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Wednesday, November 19, 2003
And a sophomore will lead them
By Jim Dent
From "The Undefeated"


Editor's note: In his new book, The Undefeated: The Oklahoma Sooners and the Greatest Winning Streak in College Football History, author Jim Dent examines the Oklahoma Sooners' amazing 47-game win streak (1953-57) and the man who engineered the victories, coach Bud Wilkinson. What follows is the first part of an excerpt from Dent's book.

A football sailed high above the east grandstand of Owen Field, just a brown speck against a cloudless sky while Bud Wilkinson, the man in a gray flannel suit, paced the sideline, watched and waited. A crowd of 50,878 braced itself for the absolute worst.

"Dangit, Bud, he's gonna screw it up!" assistant coach Gomer Jones yelled. "That boy ain't got the sense of a mullet."

Jimmy Harris, a tall, wiry sophomore, circled underneath the punt and sneaked a peek upfield at the band of TCU Horned Frogs charging toward him in a blur of purple and white. His heart ran faster than Citation. Every eye traced the flight of the football as it dived toward Harris. Wilkinson said a fast prayer for his Sooners, a team as untamed as the Oklahoma wind.

This September afternoon of 1954, the Oklahoma Sooners were walking a tightwire, having already lost four fumbles, along with starting quarterback Gene Dan Calame, one of the most dependable and durable players anyone could remember, who now lay in a painful knot on the bench, his torso so battered he could barely breathe. Gene Dan had prevailed through fifty-seven minutes of the '54 season opener a week earlier against California in spite of this disturbing prognosis from the attending physician: "His eleventh and twelfth ribs are loose, sort of bouncing together like two xylophone boards." Calame inured himself against the pain with a generous pregame injection of Novocain. Numb from neck to waist, he managed to lead the Sooners past the Cal Bears 27-13, and after the game, the doctor who had prescribed the needle said, "He's quite a boy, isn't he?"

Doc didn't know Gene Dan had been shooting up with painkillers for various injuries since the ninth grade, and could spell Novocain backward if he had to.

Harris took most of the snaps in the practices leading to the TCU game. Everyone already had an opinion about young Jimmy, some of it not so favorable. He had swaggered into Norman a year earlier with an ego the size of Texas, his native state, and an eye for every skirt that shimmied across campus.

Port Robertson, the team's czar of discipline, had approached Jimmy a few weeks earlier and said, "Peahead, I guess I'll have to get a little red wagon to cart your ego around." Robertson, a former Army Captain who was part of the D Day invasion at Normandy, struck fear into the heart of every Sooner. Players who broke Port's rules ran seventy-two stadium steps at five in the morning until they threw up. He addressed all of them as "peahead."

Since the fall of 1947, when Wilkinson became the head coach, the Oklahoma Sooners had been a machine churning up the south plains. They had compiled a thirty-one game winning streak and won their first national championship in 1950. Billy Vessels, one of the best all-round players in the history of college football, won the Heisman Trophy in '52.

Wilkinson stood shoulder-to-shoulder with the best coaches in the college game -- Frank Leahy, Paul "Bear" Bryant, General Robert Neyland and Biggie Munn. The sporting press believed he was on the verge of greatness once more. His Sooners had won ten straight, dating to the third game of the 1953 season. Now if he could only put a harness on this wild bunch.

Wilkinson was trim and athletic at age thirty-eight and in better shape than some of his players. He worked out, jogged, played golf, and was deeply tanned most of the year. On the sideline, he wore a red tie, gray suit, blue socks, deeply glossed dress shoes and a fedora when the weather called for it. This was the era when most college coaches went days without shaving and chili stains on the shirt were a sign the man had enjoyed a good meal. Television had yet to train its prying eyepiece on the sport, and the better part of a coach's wardrobe was a gray sweatshirt and white socks. A few rare exceptions, like Wilkinson and Leahy, along with Paul Brown of the Cleveland Browns, even bothered to knot a necktie before kickoff. Leahy preferred bowties.

Talk around the fraternity was that Bud Wilkinson was the product of his own vanity. Coaches were not supposed to dress like bankers and lawyers and Adlai Stevenson himself. But in Oklahoma, where folks were gratified with any symbol of success, you could hang any photograph of Wilkinson over the fireplace. Life magazine's photo spread on their dapper coach had been dazzling, and Sports Illustrated was planning a cover story. It truly felt like Oklahomans were raising a favorite son to become the next Commander-in-Chief.

