1946 - 56  Sooner
(Authentic Reproduction)



The reputation and overall level of success of The University Of Oklahoma football program was somewhat better than the national perception of the state’s populace and economy throughout the 1930’s and early ‘40’s. A number of coaches forged records of .500, sometimes a bit above that, sometimes a bit below with a terrific 1938 season that culminated in an Orange Bowl appearance against Tennessee for the 10-1 squad. When head coach Tom Stidham, mastermind of the undefeated ’38 team who fell only to the Vols by 17-0 in that grand bowl appearance left to take the head job at Marquette University before the 1941 season, ex-OU tackle Dewey “Snorter” Luster stepped up to take the reins. This former Sooner grid dynamo had been a successful boxer and studied law at New York City’s Columbia University. During his time in New York, he doubled as an apprentice coach with the professional New York Giants and mastered their innovative A-Formation Offense. He brought this to the Sooner squad to post a 6-3 record but prior to the start of the 1942 season, the U.S. entered World War II and he lost all of his assistant coaches and most of his players to military service. Luster and his Sooners were able to do better than most of the institutions that continued to play football during the War years in part because he actively recruited members of the Naval Reserve Officers Training Corps that were stationed on campus. His 5-5 record in 1945, a brutal 47-0 defeat in the season’s finale against rival Oklahoma State, and ongoing health problems pushed Luster out of active coaching and into the OU Intramural Athletics Department. In January of 1946, a conscious decision would be made to elevate the level and visibility of OU football into the national spotlight. As noted by Oklahoma sports authority J. Brent Clark, “Oklahoma had weathered the Great Depression, the Dust Bowl, the ‘Grapes Of Wrath’ novel, and World War II. There was a perception that despite having endured these adversities, Oklahomans were carrying a great deal of emotional and psychological baggage. If the Broadway musical ‘Oklahoma’ could have such a positive effect upon the people of the state and indeed, the nation, why couldn’t a collegiate football powerhouse do the same?” When University President George Lynn Cross stood in front of the State Legislature and requested increased funding for the school by uttering the statement, “I would like to build a university which the football team could be proud of” this was in fact his goal and an accurate assessment of the type of football dominance he wanted and came to expect. The search was on to hire a coach who could attract and then direct a national level program and Jim Tatum was that man.


Tatum had first been a player and then head coach at North Carolina. At Iowa Pre-Flight during the War, he had assisted Missouri’s Don Faurot and learned the innovative Split-T offense from its originator. Considering the Oklahoma offer, Tatum at first requested that he be able to bring along Charles “Bud” Wilkinson, his assistant at the Jacksonville Naval Air Station. When Wilkinson interviewed a bit better than his mentor, Tatum backed off but the Board Of Regents then insisted that Tatum accept the package deal and bring the young Wilkinson with him or go elsewhere. The tireless, somewhat “in your face” manner of Tatum put off some boosters while the mannerly yet strong-spoken Wilkinson easily gained supporters as the 1946 season began. The Sooners were outfitted with new white Riddell RT model plastic helmets that sported a red one-inch center stripe. The 275 players that Tatum brought to Norman, Oklahoma to try out for the team was a legal maneuver and he entered his first season with thirty-one War veterans out of his first thirty-three squadmen. The combat-hardened players were tough, mature, and “football smart” and among their ranks were future head coaches Darrell Royal (Texas), Jim Owens (Washington), Jack Mitchell (Wichita State and Kansas), Warren Griese (South Carolina), Pete Tillman (Wichita State), Plato “Dee” Andros (Oregon State), and Wade Walker (Mississippi State). The team’s 8-3 record, 34-13 Gator Bowl victory over North Carolina State, and nation leading rushing defense which gave up but fifty-eight yards per game were enthusiastically received by the entire state and HB Joe Golding set a new OU rushing record of 902 yards. However, trouble was brewing as Tatum demanded more money and a longer contract from OU while simultaneously negotiating with Maryland. With the popular Wilkinson in the wings, President Cross and the Board were rather comfortable letting their triumphant coach leave and elevating young Bud to the head coaching position.


