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"The Undefeated:" Tightwire
Where are they now? - Jimmy Harris
Where are they now? - Tommy McDonald
Classic conversation: Prentice Gautt
Curt Gowdy on legendary Oklahoma coach Bud Wilkinson.
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Wednesday, November 19, 2003
Sooners dusted 47 straight opponents
By Jim Dent
Special to ESPN.com
When the University of Oklahoma Board of Regents met at the end of the World War II, they were faced with an image crisis that was proportionate to the Black Blizzards that once thundered across the south plains, blanketing the state in dust.
They sought a blueprint to erase to Dust Bowl image. Oklahomans were considered dirty and destitute, and more than a million of them had left the state in the 1930s, hoping to evade the impoverished conditions. Long before the Oklahoma Sooners came to dominate the landscape, the land itself suffered through droughts, floods and agrarian disasters. The '30s seemed to last forever as the soil dried up and blew away. Oklahoma became a metaphor for The Depression.
So, after the war, the university officials went to work trying to boost morale and to erase the stigma of the Dust Bowl. They decided to use football as their vehicle. Little did they know they would also set the gold standard in college football that still exists today.
So, perhaps, it is not outrageous to believe that the Sooners of Bob Stoops could topple one of the longest records in sports, one that is often compared to Joe DiMaggio's 56-game hitting streak. Given the odds that the Sooners faced more that four decades ago, another 34 straight victories doesn't seem out of reach.
"Our guys believe they can do anything," Stoops said. "They are taught to think that way from the day they walk onto campus."
I spent the last two years researching and writing a book titled "The Undefeated" about the phenomenon that is the 47-game winning streak. What I found in interviewing more than a hundred former players, coaches and eyewitnesses to the fact is that believing is everything. Even when they trailed the Colorado Buffaloes 19-6 at halftime on a frigid afternoon in Boulder in 1956, they were able to cling to hope, thanks to this halftime speech that was delivered by their head coach.
"The players before created the great tradition of Oklahoma," Wilkinson told the Sooners. "They wore those jerseys. You don't deserve to wear them. Take them off."
For the next twenty minutes, the Sooners stood shivering in a small, dark Quonset hut in that Colorado icebox. Finally, Wilkinson returned minutes before the second half kickoff and said, "Nobody in this stadium believes you can win this game. Except me."
Minutes into the second half, the Sooners grabbed a 20-19 lead and went on to win 27-19.
Once, when it appeared that the Sooners were not taking the Texas Longhorns seriously, Wilkinson walked into the locker room minutes before kickoff at the Cotton Bowl and said, "Gentlemen, I think that you know that you didn't practice well this week. But it is no disgrace to lose to a team such as Texas. Even so, when they beat you, just remember that you are still Oklahoma and keep your head held high."
Minutes later, the referee had no more than stuck his head through the door to fetch the Sooners for kickoff when he was almost stampeded. What ensued was a mad calf scramble down the long concrete tunnel of the Cotton Bowl, steel-tipped cleats throwing sparks and players knocking into each other, the Sooners almost running up the backs of the Longhorns, who had paused at the edge of the field, waiting for their band to strike up the school song. Oklahoma won that day 45-0.
But Wilkinson could surprise his players in other ways. He was different, almost breezy, as he strolled into the quarterbacks' meeting on the morning of the biggest game of the year, a glorious and sunny October afternoon in 1956 in South Bend.
He smiled at quarterback Jimmy Harris and said, "We are going to beat the hell out of these guys today." Wilkinson studied the quarterback's look of disbelief before he turned and walked through the door. That day, the coach was so right, as Oklahoma won 40-0 over Notre Dame, representing his first and only victory over the Fighting Irish.
More than a football book, "The Undefeated" is the saga of how the Oklahomans were able to rebound from the Dust Bowl and "The Grapes of Wrath" image. John Steinbeck's Pulitzer Prize winning book, by the way, was banned by several Oklahoma school districts in the late '30s and early '40s as Oklahomans rejected the image of being sullen and desperate.
Thanks to the can-do spirit, though, Oklahoma would rise above the fray as the economy improved and spirits were lifted. It seemed that the world had come to an end when Notre Dame ended the streak on November 16, 1957 as Dick Lynch scored the winning touchdown from the three-yard line with less than four minutes to play. Sooner fans sat in their seats for more than thirty minutes after the final gun, believing the Sooners would somehow come back onto the field and reverse the outcome.
Wilkinson told his players, "Men, the only people who never lose are the ones who never play the game." Then he walked into the cold Oklahoma night and into the rain for the first time. In all of Wilkinson's game during those first eleven years, it had never rained on the Great White Father.
As Wilkinson trekked 20 blocks to his home, he was passed by a busload of Notre Dame players who yelled, "Happy Homecoming, Y'all" and "Catholics are god." But Wilkinson never looked up. Head down, hat pulled low against the rain, he had already traveled above the storm, his mind already focused on the Nebraska Cornhuskers, the opponent up next on the Sooners' schedule.
Life would simply have to continue for one of the winningest football programs in the history of college football.
Jim Dent is the author of "Junction Boys." His new book, "The Undefeated," chronicles the Oklahoma Sooners and college football's greatest winning streak.
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