Editor's note: Read more stories in "125 Years of OU Football," a special magazine by the Norman Transcript, available on newsstands now.
The Early Years
NORMAN, Okla. — It’s the spring of 1916 and this must have
happened to Bennie Owen at least once.
A friend, fan or fellow faculty member at the University of Oklahoma must have, walking past Owen one day, stopped, said hello, congratulated him on his fine season and Owen must not have known how to respond.
Should he be thankful for the compliment, having just coached the Sooners to their first 10-0 season, capped by a 26-7 Bedlam victory?
Should he have said thanks, yet inquired which season his well-wisher referenced, for Owen was also coming off a 19-7 season on the basketball court, having capped the 1915-16 campaign with back-to-back Bedlam victories?
Or should he resent the comment, figuring it sarcastic, because that spring, Owen’s Sooner baseball team, having gone 17-4 the year before, was suffering through a 7-9 season.
Did the man ever sleep? Did he even have time to recruit?
Perhaps he was coaching the same bunch of young men in every sport.
In any case, Owen was the man who first helped OU etch its name into college football lore, steering the Sooners’ gridiron ship from 1905 to 1926. And from 1908 to 1921, he actually served as Sooner coach in all three sports: football, basketball and baseball.
His football teams went 122-54-16 and, though his immediate successors — Adrian Lindsey and Lewie Hardage, who combined to go 30-31-10 over the next seven seasons — their successors were all winners.
Biff Jones, Tom Stidham, Snorter Luster and Jim Tatum went a collective 71-35-9 from 1935 to 1946.
Stidham’s 1938 Sooners went 10-1, losing only to Tennessee at the Orange Bowl, the first bowl game in program history.
Tatum’s lone season, 1946, began with a 21-7 victory over Army at Yankee Stadium and ended with the Sooners’ second bowl game and first bowl victory, a 34-13 decision over North Carolina State at the Gator Bowl.
Tatum left to become Maryland’s coach and won a national championship in 1953. Of course, by that time, the man who replaced him in Norman, a former assistant whose given name was Charles, but who went by a shorter three-letter moniker, Bud, had already … well, we shall get to that.
Suffice it to say, the next era of Sooner football was a good one.
The Wilkinson Era
Believe it or not, even these days, hyperbole is a tool sometimes found in the sportswriter’s tool box and Tex Maule, writing for Sports Illustrated all the way back November 1957, at the height of coach Bud Wilkinson’s 47-game winning streak (and just before it ended) might have been exaggerating … something.
Or, perhaps, he was merely being colorful. Anyway, Maule mentioned that the heaviest player on the Sooner roster, Bill Krisher, a guard, weighed just 221 pounds. He then described, for a nation of readers, the nature of the Sooner athlete.
“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 live on cactus and a spoonful of water during the early days of Texas and Oklahoma,” Maule wrote. “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.”
So maybe that was the secret to Wilkinson’s coaching dominance … or Maule’s simply an engaging writer capable of laying it on thick. What’s clear is Wilkinson took his players, whatever their background, and won. And won and won and won.
Everybody’s familiar with the Sooners’ 47 straight victories between 1953 and 1957, but there was a run of 31 straight, too, between 1948 and 1950.
There were 14 conference championships to go with three national championships in 1950, 1955 and 1956. There were even two perfect seasons, 1949 and 1954, in which OU was not awarded a national championship.
Wilkinson experienced a losing season in 1960 and a .500 season the following year, yet came back with a Big Eight championship the next season and beat everybody but Texas and Nebraska the year after that, his last.
The Wilkinson era spanned 17 seasons, from 1947 to 1963, 178 games and 145 victories.
If Bennie Owen put Sooner football on the map, Bud Wilkinson made it famous from sea to shining sea and beyond.
The tradition the era established is still being drawn from today.
Life After Bud
There may be no more fascinating character in Sooner history than Gomer Jones, the line coach who assisted Bud Wilkinson for 17 seasons before ascending to both head coach and athletic director.
One half of that ascension did not work. Perhaps Jones knew it wouldn’t work, the job foisted upon him more than he clamored for it.
Jones went 6-4-1 in 1964 and did it by losing three of four games to begin the season to Southern Cal, Texas and Kansas.
The next season, the bottom dropped out. Bad enough, the Sooners went 3-7. Worse, they were shut out four times.
Yet, in a move that may have cemented Jones’ legacy, he essentially fired himself, resigning as coach, yet remaining athletic director and, by the time he wasn’t — he died in 1971 still in the job — the Sooners claimed an offensive coordinator named Barry Switzer and an offense called the wishbone.
Indeed, the era that began the moment Wilkinson left coaching for a failed political career and ended the moment Switzer convinced then-head coach Chuck Fairbanks to go with the wishbone after scoring seven points in a Sept. 26, 1970, loss to Oregon State, two weeks before meeting Texas inside the Cotton Bowl, can easily be dismissed as 6 1/2 lost seasons.
Yet, it’s more complicated than that. Jones failed as Wilkinson’s successor only as OU’s head coach. As an administrator, he welcomed 36-year-old Jim Mackenzie into his old job, fresh off Frank Broyles’ staff at Arkansas.
Mackenzie brought Switzer with him from Fayetteville and Chuck Fairbanks to Norman off Houston’s staff. And when Mackenzie died of a heart attack after a six-win season on April 28, 1967, the ground had already been laid for the next huge run of Sooner football.
Though Fairbanks, only 33 when he succeeded Mackenzie prior to the 1967 season, went 10-1 out of the shoot, the football program did not come all the way back just yet.
OU lost four games the next season and four more the next (and four games the next), before it had the benefit of a full season in its new offense.
Between Wilkinson’s exit and opening day, 1971, the Sooners went 45-28-2.