Charles “Bud” Wilkinson had played for Bernie Bierman’s great Minnesota teams and was a member of three straight National Championship squads from 1934-1936 as a two-time All American. Most impressively he was considered a coach-on-the-field by his coaches and teammates. In the service, he and Tatum were assistants to Don Faurot at Iowa Pre-Flight. Faurot, the “Father Of The Split-T”, had an eager student in Wilkinson who left coaching upon his discharge from the service, and teamed with his father in the mortgage business in Minneapolis. When Tatum got the Oklahoma job, he invited Bud to “temporarily” assist but the lure of coaching was too great and Wilkinson was immediately dedicated to the task on a full-time basis. When Tatum left for Maryland the mannerly, reserved, but immensely popular Wilkinson was offered the job as Oklahoma’s head coach. Little did anyone know that they had just signed a man who would be considered one of the greatest football coaches of all time and one who would change the game. Only thirty-years of age when he took the position, his first team sputtered a bit in the early part of the season but Wilkinson developed a philosophy of rotating his linemen so that they remained fresh late in the game and once they mastered Bud’s interpretation of the Split-T, they closed with five wins. Even without HB Joe Golding who turned pro prior to the ’47 season, sophomore captain guard Wade Walker, QB Jack Mitchell who was considered the greatest of the Split-T quarterbacks even then, and All American guard Paul “Buddy” Burris took advantage of the pin-point punting of Darrell Royal to defeat Missouri and Wilkinson’s Split-T mentor Don Faurot and Missouri 21-12. The Sooners 7-2-1 record gave them a tie for the Big Six Conference crown. After losing the opener of ’48 to Santa Clara, OU defeated their entire slate of opponents and posted their first win in nine years over Texas. They buried Missouri 41-7, averaged 43.4 points per game against Conference foes, and won the Sugar Bowl 14-6 over North Carolina and their great back Charlie Justice. After leading the team to their 10-1 record, Mitchell was a two-time All Conference pick and the best kick return man of his era, and after assisting Bud on the sidelines, later became the head coach at Wichita State, Arkansas, and Kansas. Burris again was an All American and by the time 1949 had closed, he was a three-time All American and then played for the Packers. Of all of the Wilkinson teams, the ’49 squad that propelled Bud to the National Coach Of The Year award, was considered his best in part because their unusual circumstance had them starting Oklahoma careers during different seasons, going into the military, and then coming together as one team after the War. This resulted in an amalgam of athletic and tough combat veterans, essentially, a consolidation of three or four excellent groups of football players. This last group of returning war veterans was a formidable one and they went 11-0, scoring 399 points and giving up but eighty-eight with QB Darrell Royal running the offense and finishing his career with an OU record seventeen interceptions. They finished second to Notre Dame in the polls as what became a constant trainload of All Americans were made known to the nation. Tackle Wade Walker would become the head coach at Mississippi State and OU’s AD.  Two-way guard Stan West was in the NFL for eight years and end Big Jim Owens played for the Colts. After serving Bear Bryant as an assistant Owens became one of Washington’s legendary coaches. George Thomas, and Darrell Royal who would later come to challenge Bud’s claim to being the best coach in the college game were other 1949 All Americans. Both Owens and Royal are in the College Football Hall Of Fame.




Despite the success of 1949, the outbreak of the Korean War and the loss of ten of eleven starters that dictated the use of many sophomores did not bode well for the Sooners. QB Claude Arnold had begun his OU career in 1942 and was only now completing it in 1950 due to his military service and time spent behind starter Darrell Royal.  FB Leon “Mule Train” Heath was a key to the undefeated regular season, an All American who was joined in receiving that national honor by huge tackle Jim Weatherall, a 6’4” monster who utilized his wrestling skills to make him a two-way terror, end Frank Anderson, and S Buddy Jones. The All Conference team was filled out by G Norm McNabb, Centers Harry Moore and Tom Catlin (who sparkled at LB), and Heath’s fellow backfield mates Billy Vessels and QB Arnold, with OU obviously dominating the selections. Vessels sparkled with 208 yards on the ground against Nebraska, 870 total rush yards, and fifteen TD’s. Notable was another win against Texas and a late-save victory over Texas A&M but most notable was the fact that when the season was over, the Sooners had a thirty-one game winning streak! Crowned National Champion, they then had to suffer the ignominy of accepting the honor and then losing to Bear Bryant’s Kentucky team 13-7 in the Sugar Bowl. Heath played for the Redskins for three seasons before entering the military service.