So conservative was Wilkinson, at least on the surface, that he had been dubbed the "Great White Father." The Sooners feared him, but in a different way than Robertson. He was distant from his players and rarely excused injuries or the tiniest mistakes. He didn't brutalize his players as Bear Bryant had for years. But he did cut to the quick with the cold blade of his calculating mind.

His number one project at the moment was Jimmy Harris, who had replaced Calame at quarterback in the second quarter against TCU. Though Jimmy's arrogance had pissed off many Sooners, Wilkinson viewed him as a boy with a load of moxie. If the Sooners were to win another national championship, they would do it behind Harris, Wilkinson believed.

From 1953-57, Bud Wilkinson's Sooners won 47 consecutive games.
Wilkinson couldn't explain why he knew so much about football players, but after eating, drinking and sleeping the game for twenty years, he had developed a sixth sense. Bud had a way of taking a flashlight to a boy's soul. He also knew how to motivate, though his manner seemed offbeat.

A year earlier, when the freshman class of '53 arrived on campus, he called a meeting on the fourth floor of the Jefferson House, the jock dorm on the Oklahoma campus. The roomed was filled with blue chippers like Tommy McDonald, Jerry Tubbs, John Bell, Billy Pricer, Jay O'Neal, Edmon Gray and Harris.

"If you will dedicate yourselves, you will win a national championship before you leave this campus," he told the boys. "But it will require a commitment like you have never given before."

Now those boys were sophomores and on the verge of becoming the heart and soul of the Sooners. Naturally, some jealousy was developing among the upperclassmen that were now losing starting jobs to the new kids.

One player you didn't want to cross was senior center/linebacker Kurt Burris, a 6-2, 220-pound package of muscle and grit. In the one-platoon era, when players played both offense and defense, Burris was hell on wheels and the meanest man in college football. He grew up on an eighty-acre farm in Muskogee, plowing behind a team of mules and, as a teenager, could stand on a flatbed truck all afternoon and toss bales of hay fifteen into the barn's loft. He beat up at least one of his four younger brothers every day just for practice.

At the moment, the target of his ire was the cocky sophomore quarterback.

"If that Jimmy Harris don't stop struttin' so much, he's gonna dislocate a hip," Burris said to anyone who would listen, and they all did.

Burris was a bully. It had been an Oklahoma football ritual for years that any uppity underclassman would be broken like a wild mustang, and Burris gladly appointed himself as the cowboy in charge of this rodeo.

The week before the TCU game, Burris drew a mental bull's-eye on Jimmy's jaw as the mouthy boy lined up in the backfield on the punt protection team. Most upperclassmen had been tipped on what was coming, and held their breath for the moment when Burris would unload. Bursting between the guard and the tackle, Burris drew back his right fist. Since there were no facemasks in college football, he had a clean shot at the target. With a loud pop, two front teeth were disengaged. His mission accomplished, Burris then peeled back and ran upfield, hunting for somebody else to abuse. He didn't know that Jimmy was right on his tail, spitting out pieces of broken teeth.

About twenty yards up the field, Jimmy jumped on Burris' back and began pounding the sides of his helmet with both fists. Blood from Jimmy's mouth poured onto Burris's white jersey. Teammates tore them apart before Burris could land another punch.

As the two were separated, Burris wheeled and said, "Remember what I'm tellin' you, boy. No sophomore oughta be startin' for this football team."

Harris smiled a gap-toothed smile and walked away.

Wilkinson grimaced at the sight of blood. But Jimmy, he knew, could talk a big game, and also back it up.

Wilkinson had several other options to replace Calame. He could have chosen steady senior Pat O'Neal, or his brother, Jay, the most highly recruited quarterback from the state of Oklahoma two years earlier. Harris and Jay O'Neal were sophomores. Jay O'Neal was more low-key and seemed a better fit for Wilkinson's conservative formula since the coach firmly believed in moving the chains and protecting the ball.

"Never depend on the big play," Wilkinson preached.

Harris was the antithesis of that sermon. The boy had lightning quickness and a flair for the dramatic. While Wilkinson worshipped his own system, he knew it was time for a change. The offense ached for a kick in the backside, and if the Sooners were to win another national championship, the chips would ride on the young stud from Texas.

Click here for more of the story: "Ref, I didn't catch it"

From "The Undefeated" by Jim Dent. Copyright 2001 by Jim Dent. Reprinted by permission of St. Martin's Press.





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