Here now is the question: With all else that it is credited with having done to quicken the pulse and bloat the scoreboards of college football, can the Wishbone turn a soft-spoken introverted 6'3" English-Irish-Bohemian white coach named Fairbanks into the new Bud Wilkinson of Oklahoma? And, at the same time, can it make a 5'9" saucy black chatterbox named Pruitt into a Heisman Trophy winner? In this installment the answers are not provided, for the season is yet young, but the progress of the principals is brought up to date, which is to say they are still, and surely, headed in those directions. Fast.
You remember the Wishbone, of course, that dazzling formation believed to be so offensive no one can stop it, not even Jane Fonda. The Texas-born triple-option attack which, in Oklahoma's hands, broke all yardage records last fall when the Sooners averaged 566.5 yards a game. Last week the land rush was still on and the total was 731 yards in a 68-3 sacrifice of poor Oregon. For the sake of humanity, Coach Chuck Fairbanks used 67 players to hold down the score. He ain't got nothing against them Webfeet.
And you certainly must remember Gregory D. Pruitt (see cover), that lyric little running man, who said on national TV this summer that his careening style of hauling the ball was "like a balloon let loose, with the air going out. Whoosh, whoosh." Pruitt says his moves sometimes come to him in dreams. The balloon analogy came to him in a column he read in an Atlanta newspaper. "That's it," he said when he read it, and he figured he knew about such things, being a public-relations major at the university. Gregory D.—the D is for dangerous, he says, but his hairdresser mother says it was Donald first—has more or less taken up where he left off last year, which was somewhere deep in the opposition's secondary doing wonderful things that might have won him the Heisman then and there, as he is not at all loath to point out. Greg is still at it, crabwalking his way through broken fields and wise-talking his way into the hearts of his teammates and Oklahomans everywhere, adding yardage to his massive totals and punch lines to his repertoire. He now drives a low-slung burnt-orange sports car with SUPER SPORT painted in large letters on the back, SUPER SPORT glows in the dark. He has scribbled SPOTLIGHT on the back of his practice helmet, a nickname he picked up in high school "because I was in it so much." The other day he was seen walking the Norman campus in a University of Texas sweat shirt with the orange letters "UT" on the front. "Uncle Tom," someone chided. "No," said Greg, "Unlimited Talent." He broke out laughing, exposing his distinctive gold front tooth.
For all his rising popularity, Pruitt is still sensitive about his squatty body. The new men's high-heel shoe styles have been a welcome asset, and his are plenty high, but the other night he had a date with a girl who not only wore high heels but also had a high Afro and he had to tell her that the one had to come down or the other off, or both. A pro scout had come around measuring prospects and paid more attention to Greg's height than Greg thought necessary. "Hey, man, at Oklahoma we don't measure the holes that way," said Unlimited Talent, gesturing vertically, "we measure 'em this way," spreading his arms out.
October 1, 1972
"My whole rap has been to tell people how good I am," says Pruitt, "which is what a little guy like me has to do to get attention; say fantastic things and then try to live up to 'em, which I usually can do"—big, glittering grin. "Well, if the Heisman is the thing that means you're best, then winning it would be the ultimate proof, right? I'd probably never stop talking." Grin. Glitter.
As Pruitt himself freely acknowledges, he would owe it all, or a goodly portion of it, to the Wishbone, and therefore to the genius of his coach. And his coach's insomnia, which is how they all—coach, Wishbone, Unlimited Talent—came abruptly together in a kind of celestial collision almost two years ago to the day when Chuck Fairbanks arose from a fitful sleep and put in a phone call to his old Michigan State coach, Biggie Munn.
At the time Fairbanks' Oklahoma teams had been suffering a short run of 6-4-type seasons that the superspoiled—because of Wilkinson's outrageous success in the '50s—Oklahoma fans found indigestible. "Chuck Chuck" was an expression heard in bars and seen on bumpers in those days. Fairbanks, no dreamer, had awakened to the knowledge that he was on his way to providing them still another bitter pill. Or worse, a knockout drop for himself. The first thing he did when the call went through was to apologize to Mrs. Munn for waking her up at three a.m., and then he outlined his dilemma to Biggie. He said he had a brilliant athlete at quarterback named Jack Mildren and Mildren (now playing defense for the Baltimore Colts) could run much better than he could pass. And he had a great wide receiver (Pruitt) who was something else in an open field if you could get him the ball, which was not too bright a prospect unless Fairbanks hired a U-Haul. And, finally, he knew of a dandy running offense called the Wishbone that he was thinking of stealing from Darrell Royal down in Texas, feeling no compunctions about that because Royal had whipped him two in a row with it. He painted a picture of Mildren running, and Pruitt running, and Joe Wylie running—with Wishbone option pitchouts and Wishbone counters and enemy casualties everywhere. The catch was, he told Biggie, "It means risking an image of failure, changing my whole offense right in the middle of the season."
Biggie said he would call back at nine a.m. He wanted to sleep on it.
