Bring up the name Bobby Proctor to long time OU football fans and you’ll hear words like intense, gritty, fierce, intimidating, and motivating. Ask Bobby Proctor to describe himself and he would tell you he’s blessed.
From his playing days through his coaching career, Proctor experienced a series of life defining moments that he looks back on now with both fondness and wonder. Nothing came easy for the Arkansas native, but in the end he’s had an excellent ride.
The first twist of fate that started him on the road to a life in college football occurred when he had completed junior college in Texas and was ready to continue his playing career at Wyoming, hundreds of miles from anywhere he’d ever been, because they had called and offered him a chance to play.
“I was hitchhiking back from Galveston, TX and a couple picks me up and they asked me where I was going to school,” said Proctor. “When I said Wyoming, the lady told me they just let their coach go. So I get back to school and talked to our coach and he said (Bowden) Wyatt wasn’t fired, he’s going to Arkansas. I get a call about two weeks later and Wyatt said ‘do you want to come to Arkansas? I’ll give you a scholarship’.”
“All my life, I grew up in Arkansas, dreamed about going to Arkansas. Hell, I couldn’t wait to get there. It all works out in a pattern sometimes. But that was the biggest change that’s ever happened to anybody.”
Proctor stayed on at Arkansas and became a graduate assistant, working with the freshman team. One of his pupils there was none other than Barry Switzer.
“Go back longer with him than anyone else,” Switzer said. “When I was a freshman at the University of Arkansas, the first coach I reported to was Bobby Proctor. He was my freshman coach and I have had a relationship with him for 60 years.”
Before that relationship would become a working one, Proctor had to wander through the proverbial coaching desert, making stops at several beleaguered programs along the way. In the next 18 years he was an assistant at Tennessee (for Wyatt), Georgia, Mississippi State, and Vanderbilt – with a six week interruption to take a job at Memphis State before returning to Vanderbilt, where he was left jobless when the staff was removed in 1972. Just when it appeared that Proctor was headed to another downtrodden program, fate intervened again.
“I’ll never forget watching the Sugar Bowl (between Oklahoma and Penn State) and I told my wife ‘wouldn’t it be a great thrill to be able to go to Oklahoma and coach’,” Proctor said. “I was getting ready to go to North Carolina to visit for a job and (OU assistant) Billy Michaels called me and said ‘Switzer wants to talk to you’ and I said don’t hang up. In the meantime, Switzer called me and said ‘we need a secondary coach, you were recommended, so come out and visit’.”
Switzer had just taken over for Chuck Fairbanks and actually planned to offer the job to then-Nebraska assistant Warren Powers until the new Sooners head man found out his new team was going to be slapped with a major probation.
“I called Warren and told him not to come,” said Switzer. “I couldn’t let him walk into this situation. So then, I called Proctor and told him, we were fixing to go on probation, but you’ve got a job here coaching the secondary if you want it. We’ll be on probation for a couple of years. He said ‘I’ll be there in the morning. Coaching at Vanderbilt is like being on permanent probation’. I laughed about that for years. At that point and time, being at Vanderbilt really was like being on permanent probation.”
“I had never been on winning football teams very much. It was just a new life for me, it was a new life for my family,” said Proctor. “When I was inducted in the Hall of Fame in Arkansas, I told Switzer ‘Coach, you changed my whole life. You could have hired anybody in the country. My family and I thank you.’
“When I left Vanderbilt, I made a statement that going from Vanderbilt to Oklahoma is like going from hell to heaven,” Proctor said. “What I mean was at Vanderbilt we had five defensive backs that had to rotate. Going to Oklahoma, we had three deep. That makes it a lot easier to coach.”
Besides the step up in the caliber of athletes and competition, Proctor also encountered some else a coach of his upbringing wasn’t quite ready for. He soon realized that times were changing and he had to grudgingly change with them.
“At Vanderbilt, they couldn’t have long hair, mustaches, nothing. I was really strict,” said Proctor.” So I get to Oklahoma and some of ‘em got mustaches, some of ‘em got Afros and one day after practice I told my wife “I believe I’m gonna join them. I’m not gonna join the other side.” And Switzer kinda talked me into one time going with an Afro. It didn’t take me long to realize that just because a kid had a mustache, long hair or Afro, it didn’t mean they weren’t good young kids and good football players. “
Proctor prowled the sidelines with a ferocity that was ramped up even more during practices, which were open to the public and media during his coaching time. He struck fear in the hearts of first year players who would become his staunchest allies as they grew older.
“He was fair but tough,” said Switzer. “He was as tough on first teamers as he was on third teamers. He ate everybody out.”
One of the players that drew Proctor’s wrath was future NFL defensive back Darrol Ray.