Given what came before, those seasons felt lost. Given what they ushered in, perhaps they weren’t.
Switzer Makes His Mark
Barry Switzer famously convinced head coach Chuck Fairbanks to scrap the Sooner offense for the wishbone during an off week between a loss to Oregon State and facing Texas inside the Cotton Bowl.
That’s the moment the Switzer era really began, in the final days of September 1970. Though Switzer would not take over for Fairbanks until Fairbanks took over the New England Patriots prior to the 1973 season, that’s when it started.
Also, not well remembered that time is the fact the Sooners fell to second-ranked Texas 41-9, actually lost to Kansas State two weeks later and Nebraska after that.
Oklahoma whipped Oklahoma State 66-6 the 11th game of the season, yet other than those 60 minutes, did not surpass 30 points all season.
Still, Switzer was right.
The wishbone would work and the Sooners had the players to make it work.
The next five seasons, two with Fairbanks at the helm and Switzer’s first three campaigns, OU lost three games total and won the 1974 and 1975 national championships.
Switzer remains in Norman, still has time for everybody, still has all the charm in the world and still carries a gargantuan presence that hovers above and alongside the monster program he helped build and feed.
Had he not been a wildly successful coach, that presence might not be so mammoth. Yet, because he still carries it, it can be hard to remember just how successful he was.
His first three seasons produced one loss and two national championships. He won 10 games seven of his first eight seasons when the most any team ever played was 12. He won 12 conference titles in 16 seasons.
He never lost more than four games, a fact not applicable to both Bud Wilkinson and Bob Stoops. And, though he lost 12 games in three seasons from 1981-83, he came back with 51 wins his last five, the 1985 national championship and played for it again in 1987.
Historically, no coach embraced the black athlete like Switzer as early as Switzer. And, perhaps, nobody has remained so close to his players to this day like Switzer.
Only this summer, at a football camp hosted by Baker Mayfield, Switzer crashed it with 1977 Heisman Trophy winner Billy Sims in tow.
That’s just the way the king rolls. He earned the crown.
Gomer Jones was not a successful head football coach at Oklahoma. Taking over for Bud Wilkinson, he did not have the goods.
Still, his place in Sooner history is secure and positive for everything that came before and for his time as athletic director after and, really, for the Sooner Nation’s general affection for him, wins and losses aside.
The same cannot be said for the space filled by the three head coaches between Barry Switzer and Bob Stoops.
Gary Gibbs lasted six seasons, Howard Schnellenberger one and John Blake three that felt more like 10.
One thing each had in common was an inability to be an effective mouthpiece for the program.
Schnellenberger may have been well past his prime and Blake completely overmatched by the job. Gibbs, though nobody doubted his work ethic or general intelligence on football matters, was no man of the people like Switzer and struggled to connect with fans emotionally invested in the program he led.
Not helping, he struggled horribly to beat Nebraska and Texas and his teams always finished lower than they began.
Though Gibbs went 44-23-2 for a .652 winning percentage fans would have craved from his two successors, the Sooners entered the final game of their schedule never ranked any higher than 19th and four times they weren’t ranked at all. That’s hard to swallow from a team that spent time in the top 10 as four of Gibbs’ teams did.
Then it really fell apart.
Schnellenberger was eventually sued by one of his players, Brian Ailey, after Ailey reportedly flirted with death following a heat injury during fall practice prior to the old coach’s one-and-only 5-5-1 campaign.
The players quit on Schnellenberger by season’s end, losing their final three games by 88 points, scoring 10 points between them.
On the field, Blake’s seasons were actually far worse, ruled by an incompetence that remains incomprehensible.
Blake never reached November with more than three victories. He suffered two four-game losing streaks and one five-game losing streak. His longest in-season winning streak was two games.
From the top to the bottom, they were the lost years of Sooner football.
They lasted 10 seasons and ushered in nothing but the determination to finally make a hire commensurate with the program’s history.
On Dec. 1, 1998, it happened.
His name was Bob.
Bob Stoops said there would be none when was hired in the waning days of 1998. He meant it, the fans ate it up and for the most part, he didn’t make any until years and years later when an offense under the direction of Josh Heupel appeared to have no direction.
But that’s quibbling.
Stoops changed everything at Oklahoma and before he departed into a two-year retirement until agreeing to coach the Dallas entrant in the reformulated XFL, even wins and losses aside, he’d left a huge legacy.
Like the stadium, itself, and we thought the one he inherited was pretty nice to begin with.
Like selling out season after season after season, making not only the football program self supporting, but the whole of the Sooner athletic department a very profitable business, even one that contributes back to the university’s general funding.
Without what happened during Stoops’ 18 seasons in charge, there might not be a Marita Hynes Field for the softball program, a beautiful Headington Family Tennis Center, a rowing program.
Also, he won the 2000 national championship, played for three others and reached the College Football Playoff the second season it existed.
And, no small thing, he brought in the man now running things, Lincoln Riley, who appears to not simply be minding the store at the level of success for which it’s become accustomed, but taking it two new heights, reaching the playoff in his two and only seasons.
It is a 21-year run that has included an astounding eight 12-win seasons, six more 11-win seasons and two 10-win seasons.
It has only included the single national championship, but a strong argument can be made that what Stoops and Riley have done since 1999 is more difficult than what Wilkinson and Switzer did during their eras. Now, it’s much harder to be dominant.
It is an ongoing run of excellence nobody could have guessed after the lost seasons before.
For many, though the national championship was amazing, the quick turnaround, from four straight non-winning seasons to Stoops’ opening seven-win campaign was even more fantastic.
It made all things possible again and OU is still riding that wave.
This makes it 125 years of Sooner football and never has it appeared more primed to go further and higher.
It’s an epic story.
Horning is senior sports columnist for The Norman Transcript, a CNHI News Service publication.