Tag Archives: Bud Wilkinson

WHICH TEAM IS THE GREATEST IN OU FOOTBALL HISTORY?

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.

 

 

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Sooner Legend Tommy McDonald – An Inspiration For the Little Guy

Spend five minutes with Tommy McDonald and you almost expect the 79-year old Sooner legend to buckle his chin strap and jump back onto Owen Field, ready to score another touchdown.

The years have done nothing to diminish McDonald’s enthusiasm about life and about his days with the greatest teams of the Bud Wilkinson era at Oklahoma.  McDonald grew up in New Mexico, but says he’s an Oklahoma boy at heart.

“It was a great four years of my life from 1953 to 1956. I mean, I never lost a college football game.  Only 17 of us can ever say that,” said McDonald, referring to his teammates who went through their careers during the Sooners NCAA record 47-game win streak.  “I can still hear Boomer Sooner and that stadium- I had never seen a stadium that full.  The Oklahoma fans were marvelous. I can’t say enough about them.  They always tried to make you feel at home.”

Tommy McDonald battling the Texas Longhorns
Tommy McDonald battling the Texas Longhorns

As a 5’9, 147 lb. halfback growing up in a the tiny town of Roy, NM, McDonald never dreamed of playing in front of thousands of fans. But when his family moved to Albuquerque and McDonald became the focus of Highland High Schools single-wing offense, his fortunes began to change.  Where would have McDonald’s life have taken him if he had stayed in Roy?

“My little rear end would have been on a tractor planting wheat,” joked McDonald.

Instead he wound up being All-State in football, basketball and track, but was still largely ignored by major football schools until Oklahoma basketball coach Bruce Drake spotted him in an all-star game and recommended that Wilkinson give McDonald a look.  Meeting Wilkinson was all it took for McDonald to choose the Sooners.

“Bud just overwhelmed you with his personality,” said McDonald.  “As soon as I met him, something clicked that said ‘you’d better go here’.  He was just so far ahead of everybody else at that time.”

Legendary coach Bud Wilkinson provided inspiration for McDonald
Legendary coach Bud Wilkinson provided inspiration for McDonald

McDonald credits Wilkinson’s innovative Split-T offense, a great coaching staff and an abundance of talent for Oklahoma’s magnificent performance during his three varsity years.  But the dominance of those Sooner teams  created problems for players when it came time for post-season awards.  Rarely did starters play more than half the game, as Wilkinson often platooned his first and second teams in alternate quarters.

Still, McDonald was able to garner the prestigious Maxwell Award and The Sporting News Player of the Year and finished third in the Heisman following his senior season despite getting only 110 carries during the season.

McDonald led a star-studded cast at OU
McDonald led a star-studded cast at OU

Midway through that 1956, OU had just rolled to a 40-0 win over Notre Dame and had outscored their first five opponents 223-12, recording four shutouts.  But in their sixth game at Colorado, in front of a national television audience, the Sooners found themselves trailing the Buffaloes 19-6 at halftime.  That’s when the most memorable moment of McDonald’s career took place.

“Coach Wilkinson came into the locker room and told us ‘You don’t deserve to wear that jersey today.  You’re letting that jersey that jersey down’,” remembered McDonald.  “He went on to talk about all the players that had built the program and how we were letting them down as well.  I don’t think they had to open the door after he got through.  We just about ran through the wall trying to get back on the field and Colorado couldn’t do a thing in the second half.  We scored 21 straight points and wound up winning 27-19.”

Capping his collegiate career by grabbing MVP honors at the North-South All-Star game, Mc Donald caught the eye of the Philadelphia Eagles, who picked him in the third round of the NFL draft.  At the time, pro football hadn’t yet taken over the nation’s interest, and McDonald did have his teaching degree from OU to fall back on.  Even though the $12,000 the Eagles offered him doesn’t sound like much now, it beat the $2,200 a year he could have earned in the classroom.

McDonald converted from running back to wide receiver in Philadelphia
McDonald converted from running back to wide receiver in Philadelphia

Early in his rookie year, McDonald was lost in the shuffle at running back and was primarily a kickoff and punt returner. But an injury at wide receiver prompted Eagles coaches to give McDonald a look at wide receiver, and in a game against Washington, he scored two touchdowns. He went on to have a Hall of Fame career, played on the 1960 Philadelphia NFL championship team and spent 12 years in the league with the Eagles, Rams, Falcons, Cowboys and Browns.  In 1962, he was featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated as having football’s best hands.

McDonald was fearless a pro receiver
McDonald was fearless a pro receiver

In 1998, he was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, becoming only the second Sooner player to receive the honor, following Lee Roy Selmon’s induction just a few years earlier.  His appearance in Canton was memorable, as he stole the show by chest-bumping fellow inductees, and made an unforgettable speech.

“God Almighty, I feel good!” shouted McDonald, football’s smallest but definitely loudest Hall of Famer.

He cracked jokes about his wife and tossed his 25-pound bronze bust around like a football. He talked to his father and Ray Nitschke, whose ghosts he claimed were standing on stage with him.

McDonald's Pro Football Hall of Fame speech is still legendary today
McDonald’s Pro Football Hall of Fame speech is still legendary today

McDonald trumped that by pulling a radio out of his briefcase and dancing to disco music on the hallowed steps of the hall, live on national television.

Following his pro career, McDonald returned to the Philadelphia area, where his Tommy McDonald Enterprises supplied portraits to Heisman Trophy and Miss America winners, among others.

“I can’t praise God enough for letting me be in the right place at the right time,” McDonald said. “He kept me healthy.  I never got hurt in high school or college and missed only three games in the pros. And I can’t say enough about the people of Oklahoma.  They are awesome”

Tommy McDonald -- Photo by Bruce Adams