“First game, freshman year, pregame, hour and 20 minutes before kickoff, we’re out just to do a light warm-up. It’s about a hundred degrees so it doesn’t take much to get started. I notice that there’s probably 10-15 thousand fans but they’re closer to where we are working out,” Ray said. “We’re just going through the line, helmet and shoulder pads, I get my chance and dig in, kind of run into a guy, and then the wind changes. I looked up and this guy is running at me, grabs my facemask and says ‘you’ll never play here!’ He’s gripped my helmet with both of his hands and he’s shaking it back and forth, so I flipped it off and let him have it. And he says ‘get out there and hit somebody’. I’m thinking holy cow, what happened, we don’t even have our pads in yet.”
“So I go to the end of the line and Jerry Anderson comes up to me and says ‘don’t worry about it rookie, he picks on one every year. You’ll be alright’. As I look in the stands, there’s people dying laughing because Bobby Proctor has picked out his new whipping boy for the year and I happen to be him. That’s the fall of 1976.”
After being shell shocked that day, Ray began to understand the method of Proctor’s madness.
“I notice the first game of my junior year, I was team captain, and he got somebody by the face mask and I notice some of the same old crowd was there that had been laughing at me two years earlier and they’re laughing at the new guy and I’m the one that has to go up and calm him. There’s the full circle on Bobby Proctor.”
Now, 35 years later, Ray laughs about a photo with Proctor hanging on the wall of his Lindsey Street barbecue restaurant that bears the caption “You’ll Never Play, Ray.”
Proctor also became famous for a phrase that both he and Switzer would both shout at the top of their lungs when a defensive player had a chance to intercept a pass. You could hear “Oskie” over the noise of the crowd and see Proctor jumping up and down, imploring his team to turn things around. Just where did that phrase originate?
“General (Bob) Neyland (legendary Tennessee coach) made up ‘Oskie’,” Proctor said. He was a great guy. When I was at Tennessee, he would come out and sit all day. He would say ‘Oskie wow wow’. Go from defense to offense. When I was at Arkansas, we would call it Oskie, but when I went to Tennessee, I realized where it came from.
After 19 years at OU and 37 years as a college football assistant, Proctor was unceremoniously dumped by Gary Gibbs in what led to legal action and a bitter split. One year from having tenure at OU, Proctor eventually received a legal settlement after suing the school and hard feelings persisted for a time. But his longtime friend Switzer helped him realize that once again, the sudden change of direction would turn out to be beneficial.
“When Gibbs fired me, Switzer told me ‘You will learn how to live. You’re gonna be home Thanksgiving. You have a chance to be with your kids’,” Proctor said. “I didn’t realize what it meant. But after a year or so, I did. You can’t coach the rest of your life. I’m still close to him (Switzer). He invites me to most of the things they have. I’m still a part of it. It’s really been enjoyable. I learned to get out and enjoy myself.”
These days, Proctor keeps a home in Norman but spends a great deal of time in his trailer at Soldier Creek on Lake Texoma, fishing until his heart’s content.
“They call it the redneck trailer because the deck’s worth more than the trailer,” said Proctor. “I get to come down here and stay and my son, Scooter, has a trailer down here and we fish a lot together and with the other two boys. One night we caught nearly a hundred stripers, the four of us. Scooter got one that weighed 22 pounds and I got one 19 pounds. I have a boat, we go out some. I used to sit down here in the spring and out of 30 days, I’ll spend 20 days and fish then go back home. I really enjoy it. We’ve met lots of good people down here.”
When he looks back at the twists and turns his life took during his football career, Proctor still can’t help but shake his head in amazement.
“Sometimes, I think I’d like to sit down and write a book about all the places I’ve been and all the things I’ve done. It’s unbelievable how you end up,” Proctor said. “It was a great run. I always look back and say we won’t take a back seat to anybody. We had three national championships- played for six and won three. I hope Coach Stoops gets the same thing, because he’s a great guy, he’s done a great job.”
“All the kids and grandkids are all right here. I’ll be 85 in November. Switzer called me and said, ‘Doctor, we’re in overtime’. I said maybe it’ll last, like Arkansas had five overtimes one year. It’s a good life, good people. I can’t wait for football season to start. “
(Content updated from original story in Sept. 2014 issue of Sooner Spectator magazine)
It’s highly unlikely that the 2014 Oklahoma Sooner football will make it to the National Championship Playoff, let along qualify as one of the greatest teams in OU history. But since this is the 40th anniversary of the 1974 national title squad, I thought it would be fun to go back and revisit which teams should be on the top five list of all-time greatest in history.
For the purpose of this discussion, you have to narrow the field and even trying to do that will start a few chat room arguments. First of all, we’ll limit the choices to undefeated teams, and that in itself will start a fight with devotees of the 1985 squad, which won the National Championship, but lost in the regular season to Miami. The key word in this analysis is TEAM and that means performing on a high level for every game of the season. If you want to talk about the most talented squads in history, that may be another story.