The 1951 season started with difficulty as Wilkinson had a cancerous testicle removed and then gave consideration to leaving OU to enter private business. Quite a few players were lost to military service and others missed practice due to the Reserve Officers Training Program on campus. New assistant coaches Pete Elliot, the former Michigan QB and Dee Andros who starred on the post-World War II Sooner squads before playing pro ball with the Chicago Cardinals, joined the staff. With freshmen eligible, John “Buddy” Leake stepped in to lead the Big Seven in scoring and Gene Calame was a good back-up to All Conference QB Eddie Crowder. C/LB Tom Catlin and tackle Jim Weatherall were All Americans with Weatherall the Outland Trophy winner and a devastating defensive player, one  that earned entry to the College Football Hall Of Fame. After military service he played in the NFL for six seasons with three teams. Once again OU had most of the All Conference selections as new stars like T Art James, guards Roger Nelson and Fred Smith, G/LB Bert Clark, and backs Larry Grigg and the very talented “Buck” McPhail entered the Oklahoma pipeline. The slow early start to the season with 14-7 and 9-7 losses to Texas A&M and Texas and the absence of Vessels due to a devastating knee injury, led to the 8-2 finish. 1952 featured what may have been the best backfield of all-time in Norman. With three All Americans in QB Crowder, who would later became an Oklahoma nemesis as head coach of Colorado, Heisman Trophy winner Billy Vessels at HB, and Coleman “Buck” McPhail at FB, it would have been daunting and Buddy Leake just made it better. McPhail gained 1018 yards on the ground for the season, 215 of them against Kansas and had an NCAA record 8.55 yards per rush. He played with the Colts in ’53 and went into coaching and Catlin who was an Academic All American, played with the Browns and Eagles. The 8-1-1 record did not earn a bowl bid though Vessels certainly earned the Heisman with a huge 195 yard day against Notre Dame whom the Sooners lost to and 1072 for the season.




Billy “Curly” Vessels could have taken the wrong path. It has been widely reported that he was raised literally, by the entire town of Cleveland, Oklahoma as everyone took an interest in helping him survive a difficult childhood. Not having a true home for many years and being left in Oklahoma when his parents moved out of state while he was in high school, he lived with many different families and all were there to lend a helping hand. He became the starting left HB at OU as a sophomore and rambled for 208 yards in a great performance against Nebraska, finishing with 870 for the season and scoring fifteen TD’s. He went down with a knee injury in 1951 but returned strongly in ’52 for a senior campaign that won the Heisman Trophy for the leader of the 8-1-1 Sooner squad. His 1072 rushing yards obscured the fact that he was an effective defender and terrific return man. Career totals of 2085 rushing yards and thirty-five touchdowns has earned him the opinion of many that he was the best of all of the great OU backs and he was chosen for the College Football Hall Of Fame. In 1953 Vessels won the MVP award in what became the CFL playing for Edmonton and led his division in rushing. He played a full season for the NFL Colts in 1956 but his career was limited due to injury. Vessels later was a successful horse breeder and involved in the State Racing Commission in Florida. 


