Big 12 Historical Spotlight – Bud Wilkinson
By Ted Lewis for the Allstate Sugar Bowl
[This story originally appeared in the Official Game Program for the 2017 Allstate Sugar Bowl.]
Bud Wilkinson was the antithesis of the rough and tumble image of his fellow “Okies” in post-World War II Oklahoma – tall, handsome despite prematurely gray hair, immaculately dressed, even on the sidelines, and always soft-spoken and articulate.
And they loved him for it.
Also, they loved him because he created a college football powerhouse that endures to this day – his teams were an incredible 114-10-3 in his first 12 seasons highlighted by a 47-game winning streak which 60 years later looks to be as unbreakable a record as there is in the sport.
Before that, from 1948-1950, the Sooners fashioned a 31-game winning streak that was nation’s longest since 1914.
That streak included two victories in the Sugar Bowl – 14-6 against North Carolina and 35-0 against LSU – and ended with a 13-7 Sugar Bowl loss to Kentucky, which recently declared itself the 1950 national champion ahead of the Sooners who had finished the regular season as the poll champions (the retroactive Sagarin ratings recently named the Wildcats No 1).
That’s how big a deal it was to beat Wilkinson and OU in those days.
As school president George Cross, who promoted Wilkinson from lead assistant in 1947, famously said, “I want a university the football team can be proud of.”
Cross didn’t mean that literally – he was appealing to the legislature for more academic funding – but his point was well taken.
Along with the musical “Oklahoma,” the success of the OU football team became a major point of pride in a state where people were working hard to overcome stereotypes portrayed in the novel and film The Grapes of Wrath.
“At the time we arrived, the people of Oklahoma were suffering from a collective inferiority complex,” Jay Wilkinson wrote in his biography of his father written shortly after his death in 1994. “OU football helped cure that.”
Those who couldn’t attend Sooners games could at least catch the highlights on Wilkinson’s first-in-the-nation coaches show on TV.
You could pretty much say the Sooners did for Oklahoma what decades earlier Notre Dame did for the Irish.
“I’m probably prejudiced, but to me, Bud Wilkinson is the second greatest college coach of all time,” said J. Brent Clark, author of Sooner Century, the definitive history of the program. “Bear Bryant is No. 1 and Darrell Royal is No. 3.”
Fittingly enough, Bryant was the coach of that Kentucky team that stopped Wilkinson’s first winning streak while Royal was the Sooners quarterback in 1948 and ‘49 before going on to be the coach at Mississippi State, Washington and, most notably, Texas.
It was in no small part because of OU’s inability to beat Texas – six straight losses from 1958-63 – that led Wilkinson to resign in order to make an ill-fated run for the U.S. Senate in 1964.
Except for an unhappy two-year stint with the NFL’s St. Louis Cardinals in the 1970s, Wilkinson never coached again, although he did become a fixture in the broadcast booth, including 14 years as lead analyst for ABC Sports where he worked several Sugar Bowl games.
Nonetheless, his place in the hearts of Sooner fans never dimmed. When a book alleging several unsavory things about the OU program and Wilkinson in general was published in 2002, two scheduled book signings in Norman were cancelled because of threats to the author.
“Dad wasn’t your run-of-the-mill football coach,” Jay Wilkinson said. “He was very well-educated (BA in English from Minnesota where he was the quarterback for the Gophers’ 1934-36 national champions and masters from Syracuse) and cerebral, which made him a great teacher.
“You never heard him raise his voice in practice or during a game. That was just part of his being.”
Wilkinson was a football innovator, advancing the principles of the split-T he learned under Don Faurot at Iowa Pre-Flight and revolutionizing defensive schemes with a 5-3 formation that’s still known as the “Okie Defense.”
Not surprisingly, it was on the practice field where Wilkinson truly set himself apart.
In a time when most teams scrimmaged daily, Wilkinson stressed communication, conditioning, fundamentals and speed, especially in execution.
“I don’t care how smart a coach is,” Royal said. “It’s how you teach. Some people can just teach the game. That was the genius of Coach Wilkinson. He would have been a good teacher whatever his subject was.”
Wilkinson was certainly magnanimous in victory, never more so than after the 35-0 Sugar Bowl victory against LSU in 1950. Days before the game, former Tiger lineman Walter “Piggy” Barnes and LSU fan Goober Morse were discovered spying on an Oklahoma practice in Biloxi, Miss., although Barnes, then a player with the Philadelphia Eagles, claimed he was only “scouting” Sooners players for the Eagles.
Royal described Wilkinson as “furious,” especially at LSU Coach Gus Tinsley, whose hand he refused to shake at a later meeting. And indeed the undefeated Sooners showed little mercy against the Tigers, keeping the starters in until the final three minutes of a game that remains the most-lopsided in Sugar Bowl history.
But afterwards, Wilkinson said, “If we played LSU a dozen times, we’d never play that well again or score that many points. They’re too good a team.”
Wilkinson was certainly less pleased after the loss to Kentucky the following year. He hadn’t particularly wanted his team in a bowl that year, but the players voted to make a third straight trip to New Orleans and the coach acquiesced.
The Sooners dominated most of the game, but Kentucky’s defense came up with five fumble recoveries plus an interception to thwart a team which had averaged 34.5 points in the regular season.
Wilkinson and the Sooners lost that day, but they wound up with two more national championships, in 1955 and 1956. By then Wilkinson, whose early teams were made up of returning servicemen and Oklahoma natives such as 1952 Heisman Trophy winner Billy Vessels, had expanded the Sooners recruiting territory into Texas, a source of strength for the program to this day.
Barry Switzer, whose teams won three national titles to match Wilkinson’s total, and Bob Stoops, whose current OU program is the winningest among the Power 5 conferences in the 21st century, may have surpassed Wilkinson in both victories and national attention, but they both owe much to the foundation laid by “Mr.” Bud Wilkinson.