We’ll start with the 1949 team, which went 11-0 and posted five shutouts, including a 35-0 rout of LSU in the Sugar Bowl. Despite a dominating year in which they outscored opponents 399-88, OU wound up second in the national polls, behind Notre Dame. Looking back, that snub seems amazing, given the fact that the unblemished season extended OU’s winning string to 21, a string that would be extended to 31 games with a 10-0 regular season in 1950, only to be snapped in the Sugar Bowl by Kentucky. Ironically, the Sooners did win the national title that season, as voting was done prior to the bowls.
The 1949 team featured Darrel Royal at quarterback in the split-T and the introduction of the Oklahoma 5-2 defense that became the standard for all levels of football in years to come. The closest anyone came to the Sooners that season was a six-point decision in the Red River Shootout over Texas. Bud Wilkinson’s squad also took a seven-point win over Orange Bowl bound Santa Clara, but after that, no one came within 20 points of OU. Besides Royal, Leon Heath, George Thomas, Stan West, Wade Walker and Jim Owens were named All-American and Wilkinson was named the National Football Coaches Association Coach of the Year.
Any of Wilkinson’s mid-50s undefeated teams could be included in the comparison, but the 1956 squad makes the list for their sheer dominance over opponents. They blasted their first three challengers 147-0 and went on to post six shutouts in 10 games. Included in the carnage were a 47-0 win over Texas, a 40-0 pasting of a Notre Dame team that would end the record 47 straight win streak the following year, and a season ending 53-0 thumping of Oklahoma A&M.
Mercifully for the rest of the teams in the nation, the Sooners did not play in a bowl game, but were declared National Champions after outscoring the opposition 463-51. Future NFL stars Tommy McDonald and Jerry Tubbs captured the Maxwell and Camp Trophies, as the top offensive and defensive players in the country, and they were joined on the All-American teams by Bill Krisher and Ed Gray.
Likewise, their predecessors in 1955 belong here for extending the streak to 30 games and being the only one of the three teams in the mid-50s to play in a bowl game. Like the team the following year, they allowed less than six points per game. Bo Bolinger and McDonald were All-Americans and the Sooners got revenge on the guy who left OU after one year to make way for Wilkinson, Jim Tatum. Tatum’s Maryland team was proclaimed by some as the ‘greatest team of the era’ but they soon found out who the real boss was.
The 1974 undefeated Associated Press National Championship team can certainly lay claim as being the best in Sooner history. Racking up staggering rushing numbers with Joe Washington leading the way, Barry Switzer’s first national title team was a dominant force that few outside of Oklahoma saw due to probation that banned the Sooners from television broadcasts. Only Texas was able to play OU within a touchdown and three times the offense posted more than 60 points in a game. Eight Sooners made All-American, led by future NFL Hall of Famer Lee Roy Selmon and brother Dewey. Other stars on the team included Washington, Tinker Owens, Rod Shoate, Randy Hughes and Kyle Davis, all of whom would go on to have lengthy NFL careers.
Fast forwarding to 2000, that team takes a slot in the top five for their amazing precision on the march to a national crown. Not regarded as a national contender in the preseason, Bob Stoops second OU team quickly opened eyes in the early season. Like this year’s squad, they were extremely dominant through the first eight games, including a 63-14 destruction of Texas that was similar to last month’s humiliation of the Longhorns. There were close calls at Texas A&M and Oklahoma State, as coaches tried to disguise the shoulder injury to quarterback Josh Heupel, who gamely fought through the pain and another narrow win over Kansas State in the Big 12 Championship game.
The climax to the first OU national title in 15 years was a breathtaking defensive performance in the Orange Bowl in a 13-2 win over Florida State. The Sooners shut down Heisman Trophy winner Chris Weinke and finished with a school-best 13-0 record. Heupel finished as the Heisman runner-up, while winning the Walter Camp trophy and Associated Press Player of the Year honors. Linebacker Rocky Calmus and kick returner J.T. Thatcher also made All-American teams, and bubbling under the radar was future superstar Roy Williams, who should have made the national honors squads.
Now that we have the lineup, it’s time to rank the contenders.
Number Five -2000
There are probably several OU teams that were not included on the list that have an argument to be ranked ahead of Stoops’ title team. But this team deserves a spot on the list for coming out of nowhere to will themselves to the National Championship. Heupel revolutionized OU’s offense and the defense has to rank among the top five all-time as well. It helped that no starters were lost to injury all year, an ingredient vital to almost all national title teams.
Number Four – 1955
The second of three straight national title teams gets this slot for the way they finished the regular season – four straight shutouts while outscoring their opponents 166-0 during that stretch, and for continuing on to a bowl game and knocking off number three Maryland, 20-6. That was something their 1956 counterparts didn’t get to do because of an archaic rule that a school couldn’t go to a bowl in consecutive years. Tell that to all the 6-5 teams of today.
Number Three – 1949
It’s probably a bias against post-World War II football, given the number of older veterans who returned to the collegiate ranks and a bias against the quality of football being played at the time that puts this squad lower on the list. Without television and videotape, it’s hard to compare the players of the time with those of today. This team holds its place in OU history as the one that really cemented OU’s national reputation in the Wilkinson era.