The 1953 season proved to be critical in Oklahoma football history because it marked the beginning of what became a national record forty-seven game winning streak and the arrival of a freshmen football class that was loaded with future stars that would secure that streak. Among the veterans guard and noseguard J.D. Roberts excelled and is often considered to be the best OU blocker ever. He won the Outland Trophy and National Lineman Of The Year Award and was elected to the College Football Hall Of Fame. After time in the military, Roberts became a long-time college and pro assistant and was head coach of the Saints for three seasons. The season started with a loss to Notre Dame and a 7-7 tie with Pitt but then the fabled winning streak began as the Sooners won nine in a row, including a monumental 7-0 victory over former OU coach Jim Tatum and his National Championship Maryland squad in the Orange Bowl. With the vote taken prior to the bowl games, OU finished fourth while leading the nation in rushing, a credit to All Conference performers Gene Calame, and Larry Grigg in the backfield, and tackle Roger Nelson, end Max Boydston, and center Kurt Burris. HB Buddy Leake continued his fine play while newcomers Tommy McDonald, HB Jimmy Harris, and center Jerry Tubbs gained experience. The ’54 squad continued the unbeaten streak, going 10-0 and posting four shutouts and yielding a total of sixty-one points for the season. The third-ranked Sooners did not go “bowling” due to the conference “no repeat” rule but easily won the conference title. Burris repeated as All American and was second to Wisconsin’s Alan Ameche in the Heisman voting. The achievements of Burris earned him entry to the College Football Hall Of Fame. Leake, an All Conference choice, closed his career with 241 points while being joined on the All team by Boydston, a three-time honoree who later played with the Chicago Cardinals and then in the AFL. Guard Bo Bolinger, end Carl Allison, and Gene Calame who played through injury and was replaced at QB by Jimmy Harris were other All Conference picks.




The “Fast Break” Offense, similar to the no-huddle used in modern football, was the hallmark of the unbeaten National Championship team of 1955. It derived from the hustle and non-stop movement during practice of All American halfback Tommy McDonald and it often led to the Sooner offense lining up and running a play while the defensive huddle of their opponent was still calling their signals. They led the nation in offense totaling 410.2 yards and scored thirty-five points per game. The defense was as good, giving up but five and one-half points per contest and they shut out five of their eleven ’55 opponents and by the end of the season they had thirty straight wins.  In a number one versus number two face-off against Jim Tatum’s Maryland team in the Orange Bowl, their hurry-up offense gave them a 20-6 victory. The stars were many as All Americans McDonald and guard Bo Bolinger were joined on the All Big Seven team by both tackles Ed Gray and Cal Woodworth, G Cecil Moore, center/LB Jerry Tubbs, and FB Bob Burris, most destined to be great names of collegiate football. 





Unbelievably, the wins kept coming and again the Sooners finished a 10-0 season that included shutouts in their first three games and a total of six. Center and LB Jerry Tubbs who came out of a heralded Breckenridge, TX went through high school and college having never lost a regular season game! Other than the 1949 team that Wilkinson noted had many returning veterans of older age, the 1956 team was his “best regular college squad” and they ran the unbeaten string to forty as they set new NCAA records of rushing 391 yards, totaling 481.7, and scoring 46.6 points per game. Once again the defense was as good as the offense giving up but fifty-one points for the entire season. Tubbs was All American, won the Walter Camp and National Lineman Of The Year Awards, and played in the NFL for ten seasons with the Chicago Cardinals, and Forty-Niners before anchoring the expansion Dallas Cowboys defense. He then coached with the Cowboys for twenty-two seasons. “Shoo Fly” McDonald was everyone’s darling, an All American who also won the Maxwell Trophy and ranked fourth in the country in scoring with 104 points. Tubbs and McDonald are members of the College Football Hall Of Fame and McDonald earned the coveted “double” of entering the Pro Football Hall Of Fame based on his six pro bowl selections in a twelve year pro career spent primarily with the Eagles. Amazingly, the “other halfback” Clendon Thomas was “only” All Conference and was the national scoring leader with 108 points. All American linemen who joined Tubbs were T Ed Gray and G Bill Krisher. Thus OU placed three linemen on “the” All American team in one season. All Conference stars included end John Bell and tackle Tom Emerson. QB Jimmy Harris emerged as a star as did FB Billy “Stumpy” Pricer who had a number of solid seasons with the Colts and AFL Texans. The Sooners again got to beat up on Jim Tatum who had left Maryland had taken his North Carolina team to the opener at Norman, and left with a 36-0 thrashing. Bud made a significant move by recruiting OU’s first African-American player, Prentice Gautt. The question now became, “Can they lose great players and maintain The Streak?”

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