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"The Undefeated:" Tightwire

Dent: Wilkinson had blueprint for Oklahoma revival

Where are they now? - Jimmy Harris

Where are they now? - Tommy McDonald

Classic conversation: Prentice Gautt

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Curt Gowdy on legendary Oklahoma coach Bud Wilkinson.
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Wednesday, November 19, 2003
"Ref, I didn't catch it"
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 second part of an excerpt from Dent's book.

Oklahoma-TCU was the matchup America lusted for -- two great, two great coaches and enough part-time roughnecks on both teams to bury six thousand feet of drilling pipe before sundown. The Sooners were ranked number three in the Associated Press poll, and the Frogs number four.

On one sideline stood Wilkinson, tall and fluid, the portrait of the movie star as coach.

On the other sideline was Orthol "Abe" Martin, the good-ol' country boy from Jacksboro, Texas, who chomped constantly an unlit cigar. Some folks took him for a hick, but the perceptive ones knew him to be a nabob of the subtle psychological ploy. The vilest oath he ever uttered was "Shistol Pot," a spoonerism for Pistol Shot. In practice, he liked to crawl on hands and knees into the huddle, peer up at the boys and say, "Run Thirty-four."

About twenty minutes before kickoff, he had walked to the center of the TCU locker room, removed his hat, placed it over his heart, and stared at the floor for several seconds before speaking. "Laddies, hold tight to your left nut today because we're playin' one of the best teams in America."

To keep this ten-game winning streak alive, and remain a contender for the national title, Oklahoma would have to slow down one of the best offensive units in the country, led by quarterback Chuck Curtis and jitterbug halfback Jim Swink. TCU was one of the powerhouses of the Southwest Conference, having risen to glory in the mid-thirties on the arm of Slingin' Sammy Baugh, then capturing the1938 national championship with Davey O'Brien at quarterback. O'Brien became the fourth player to win the Heisman Trophy.

Oklahoma trailed the Frogs 2-0 at halftime, and every Sooner expected to hear one of Wilkinson's patented halftime speeches. He was known to quote Churchill, Byron and Teddy Roosevelt in the same paragraph.

But Wilkinson traveled a rare road this day, preferring to stick to X's and O's. The only inspirational words were, "Men, this is the toughest game we'll play all season. They're a great team, and they won't let up until the final gun. But win today and we'll keep winning for a long time."

It was early in the third quarter when Harris stationed himself beneath the punt that sliced through the south wind. Wilkinson was about to learn if Harris was the right choice to lead the Sooners. Now at the Oklahoma thirty-one, he fielded the ball and was suddenly surrounded by a gaggle of Frogs, but angled toward the sideline and began picking up blocks. Fans in the north end zone spotted a running lane unfolding ahead of Harris, and the boy dimly heard a thunderous roll from behind him. Before the Frogs could blink, he split the first wall of defenders and was quickly at the fifty with only one TCU defender in his path. Out of the blue rumbled Jerry Tubbs, a Sooner lineman, who weighed 210 pounds, but was faster than most of the backs. Tubbs' chin thrust forward and his gangly arms pumped wildly. He actually passed Harris and managed to chop down the last man at the forty. As Harris cruised alone toward the end zone, his teammates swore they saw the familiar swagger. The Sooners now led 7-2.

Oklahoma held the upper hand for all of about three minutes. The Frogs moved down the field eighty-one yards on ten running plays. At the five-yard line, from the spread formation, quarterback Chuck Curtis rolled right, and when he found no receiver open, hip-faked Sooner cornerback Bob Burris and sprinted into the end zone. The Frogs led 9-7.

This day, the Sooners would fumble ten times, losing five, a sign of their immaturity. Following Curtis' touchdown, Harris led the Sooners on a fifty-six-yard drive to the TCU two before halfback Bob Herndon fumbled into the end zone and linebacker Hugh Pitts recovered.

The game was slipping away from Oklahoma as the Frogs' offense grabbed control of the game. They moved eighty yards for another touchdown with Swink doing most of his damage on the ground. Curtis picked up good yardage on two end runs. Swink scored around right end from the three-yard line, and Wilkinson paced and wondered if his raw quarterback could lead them back.

Oklahoma trailed 16-7 with ten minutes to play when Harris trotted confidently into the huddle.

"Look you guyths," he said, his tongue hampered by two missing teeth. "We're gonna run the theventy, I mean seventy series. Got it?"

Harris peered across the huddle at a grinning Burris.

"Got it," Burris said. Then he leveled his eyes on Jimmy and said, "We're gonna win this damn game. Just don't screw it up, meathead."

"Don't worry about me," Jimmy said. "Worry about yourthelf."

That was all that anyone needed to lisp. Harris moved the chains, just as Wilkinson had ordered. Eight yards, five yards, seven yards, five yards, eleven yards, five yards. He didn't call a single pass. From the twenty-eight yard-line, Herndon slanted through a huge hole opened by Burris and wasn't tackled until he reached the TCU seven. Running the Split-T option to the left, Harris kept the ball and scored standing up. Now the Sooners trailed by two points.

The defense held, and minutes later, TCU's Ben Taylor drove a high spiral through the south wind to Buddy Leake, the only senior in the Sooners backfield, and a young man who had grown up fast in 1951. That year, Leake was rushed into the lineup as a freshman when Vessels tore knee ligaments in the Texas game. Leake would start six games at left halfback and lead the Big Seven Conference in scoring. It was the last year that freshman were eligible for varsity play under NCAA rules. The Sooner faithful was quite familiar with Leake's speed and versatility, and more than fifty-thousand fans were on their feet when when he fielded Taylor's punt and took off down the left sideline, his knees churning, his face glistening in the September sunlight. Leake was quickly behind the picket fence and picking up speed. Only one Horned Frog had a chance of stopping him, and that was TCU captain Johnny Crouch, who pulled him down at the ten-yard line. The return had covered fifty yards.

Herndon scored on the next play, taking the option pitch from Harris, and the Sooners led for the first time, 21-16.

Wilkinson had been so right about the Frogs. They just wouldn't give up. With Curtis now passing and Swink skittering between the tackles, TCU picked their way through the Sooners for another drive of eighty yards. Curtis hit Crouch with the winning touchdown pass in the right corner of the end zone. It covered twenty-one yards as the clock ticked toward triple zero. Owen Field fell deathly silent as an entire state lapsed into mourning. The ten-game winning streak had been sweet, but far too short. Fans sat rigidly in their seats, some drawing deeply on cigarettes, and refused to go home. Defeat bored into their hearts. The philosophical ones were were already telling themselves that the Sooners would simply have to regroup. Of course, the pollsters would drop OU out of the Top Ten, and everyone could just forget about the story planned for the cover of Look magazine.

Then, out of the blue, the fans witnessed a rare event that only Hollywood could have invented. Crouch sauntered toward field judge Don Rossi and held out the ball.

"Ref, I didn't catch it," he said. "I trapped it."

Back judge Don Looney ran from the other side of the field. He'd had a clear view of the play and wanted to discuss it with Rossi.

While the man in the gray flannel suit waited, watched and paced, a crowd of 50,878 held its collective breath, and prayed.

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

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