Number Two – 1956
The competition gets tough here. In the middle of college football’s longest winning streak, there can be plenty of support for this team as the best all-time. It’s close, but a nod goes to more modern times over the golden age. I can only hope that Tommy McDonald doesn’t get wind of this.
Number One – 1974
So many stars, so much success. Even though Steve Davis would be number five in talent among quarterbacks on the top teams, he ran the show well on a team with unbelievable ability. Half of the players on this team made All-Big Eight and almost the same number had outstanding pro careers. Even with a 14-0 season, this year’s squad would be hard pressed to topple Little Joe, the Selmons, Tinker Owens and Billy Brooks, Rod Shoate, Randy Hughes and all the great talent from Barry Switzer’s ultimate squad.
Another year of announcements for the College Football Hall of Fame has come and gone. And once again, Brian Bosworth has been snubbed.
Whatever you think of The Boz and his acting career, his pro football career, his reported PED use and whatever other careers he has pursued, one fact remains. Brian Bosworth was a helluva college football player.
From 1984-1986, Bosworth amassed 395 tackles, 169 unassisted, 27 for losses. He is the only collegian to ever win the Butkus Award twice, was a two-time consensus All-American and set the school record for tackles in a game with 22 against Miami when they meant something.
But his college career ended in infamy, first getting suspended for the Orange Bowl after testing positive for banned substances and then embarrassing his team and coach by wearing a T-Shirt that said the NCAA stood for National Communists Against Athletes.
And for that, he is snubbed by the college hall in favor of people likeJoe Hamilton (Georgia Tech quarterback 1996-99) who I don’t remember at all, John Sciarra (UCLA quarterback 1972-75), Leonard Smith (McNeese State cornerback 1979-82) and Wesley Walls(Ole Miss tight end 1985-88).
Thirty years have passed since Bosworth’s “transgressions”. A pair of foolish incidents involving a 20-year old shouldn’t wipe out a career of excellence. Time to get over it, college football. The Boz-and Brian Bosworth-belong in your hall of fame.
When the cheering stops, many athletes find themselves at a crossroads in their life, unsure of how to approach the real world. That was the case for former OU lineman, Eric Pope, a starter on the 1985 national championship team, who hit rock bottom before turning his life around and making a comeback more rewarding than anything he had experience on the football field.
Pope was a homegrown product, gaining All-State status at Seminole High School in the early 1980s. Growing up a Sooner fan, there was little doubt he would cast his lot with Oklahoma.
“Watching the Selmon brothers play was something I enjoyed growing up and without a shadow of a doubt, I wanted to go to the University of Oklahoma,” said Pope. “When I came out, I was one of the top 100 players in America, blue chip, all-American. It was between Nebraska and OU. Texas asked me if they had a shot, and I told Fred Akers no. He appreciated my honesty.”
He signed with OU and at 6-3, 285, became a mainstay on the offensive line. Injured in his initial year, Pope redshirted and spent five years at Oklahoma, suffering through a couple of down years for the program before grabbing a starting spot on Barry Switzer’s squad that overcame a loss to Miami in the regular season on their way to a wishbone-fueled national title with a win in the Orange Bowl over Penn State. Pope was a second-team all-Big Eight selection that season.
“It was pretty neat. Really an interesting time,” Pope said. “In ’83 we opted out of a bowl game. We already had a game scheduled in Hawaii and instead of going to the Holiday Bowl, that trip became our bowl game. You know you’ve been to too many bowl games when you opt out of one. Only year we didn’t go to a bowl when I was there.”
“There’s a statistic on that 85 national championship team that not too many people know, but we graduated 100 percent of our seniors. Seven seniors, everybody got a degree.”
While in Norman, Pope was exposed to the Fellowship of Christian Athletes through its longtime leaders Chuck Bowman and John O’Dell. That relationship would help in his revival in later years. But first, he would have to travel down a dark path that almost ruined his life.
Undrafted by the NFL, Pope still had dreams of making a team. He was hopeful that a history of injuries wouldn’t derail his chances.
“I was one of those guys who was challenged with injuries before I even left OU,” said Pope. “I had five surgeries while I was there. But going to the league was something I wanted to do.”
Signing as a free agent with the then St. Louis Cardinals, Pope was excited about being a professional, but not as thrilled with his new digs.
“First year I arrived there it was a lot of fun,” Pope said. The difficult part is that OU had just gone through a renovation with workout and training facilities and we probably had the best in the country. OU’s facilities were much better than what the Cardinals had.”
Battling to become a member of his new team, Pope’s hopes were dashed by injuries early on. He suffered another injury in pre-season and was released from the Taxi squad midway through the season. Still, he had shown enough to Cardinals coaches that he was invited back to camp the following year, only to break his hand in an early pre-season game. By the time he was healed, NFL players had gone on strike and since he had signed a contract and had been paid up front, he couldn’t return as one of the so-called “scab” players who filled in while the regulars were sitting out.
