatever for?" his mother asked.
"He doesn't know who Bud Wilkinson is," the lad gravely replied.
Geologist Harry Berry, of Tulsa, an Oklahoma football star of the 1920s, elaborated on that theme: "The history of Oklahoma is measured in three stages—Will Rogers, Bud Wilkinson and the repeal of Prohibition. We have a lot of average players at Oklahoma, but when they put on that uniform and start to play for Bud they become supermen."
Far from being appeased, Oklahoma's zest for football glory was still keen, said Senator Robert S. Kerr.
"It is a feeling that generates intensity rather than indifference," he said. "Pride and gratification in the thought increase every year."
It was with the devotion of his state and as the repository of its enormous trust, then, that Bud Wilkinson flew with his players Wednesday evening into a lowering, lightning-flecked sky toward Oklahoma's first game of the season and the school's first encounter with a Big Ten team since it defeated Northwestern 20 years ago.
Next afternoon the team worked out, and that evening 38 of the 40 players traveled together from their hotel near the Northwestern campus at Evanston to Chicago's plush Chez Paree nightclub for dinner and the early show. This was to be routine pregame relaxation; negotiations for space and a training table meal were begun more than three months ago by the Oklahoma athletic business manager, Ken Farris. Wilkinson was going to dine with friends. The team's fine fullback, Prentice Gautt, and the No. 1 left end, Edward (Wahoo) Mc-Daniel, stayed at the hotel to get extra sack time.
Oklahoma fans went to bed that night with no portent of catastrophe. If some were especially anxious that the team do well on Saturday, in view of the perennial out-of-state digs that Oklahoma feared to play Big Ten teams, others undoubtedly fell to sleep musing on small, pleasant bits of football gossip, for example the fact that Center Jim (Double Dip) Davis had kicked the ice cream habit and had reported weighing a trim 210.
The team arrived at the Chez Paree about 7:15 and began eating the meal ordered in advance by Farris: fruit cup, tossed salad, mashed potatoes, steak, rolls and butter, ice cream.
"To tell the truth," Farris said, "I can't tell you when the first ill effects were felt. Word would come to me that so and so was not feeling well. I know that Paul Benien, one of our ends, got sick about the time the steak was placed in front of him. Some of the boys went outside to get some fresh air.
"Pretty soon it was obvious that they were darned sick. We got two cabs and put six boys into the first one—no, seven, another boy jumped in—and five into the other. One of these boys wasn't sick. The rest of the players decided to stay and see the show [featuring Vocalist Patrice Wymore]. After a while the first cab driver called and said he'd taken his load to a hospital. He had stopped six times on the way to let them get out and vomit. The other cab went to the hotel. The first cab came back, and by then Jimmy Harris, one of our assistant coaches, and Bill Watts, a tackle, were sick. The cab driver took them to the hospital."
At the hospital the stomachs of Harris and six players were pumped out; they were fed intravenously and kept overnight. These were the starting center, Jim Davis; No. 2 center, Bob Scholl; Co-captain and No. 1 left tackle, Gilmer Lewis; Co-captain and No. 1 quarterback, Bobby Boyd; No. 2 quarterback, Bob Page; and Benien, No. 2 right end. No. 3 Right Tackle Bill Watts and No. 2 Fullback Ronnie Hartline were treated at the hospital and sent to the hotel. No. 1 Halfbacks Jim Carpenter and Brewster Hobby, No. 3 Left Tackle Max Morris and No. 2 Left Guard Jerry Payne were treated at the hotel.
Oklahoma fans and the rest of the nation woke up to startling headlines: OKLAHOMA PLAYERS HIT BY FOOD POISONING. The day wore on and the mystery remained complete. Apparently a clear-cut case of food poisoning, but which was the tainted dish? Why did some get sick and others not? How had the illness so cunningly struck so many key men?
Investigators for Dr. Herman N. Bundesen, president of the Chicago Board of Health, said they found no evidence of taint in samples of the food served the team at the Chez Paree. Dr. Bundesen said food poisoning usually takes several hours to cause illness and suggested that food eaten earlier was to blame. The food they had earlier was eaten at the Orrington, their Evanston hotel, and there inspectors found no evidence of tainted food, either. The Oklahoma team physician, Dr. Mike Willard, ventured an opinion that it did not necessarily take several hours for food poisoning to cause sickness. Samples from the emptied stomachs would be laboratory tested by the Chicago health people, but that would take a few days.
