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.”
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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 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”
When my wife-to-be asked me if there would be anything to conflict with an April 2, 1988 wedding date, I confidently said “No, because neither OU or OSU will be in the Final Four.” After all, it hadn’t happened in 40 years and up until December, there was no indication it would happen that season.
In January, I started sweating because OU went on a tear like no other – one that would eventually take them to the top of the college basketball rankings.
In late March, I had to sheepishly admit to my audience that I would not be going to Kansas City for the NCAA Championship because I was getting married that weekend.
Half of the invited guests couldn’t make it because they were at the semifinal game against Arizona. And on Monday night, when Oklahoma and Kansas were meeting in the finals, it was 3 a.m. Tuesday in London, where I was standing by a hotel window straining to hear the game from Armed Forces Radio in Germany on my Sony Walkman. Don’t worry, I had a set of headsets for my wife, too.
I did tape the game (yes, we had VCR’s back then) but I never watched it all the way through because it would have been too painful. There was no way the Sooners could lose – but they did – and that loss has haunted the program ever since.
Still, it was a magical season except for one 20 minute stretch. Let’s relive it with former Sooner coach Billy Tubbs.
When basketball practice started for the 1987-1988 team at the University of Oklahoma, no one outside the program was expecting the Sooners to do much. Despite the fact that they had gone to the NCAA Sweet Sixteen the previous year, OU was unranked to start the season.
Most of the national skepticism centered on the fact that the Sooners had lost three four year starters – Choo Kennedy, David Johnson and Tim McCallister – from the previous team. On campus, the feeling was different – at least for a couple of underclassmen who had contributed little the previous year. They walked into Coach Billy Tubbs office and made a bold prediction.
“Stacy King and Tony Martin, who weren’t starters the previous season came in during the summer and told me “Coach, we’re going to the Final Four because we can play defense the way you want us to play defense”, said Tubbs. “And it turns out that they were right. It was our defense that really put us over the top.”
It may sound funny mentioning defense and Tubbs’ teams in the same breath if you’re one of those people who only looked at the final scores during the era. Oklahoma was known for their run and gun style that produced 20 games of 100+ points that season. But it was the Sooners full court pressure that forced turnovers and provided easy baskets, allowing them to produce points in bunches.
Tubbs knew he had something special going after a ferocious practice early in the season at the old OU Field House. “It was only the sixth or seventh workout we had, but we had already identified our starting lineup” said Tubbs. “You usually don’t have it worked out that quick. Most of the time, you’re experimenting with the lineup right up until conference starts in January. But this group asserted themselves early.”
Forward Harvey Grant and guard Ricky Grace were the returning starters. King began to blossom as an inside offensive thread after two mediocre seasons and he joined junior college transfer Mookie Blaylock and senior squad man Dave Sieger to round out the starting five.
“We didn’t go into the season ranked,” Tubbs said. ” We started off wearing everybody out. We made the rankings pretty quick.”
The Sooners ripped off 14 straight wins to start the season, including a 152-point outing against Centenary, 151 vs. Dayton and 144 on Oral Roberts. After the Sooners routed Oklahoma State, 108-80, to open Big Eight play, Cowboys coach Leonard Hamilton proclaimed them a Final Four-type team.
That praise must have temporarily gone to the players heads, because they promptly laid a couple of eggs, losing to a mediocre LSU team in New Orleans and then dropping a conference game at Kansas State, scoring a season-low 62 points.
It would be their only two-game losing streak of the year and once they shook it off, OU ran off another dozen wins in a row. They followed the pair of losses with a 20-point road win at Colorado, prompting Buffs coach Tom Miller to say that the preceding losses had served to wake a sleeping giant.
The Sooners reaffirmed their national status with a thrilling three-point home win over a talented Pittsburgh team that featured rebounding demon Jerome Lane and talented forward Charles Smith. Then it was a string of league wins, including a pair over Kansas, and one final non-conference rout of New Mexico before the Sooners would lose another game, an overtime thriller at Missouri.
All along the way, for the most part it was an iron-man crew that the Sooners put on the court. The starting five averaged over 35 minutes per game, with Terrence Mullins, Martin and Andre Wiley getting most of the remaining minutes.
“We probably had the best players in college basketball who never got to play,” said Tubbs. “Mullins, Martin and Wiley all made some important plays for us, and Mike Bell was an outstanding player. Tyrone Jones could play as well. But our starters were in such good shape that they never came out and they didn’t want to.”
Top among those was Sieger, a sleepy-looking honor student from California who didn’t seem to fit with the high-flying athletes that surrounded him. But his looks were deceiving. He usually drew the defensive assignment on the opponent’s best offensive player and he was in Marine Corps-type shape.