After two years, Pope called it quits, deciding not to try and hang on to the dream that so many players chase.
“I had a short career, it was difficult overcoming injuries. It had nothing to do with my ability but rather my durability,” Pope said. “A lot of guys don’t want to let go, but I knew it was time. But I got to know a lot of great players during my time there. There were some really interesting characters on my team. Pat Tilley was a strong Christian, O.J. Anderson was there before he got traded to the Giants, Neil Lomax was the quarterback, Roy Greene, great receiver and a four-time Pro Bowl selection. Good times a lot of fun.”
Without football in his life, though, Pope began wandering through his life without any direction. He spent five years traveling around the country, on a downward spiral fueled by alcohol and drug abuse. He tried going through 12-step programs and rehab centers several times, but nothing worked for him. His epiphany came when he was arrested for possession.
“When I left pro ball in 1987, I had some nasty habits. Just got caught up in the wrong circle, the wrong group of people, and found myself using. I remember my grandmother telling me “You run with dogs, you wind up with fleas”. That’s where I was. My life was really challenged,” Pope said. “One day, I was getting ready to face a prison term because of alcohol and drugs. I told the Lord if he would deliver me that I would help deliver the message. October 19, 1992 is the last time I had any alcohol or drugs.”
“At that point, that was a valley. When I got to that place in my life, everything and everybody was gone and my life was being threatened by the use of drugs, I surrendered to what I knew was right and God came in and delivered me, set me free from drugs and alcohol. Not long after that, I began to carry the Gospel to share that hope of recovery no matter what level of human life you had gone to. I’m a living testimony that there’s nothing too hard for God. That’s what I live by now and I work with my kids and tell them that dreams can come true. Anything is possible in their lives.”
Thinking back to 1984 and his experiences with FCA on the OU campus, Pope reached out to his former mentors and began to put his life back together. He began speaking to children on the evils of alcohol and drugs, and eventually became involved with the Abundant Life Family Worship Center in Oklahoma City, where he became an assistant pastor, director of the church’s men’s center and a member of the church Board of Trustees.
“I live life the way I played ball – as hard as I can to hold on to it,” said Pope. “I speak as often as I can to share that good news in high schools and colleges. I’ve done a lot of neat stuff in my life since that time, sharing my recovery.”
“When I look back on it sometimes, I say “Wow”. Would I do it again? Well I probably wouldn’t want to go down the road I went with alcohol and drug abuse, but I’d be afraid to miss anything for this relationship that I have right now with God. When you see me now, you see someone whose renewed and regenerated in his heart and mind. My life is totally converted. There’s no residue left behind.”
Standing by Pope’s side has been his wife, Floritta, also an evangelist working with single mothers and youth, who grew up in Holdenville and was Pope’s high school sweetheart. They have four daughters, including Jhavonne, who was a sprinter at Texas Tech and OU. Along with her sisters, Erica, Hannah and Rebekah, they form a singing group that performs at church functions.
“My four daughters have tremendous voices and are sharing them to praise God,” Pope said. “I have been truly blessed in my life.”
Pope now spends his days working to provide hope and assistance to his community and warning youngsters about the danger of associating with the wrong crowd. He’s not sure his status as a former OU player has that much of an impact on the groups he speaks to but it is part of his life, just as the dark days that led him to a spiritual revival.
“I played ball in ’85 and it was the Big Eight then. Most of the kids I talk to now weren’t even born when I was playing ball,” said Pope. “But I really enjoy working with them. I really think that’s what God is calling me to do.”
Several years ago, I was commissioned to write profiles on a number of players for inclusion in a book on the 50 Greatest Players in Oklahoma Football History. Here is the story on Greg Pruitt, the first great wishbone halfback.
The football fortunes of Greg Pruitt may have been determined by a phone call to his mother during his sophomore season at Oklahoma.
Pruitt had been a starting wide receiver at the beginning of the 1970 season, but when OU made the decision to change to the wishbone prior to the Texas game, he suddenly became a backup at running back, because there was now only one wide receiver on the field. Pruitt had worked hard to gain a first team spot as a receiver and the change had him thinking about leaving the Sooners – until he phoned home.
“My mother would usually rant and rave if you said something that didn’t make sense”, said Pruitt. “But when I told her I was thinking about transferring, she just calmly asked me if I had a pencil and paper.”
When Pruitt told her he did, she told him to write down a phone number. It was in the 713 area code, the area of Houston where Pruitt grew up.
“I asked her whose number it was and she told me it was my uncle,” remembers Pruitt. “She said ‘I didn’t raise any quitters and if you can’t stay with him, you’d better find someplace to go, because you can’t stay here when you come home’.”
Pruitt quickly decided to reconsider and remain at OU. Three weeks later, starting halfback Everett Marshall was injured against Iowa State, Pruitt took over his spot and never looked back, becoming a two-time All-American and a member of the College Football Hall of Fame in 1999.