"At nine sharp, he rang my office," Fairbanks recalls. "He didn't tell me to do anything. He just asked me if I could convince my staff, and if we could convince the team. I said yes to both."
So Oklahoma went to the Wishbone, and that very Saturday Texas walloped the Sooners 41-9. But the game films showed the offense had so much potential that Fairbanks told his team, "If anybody else is going to beat us, they better do it quick." Oklahoma's ascent thereafter can be found inscribed in increasingly large numbers in the hides of the opposition. By the end of the 1970 season the Sooners were moving fast. In 1971 there was only one team in the country capable of keeping up, Big Eight rival Nebraska. That was proved in Nebraska's 35-31 victory in their showdown game on Thanksgiving. "You can't stop the Wishbone," says Greg Pruitt, "you can only outscore it, which is what happened to us. We could cry two hours over it, but it wouldn't change anything. Accept the loss, save the tears. It won't happen again."
Now, in 1972, mighty Nebraska has fallen, upset early by UCLA, and it is only reasonable that you have heard those legions of stick-with-'em-through-thick-or-thick Sooner fans once again claiming their heritage—No. 1—the way old Bud taught 'em. Certainly they will get no argument from the battered teams of Oregon or Utah State. The Oklahoma-Fairbanks Wishbone purrs along, even without Mildren. Dave Robertson, his successor, does not run as well, but he passes better, and there is a black freshman quarterback, Kerry Jackson, redeemed by Fairbanks from Galveston, who can run and pass. Pruitt and Wylie may well be the flashiest pair of running backs in the country; All-America Center Tom Brahaney is better than ever; Middle Guard Lucious Selmon, who got his training wrestling hogs and his 250-pound little brother LeRoy on the farm in Eufaula, can bench-press two opponents at a time and is the spiritual leader of a voracious Oklahoma defense and—but what is the use of going through the whole roster?
It is inevitable that Fairbanks be compared with Wilkinson. In his first year as head coach (1967), when without ceremony he was tapped to fill the breach upon the sudden death of Jim Mackenzie, the long gray shadow of Wilkinson loomed over all. Though Fairbanks showed splendid early foot that first season—nine victories plus the Orange Bowl—Chuck chafed under the shadow. Now it is not quite so long. The Wilkinson era has softened in memory to become exactly that, an era, a thing of the past, and Fairbanks can speak genuinely of the importance of a winner's legacy (called tradition in recruiting lexicon). The fact is that aside from their both being big, handsome, mannerly men, each in his way a master of the soft sell, each in his way a skilled raider of the Texas marketplace, the two are not really very much alike.
Wilkinson, the football coach, was a magnetic personality, the fastest, winningest smile east of Tyrone Power. He stood out on the sidelines, dressed smartly in a gray suit and a cowboy hat, and seemed always in evidence, consulting excitedly with assistant coaches, exhorting and cajoling players, peering over the shoulders of referees on crucial yardage measurements. Wilkinson was Oklahoma football.
Fairbanks, on the other hand, blends in. Though his subordinates say he is unquestionably the boss, it is more his style to promote an image of oneness and sameness (his dress on game day is the same as his assistants: white golf shirt, red double-knit pants, rib-soled football coach's shoes). He is an immensely likable man, but if you are sitting in his office listening to him you may notice you have been on the edge of your seat because the footsteps outside are drowning out his words.
There is nothing of the political animal in him. When an aide of Teddy Kennedy's called last week to ask if it would be all right for Kennedy to visit the locker room after the Oregon game, Fairbanks said it would be fine. There were no election overtures intended or made. Kennedy did not come.
What Fairbanks is, says one intimate, "is a good-old-boy type of coach. He accents the positive. He tells players what they like to hear. But you better not cross him." Fairbanks does not have any special hair or dress code. He actually told one player to let his crew cut grow out because it looked better long. But he does have a curfew and finds ways to enforce it.
"He had one kid washing food trays for a month," says an associate, "a star player, too. Everybody thought the boy would quit, but he didn't. He recruits hard but he recruits good kids. That's the kind of solidarity he promotes around here. He believes in esprit de corps, and he gets it. He was concerned because John Keith [the publicist] had taken some names out of the program the other day. He dresses so many players they have to issue duplicate numbers and the names were running off the bottom of the program. Keith had to get the printer to change the type size."
Somehow, finally, it is the irrepressible Pruitt, so far removed in character from his coach, so appealingly different, who puts into place this marvelous team's construction. For, you see, it is compatibility that Fairbanks has achieved, not conformity, and what else can you say about Pruitt after you have said he is compatible? Sure, he talks a lot. He talks about making 2,000 yards, and being a unanimous All-America, and winning the Heisman Trophy. He talks about the pros and making enough money to retire his mother from the beauty salon. But he also blocks—as hard or harder than he runs, and before he talks of himself he talks of winning, and to a man the Oklahoma players love little old Unlimited Talent. They elected him captain, didn't they? The next time he runs a Wishbone sweep, watch how they block for him.