Amid the hullabaloo the rival coaches kept calm and supervised Friday workouts at Northwestern's Dyche Stadium, with only Hartline of the stricken Oklahoma 12 on the field. Wilkinson told a platoon of newsmen he was as baffled by the affair as the next man but would have the 12 in uniform at game time.
Back at the hotel he talked a little about his undiminished appetite for football. Tall, silver-haired, blue-eyed, he has, at 42, an amazingly boyish smile and, for an idolized public figure, an exceedingly unstiff manner.
"You can't help being impressed," he said, "by the people playing the game. Generally speaking, the athlete is intelligent. He is a gifted person in his field. He is confident that he can do this thing—and life is good. There are no scars on him. He is unsophisticated; he is unspoiled."
Then, with great relish, he grinned and said, "There are no beatniks in college football."
Glancing at the miniature football figures in formation on a coffee table, Wilkinson went on:
"Coaches are always accused of being more pessimistic than they are. There is a very logical reason for this. When you are coaching you are only aware of the things you don't do well. You give very little thought to the things you do do well. A coach is in no position to make a total and honest evaluation of his team until the season is over. Looking at our own team, I don't believe we will be as good as last season. I do think we will be as strong offensively, but I know we are not as good a defensive football team. This may be shouting the obvious, but you are just as effective as your defense. You can't use your offense if you can't get the ball."
Over at the stadium Northwestem's go-go-go coach, Ara Parseghian—Mr. Psychologist of college football (SI, Sept. 21)—wanted to know why all the fuss over the game, food poisoning apart.
"Let's get down to realities," he said. "You're talking to a coach who has lost 13 ball games in the last two years. We're a school that usually finishes seventh to 10th in the Big Ten."
Northwestern is also a school that exploded great big bombs in the Big Ten last year, humiliating Michigan and shutting out Ohio State. And so it was not surprising that Parseghian also said: "I think we have a chance in the game. We'll be a little faster than last year, but I don't think we're deep. Still, we may surprise a few folks. We did last year, and I see no reason why we shouldn't this year."
Saturday's surprise was a dandy—the worst defeat of Wilkinson's career. Taking devastating advantage of Oklahoma miscues, Northwestern scored twice in the first quarter, when it was dry, twice in the second quarter, when rain fell in torrents, and three more times in the last half, when the field was a mud bath and the ball as slippery as a greased pig.
When Northwestern wasn't scoring, it was backing Oklahoma to the wall with marvelous punts; one rolled dead on the two-yard line. When Oklahoma passed for a touchdown in the rain to make the score 7-13 in the second quarter, Northwestern soon returned the compliment with its own scoring pass in the rain. When, in desperate circumstances, Oklahoma sprang a bizarre formation, Northwestern came right back with one equally bizarre.
Whatever the condition of the food-poisoned men, Oklahoma simply could not handle the Wildcats' slick offense—especially the fancy running of Halfback Ron Burton, who sprinted 62 yards in the rain on the prettiest touchdown play of the game, and the all-round quarterback play of the gifted Dick Thornton. The Sooners unwisely treated Northwestern to five fumbles, two of which led to Wildcat touchdowns, and the Wildcats treated themselves to touchdowns after blocking an Oklahoma quick kick, intercepting a pitchout and holding Oklahoma for downs deep in its own territory.
NO HANDSTANDS BY PARSEGHIAN
If you think Ara Parseghian was doing handstands in jubilation after the game, you are wrong. He looked exactly as he had beforehand—serious, alert, intense. He bit into a big red apple and said, "This is the type of game you get every so often. Everything goes right for you and everything wrong for them. Every time they made a mistake—bang, we took advantage of it."
In the somber Oklahoma dressing room Bud Wilkinson was composed. He even flashed his old disarming smile a time or two. He "wouldn't even want to make a guess" as to the possible effect of the food poisoning.
"They just beat us real badly and that's all you can say," he said.
Asked if the food poisoning had hurt his play, Brewster Hobby said: "Naw. We just got our tails beat."
Luckily for Wilkinson & Co. they left Evanston Saturday afternoon. That night a real storm blew in, knocked over trees and injured 14 people. With the kind of week it had been, the Sooners no doubt would have been dodging those elms if they had been in the vicinity.