With a sprinter’s speed and the ability to make tacklers miss, it was a wise decision to get the ball in Pruitt’s hands in the open field. And the wishbone offense accomplished that.
“What intrigued me about the wishbone is that if you wrote it down on a piece of paper, it looked easy to defend”, said Pruitt. “But the mistake people made is that if you take a quarterback, fullback and halfbacks that are running 4.4. and 4.5, the wishbone is very difficult to stop. Most people realized that too late.”
“What really made it work for running backs is that you really didn’t need a lot of carries to make a lot of yards. Even though we had what amounted to four runners in the game, it reduced the number of carries they needed because we were ripping off big gains once you broke the line of scrimmage. You don’t see many guys complain about how much they’re getting the ball if you’re able to make 125 to 150 yards a game.”
Early in the 1971 season, Pruitt gained notoriety for a t-shirt that he began sporting that said “Hello” on the front and “Goodbye” on the back. Flashy and fun loving, most people assumed Pruitt had come up with the idea himself as a way to taunt opponents. But he claims it was actually the young offensive coordinator, Barry Switzer, who originated the idea.
“Coach Switzer gave me the shirt the week prior to the USC game. On my way to the dorm, some reporters with cameras stopped me and took a picture of the shirt. I’m sure Switzer set that up,” laughed Pruitt. “In the locker room, he told the team about the shirt and said the story would be on the Trojans bulletin board the next day. He said it better be hello and goodbye on Saturday – and it was.”
The Sooners knocked off #1 ranked USC 33-20 in Norman, and after that, Pruitt wore the t-shirt under his shoulder pads from then on.
During the 1971 season, Pruitt rushed for 294 yards against Kansas State, still a school record. He finished with 1,665 yards that season, averaging an NCAA record 9.1 yards per carry and finished third in the Heisman Trophy balloting, as Auburn quarterback Pat Sullivan won. Pruitt then got a measure of satisfaction as the Sooners beat Auburn, 40-22 in the Sugar Bowl.
In 1972, Pruitt seemed destined for another 1,000-yard season and a shot at the Heisman, but he was injured late in the year and finished with 938. Still, he finished second in the Heisman voting to Nebraska’s Johnny Rodgers and was named the Player of the Year by the Pigskin Club of Washington, D.C.
“Individually, what I accomplished as a player, I did it against the best teams in the best conference at the time and against teams that were ranked in the top five”, Pruitt said. “We had great talent and we were beating a lot of people badly, but we knew in big games we felt the pressure to perform. We knew we couldn’t just show up and win.”
Despite his collegiate acclaim, Pruitt wasn’t taken until the second round of the NFL draft by the Cleveland Browns. Ironically, he made the team as a kick returner – a job he was “fired” from at OU after he fumbled the first punt he attempted to return in a game against Texas. In fact, he made the Pro Bowl as a kick returner his first two seasons in the NFL before finally becoming the featured back in 1975.
For three straight seasons, Pruitt rushed for 1,000 yards and also served as a dangerous receiver out of the backfield. Two more Pro Bowl seasons came in 1976 and 1977, as he became one of the most popular players in Cleveland history. He eventually became a third-down pass catching specialist before being traded to the Raiders in 1982, reviving his career as a punt returner with another Pro Bowl season in 1983 and winning a Super Bowl championship before finishing his NFL career in 1984. In 12 seasons, he had amassed over 13,000 all-purpose yards.
“I think my style prolonged my career, because I never let people have good shots at me”, said Pruitt. “I didn’t have to take many hard hits. And the ability to adapt that he developed at OU also helped extend his value in the pros “I think at first, in college, and later in the pros, I just wanted the opportunity to handle the football. How I got it didn’t matter, whether it was running or catching a pass or running back kicks. “
Pruitt has returned to Ohio, running a residential construction firm that specializes in home inspections and repair for real estate transactions, and he keeps a close connection with the Cleveland franchise. He travels to road games with the Brown Backers organization, a fan club of the team, and he has participated in everything from salmon fishing to turkey hunting with them. For Pruitt, remembering fans’ loyalty is part of the obligation for a star athlete, even after retirement.
“I’ve always said I would have been anything without the fans”, said Pruitt. “I played in front of the greatest pro fans in the world in Cleveland and I played in front of the greatest college fans at OU. It made a difference in my career. I didn’t get to meet all of those people when I was playing, but now when I get to speak at the Brown Backers events, I truly enjoy it.”
Another thing Pruitt still enjoys is following the Sooners. His brother still lives in Choctaw and Pruitt attended two OU games last season. When Bob Stoops was hired to coach the Sooners, Pruitt drove from Houston to Norman to meet the new coach. And he immediately saw something familiar in the current Sooners leader.
“He is closest to what Barry (Switzer) could do. He has charisma, he can get players fired up, the fans love him and he can be a friend to the players but not get too close. I like him”, Pruitt said. “But I guess I refuse to believe I’ve gotten that old, because he doesn’t look old enough to be the coach.”