“Dave was really the glue that held that team together,” said Tubbs. “He didn’t say a lot, but he was a tremendous defender and he became very proficient in hitting the three point shot. And he was in the best shape of any player I’ve ever had. He could run the court all day.”
Blaylock was another player that let his on court work do the talking. Shy and reclusive off the court, the Midland, TX Juco transfer was a silent assassin on the hardwood, leading the NCAA in steals with a quick pair of hands and a fearless defensive style.
Following the late season road loss to Missouri, the Sooners breezed through the Big Eight Tournament, getting revenge over the Tigers in the semi-finals. They opened NCAA Tournament play with four consecutive double-digit wins over UT-Chattanooga, Auburn, Louisville and Villanova, sending an Oklahoma team to the Final Four for the first time in almost 40 years and only the second time in school history.
In spite of all they had accomplished during the season and in the tournament, most so-called experts were picking fellow number one seed Arizona Wildcats to prevent OU from reaching the title game. With Sean Elliot, Steve Kerr and Anthony Cook, Arizona had just eliminated number two seed North Carolina by 18 points.
But on this night, Oklahoma controlled Lute Olson’s team, grabbing a 12-point halftime lead and never trailing the rest of the way en route to an 86-78 win. King, who had become the OU scoring star with a tournament leading average of 28.5 points and 9.8 rebounds a game, ran into foul trouble in the game, but Wiley came in to supply 11 points and four boards in relief.
What was to happen next prevented the Sooners fairy tale from having a happy ending. Expecting to see Duke in the finals, OU instead got a Kansas team that had barely (and some say unfairly) made the NCAA field and then improbably made it all the way to the championship game. The finals were in Kansas’ home away from home, Kansas City’s Kemper Arena, and it was the third time OU had faced the Jayhawks after taking a pair of eight point wins from them in the regular season.
Tubbs got a preview of what the Sooners could expect when they arrived in Kansas City for the Final Four earlier in the week.
“Of course, the first practice for all the teams in the Final Four is open to the public. And there were 13,500 fans for our practice, 99 per cent of them Kansas fans, and they booed us when we ran out to start our workout,” said Tubbs. “I’m sure that is the first time that a Final Four team has been booed at a practice, and it’s probably the only time it’s ever happened.”
With Jayhawks fans buying up the bulk of Kemper Arena tickets, the Sooners found themselves facing a hostile environment in reaching college basketball’s greatest stage. The two teams put on what is still considered by many to be the greatest single half of basketball in NCAA championship history, battling to a 50-50 tie at the half. Kansas grabbed the Cinderella slipper, stunning the Sooners, 83-79, to grab the title.
Still, it was OU’s best season ever, a 35-4 record and their highest finish to date in the NCAA tournament. In one poll listing the top 10 teams since the NCAA Tournament expanded to 64 participants, the 1987-88 OU team is included – the “oldest” team listed and one of only two to make the list that didn’t capture the championship.
All of the starters gained professional success in their post-Sooner careers. Four of the five were drafted by the NBA. King, Grant and Blaylock were first-round draft picks and all played a number of years in the league, Grace was picked in the third round by Utah but didn’t stick. Sieger decided not to attend any post season tryout camps and wasn’t drafted but he did tryout for the Olympic team but didn’t make it.
After winning three championship rings with Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls, King is a now broadcaster for the team, Grant spent 11 years in the league and became a college and NBA coach after his playing career ended. He currently has sons playing collegiately at Syracuse and Notre Dame.
Grace moved to Australia, where he was the top guard in the professional league there for many years and was named to the Australian Basketball Hall of Fame. He became an Australian citizen, played for their Olympic team, and is now the director for a sports academy that provides opportunities for indigenous communities in Western Australia.
Sieger opted not pursue pro basketball after the Olympic trials, instead going to graduate school, eventually attaining his PhD in Engineering. He was a college professor for a number of years.
The saddest postscript belongs to Blaylock. After a 13-year NBA career in which he was named to the All-Defensive team twice, Blaylock settled in Atlanta, where he had spent the bulk of his playing days. In 2013, he was involved in a head-on crash that left him on life support for a time, and led to the death of the other driver. Just last month, charges against Blaylock were upgraded to vehicular homicide in the first degree and he is currently out of jail on $250,000 bond.
As the years go by, it is harder and harder to impress on today’s college basketball fans just how dominant that Oklahoma team was and how shocking it was for them to lose. It is unlikely that we will ever see a starting five in this state as talented as that squad.