FIVE QUESTIONS WITH GREG PRUITT
What was your most memorable moment as a Sooner?
The first time I played against Texas in the Cotton Bowl in 1970. One side red, one side orange, split right down the middle. I still remember the preparation, the buildup, and the intense practices. Our expectations were not high that first time, but even though it was overwhelming and intimidating, we were prepared. Of course, the next two years had a much more satisfying experience, but the first time on that field was really electrifying.
What was the lowest point during your career as a Sooner?
Losing the 1971 Game of the Century to Nebraska. Despite losing just one game all season, we lost at the wrong time. It’s interesting that the game has become recognized as one of the greatest of all-time and every time I turn on ESPN Classic they’re playing it over and over.
Which former teammate means the most to you today?
Kenith Pope. We were thrown together as roommates back then, and we have stayed in touch and remain good friends. I talk to him quite a bit. Really, there were a lot of great friends on those teams, but he is the one I’m closest to.
Who was the best teammate you played with as a Sooner? What made him so good?
There were so many good ones, but offensively, it had to be Joe Washington. He was just a freshman when I was a senior, but we were roommates on the road. It was interesting to see the greatness in another player, how he prepared and performed. He understood the game and paid attention to how the momentum of a game was going.
What attribute did you learn while playing at OU that made a difference in your life after leaving the university, whether it is as a pro athlete, in the business world, or just everyday living?
The difference in being good and great. That you couldn’t just rely on natural ability. You were taught a great work ethic that carries on to everything you do in life.
Steve Williams was one of the most amazing characters in OU sports and professional wrestling history. What you saw in the ring as Dr. Death was pretty much what you saw outside the ring with Steve Williams. In fact, at some point, Steve Williams basically ceased to exist and there was only Dr. Death.
His collegiate exploits were legendary and he may have been most well known in college for a wrestling match that he lost at Gallagher Iba arena in the Bedlam dual, helping make a name for an obscure 400-lb heavyweight named Mitch Shelton and almost tearing the roof off the building in the Cowboy fans’ post match celebration.
Williams turned pro as a wrestler while he was still playing football at OU, and became a revered and reviled figure around the world, especially in Japan. He battled throat cancer, helped current WWE star and former OU football player/wrestler Jake Hager (Jack Swagger) get started, and found God.
I spoke to Dr. Death about his trials and tribulations in 2008. Sadly, just a year later, the cancer returned and he died in a Denver hospital in December 2009.
He came to Oklahoma already in possession of one of the most colorful nicknames in the history of sports and he left with a fistful of championship rings. But that was just the start of the story of the man they call “Dr. Death”. As a professional wrestler, former Sooner football player and wrestler Steve “Dr. Death” Williams has fought many opponents around the world and he has conquered just about all of them including the most deadly of them all – cancer.
Williams arrived at OU in 1979 from Lakewood, Colorado, where he was a highly recruited lineman and a champion wrestler. He obtained his nickname after an incident in a high school wrestling match.
“I shattered my nose about a hundred times and they had to keep stopping the match, so the coach from another school gave me an old time hockey goalie mask and when I put that on, my coach yelled out “Dr. Death”,” said Williams. “Reporters from the newspaper picked it up. I wasn’t like “Stone Cold” Steve Austin (whose real name also happens to be Steve Williams) or the “The Rock” who got a nickname for being an entertainer; I got a nickname for being a tough guy on the mat.”
“I didn’t have to give Vince McMahon a big house because he made up the name. I already had the name, I did all my bookings and I was my own agent, so it came out really well”
And that nickname gradually became the only name Williams knows. Most of his fans probably don’t know his real name and even he doesn’t recognize it most of the time.
“It’s not Steve Williams. When people say Steve, I don’t even hear that word anymore, it’s usually “Doc” or “Dr. Death” and I think they usually remember the name “Dr. Death”,” said Williams. “There are always some wanna be’s that came out of there like (Brian) Bosworth who wanted to be a Dr. Death. I was already there and conquered the Sooner football field and I think they remember me as the tough guy who came in there and conquered amateur wrestling and football and the first guy who could become a professional wrestler when he’s had one more year of football left. I don’t think anybody has ever accomplished that.”
At OU, he lettered four times in football for the Sooners as an offensive lineman, making all-Big Eight in his senior season.
But it was on the wrestling mat where he had the biggest impact, becoming only one of ten four time All-American’s in Oklahoma history and creating some legendary moments, especially during the Bedlam Duals. Williams best national finish was a second place showing at the NCAA tournament in 1981.
Following his collegiate career, Williams tried his hand at football in the USFL, but wound up in professional wrestling, working for another former Sooner, Cowboy Bill Watts, in Mid South Wrestling, which later became the Universal Wrestling Federation.
“Dr. Death” captured the UWF World Heavyweight Title in 1986 and later held the National Wrestling Alliance World Tag Team Championship.
Legal troubles sidetracked his career in the late 1980s, but Dr. Death emerged as a marquee performer in Japan after being seen wrestling the legendary Antonio Inoki in a sold-out match in Texas.
“I was one of the all time culprits in Japan. Every time I went over for a tour, they put my head on a cartoon figure of Godzilla and they would say “Godzilla’s back” and it was kind of neat,” said Williams. “I spent 18 years over there. I guess you can call me half-Japanese. I know how to speak it and eat it; I take my shoes off when I come through the door. I eat with chopsticks. I really enjoyed Japan. It was a wonderful thing.”
“I wrestled Antonio Inoki, he was a senator over there. In fact he was the one who got the Japanese prisoners out of Iraq. I wrestled him in Dallas-Ft Worth in front of probably 40,000 people and I got a deal out of that. It wasn’t a contract, it was a handshake. That’s probably why I stayed in Japan, because every contract I had in the United States has been broken and over there, I had a handshake and my money was sitting in the bank every time I got there.”
Williams bounced back and forth between Japan and the U.S. for the next several years, and even wrestled in one of the first professional events in China.
Still a major attraction in his ‘40s, “Dr. Death” ran into the toughest opponent of his career in 2003 when he was diagnosed with throat cancer. An operation was performed that affected his vocal chords and at the time, doctors gave him six months to live. But Williams battled back and has been cancer-free for the last three years.
The incident had a profound effect on Williams’ life. Always known as a wild man and a party animal from his days at OU through his professional wrestling career, “Dr. Death” has changed his ways and is now giving his testimony to groups around the country. With his life in order, Williams is now using his influence to talk to the next generation of wrestlers. He will be giving the prayer at the Fellowship of Christian Athletes breakfast on the opening day of the NCAA Championships in St. Louis and he plans to continue talking about his recovery.
“We have an awesome God. He is just so wonderful. I had throat cancer and they gave me six months to live and as of today, man, I’m three years cancer-free,” said Williams. “I’m wrestling, I’m out in churches ministering. I wrote a book “How Dr. Death Became Dr. Life” and I’m going around the world telling people about how awesome God is. Everybody should get their life right with Him.”
“He gave me a second chance. I do my testimony. I tell a lot of people I used to do it my way because I was so big and awesome and I was on top of the hill and nobody could knock me down. I did it like Ole’ Blue Eyes, Frank Sinatra’s song. I did it my way. In September ’03, I got knocked down to my knees from an opponent named cancer and I knew I couldn’t do it on my own. I asked God into my life and now we’ve become a tag team. He’s conquered cancer for me and now I’m gonna talk to the world telling them how awesome our God is.”
“Dr. Death” has lived in Louisiana for a number of years, but now he is making regular visits to Oklahoma through his association with a local company involved in wrestling, and he was recently honored by the OU wrestling team for his contribution to the Sooner program.
“It was kind of neat that I got to come and be honored by the team and the OU fans, and then come back and see Danny Hodge, Frankie DeAngelis, and some of the older guys, it was really neat,” said Williams. “I hadn’t seen a lot of wrestling matches lately and when I’ve been back in Oklahoma the last month and got to sit down and watch a dual, memories came back like the good old days. The fans that were there supporting it made me feel good and I kinda wish I was an assistant coach for them. I could help them out, you know?”
One thing Williams would like to see is increased support for wrestling in Oklahoma. He is disappointed by the lack of fans at the Sooners matches.
“I never wrestled at the Field House. We were filling them up so big, we always had them at the Lloyd Noble,” Williams said. “I feel sorry for Coach Jack.(Spates). I think wrestling should still be on a pedestal. A lot of people ought to come out and support OU. I went to the Ford Center and watched them wrestle and they beat Arizona State and I thought that was a great match. There are some great wrestlers on that team that have the ability to be NCAA champions and all-Americans”
“I don’t think people realize what wrestling is all about. They don’t know the rules. I think if somebody gets out there and explains the techniques and the point system, people could understand it better. It’s like boxing and anything else. They like to see the big guys go at it. I don’t think people understand the sport and if they understood it better, I think they’d come out and watch.”
When it comes to his days at Oklahoma, Williams has nothing but fond memories of being a Sooner and is still close to his coaches in both football and wrestling.
“Being a football player that helped me with wrestling and wrestling helped me with football. What great coaches I played for – Barry Switzer and Stan Abel – you couldn’t have asked for anything better than that,” said Williams. “Those two guys were like fathers to me. They came to see me in the hospital when I was dying and couldn’t speak, and they spent six hours with me. And I realized that was a turnaround for me. I speak to Barry a lot and Stan.”
“I think it was a blessing to go to Oklahoma and kids, if they ever get a chance, they ought to come to Oklahoma and play. In fact, I have nine rings – three Orange Bowl, one Fiesta Bowl, one Sun Bowl, two Big Eight in wrestling, two Big Eight in football. Those are my pride and joy.”