We were cruising through the clouds in a DC-3 on a November afternoon in 1957, and I can remember the pilot's announcement clear as day.� I was a 20-year-old sophomore center and linebacker on the Arkansas football team, and we had just lost to Don Meredith and SMU in Dallas and were flying back to Fayetteville. I picked up a SPORTS ILLUSTRATED that had the Oklahoma football team on the cover, with the headline Why Oklahoma Is Unbeatable. I was midway through the article when the pilot said, "I just wanted to give y'all this final score: Notre Dame 7, Oklahoma 0."� There was a bunch of noise for a few seconds, and then the plane was dead quiet. I mean, we were just stunned. The Sooners had won 47 games in a row, and it didn't seem possible that they would ever lose, let alone to an 18-point underdog.
There was a powerful mystique surrounding Oklahoma football. The Sooners' success had given the state its identity after the disastrous Dust Bowl years of the 1930s, which had left America with the impression—not entirely inaccurate—that Oklahoma had become a land of nothing but barren ground and poverty.
University of Oklahoma president George Cross decided the best way to boost the state's self-esteem would be to field a dominating football team. In 1946 he hired as football coach Jim Tatum, whose assistant Bud Wilkinson took over the next year. At the time the college game had an influx of players returning from World War II, guys who were 24 or 25, and NCAA eligibility requirements were so loose that they could move from school to school without any problems. As a result the Sooners were able to get a lot of great talent, and Bud started winning from the outset.
By the time I became the coach in 1973, Oklahoma was football. I tell people, "I didn't create the monster. George Cross and Bud Wilkinson did." My job was to feed the monster.
One challenge in feeding a monster, of course, is keeping him satisfied. Sooners fans' expectations are amazingly high. In 1975, after we had a 37-game undefeated streak snapped by Kansas, I got a letter I'll never forget from a fan in Tulsa. "Coach, it's time to change the offense," he wrote. "You need to do something other than the wishbone, because people have caught up to what you're doing."
I wrote back, "Hey, did you happen to notice what offense the other team ran that day?" Kansas, with Nolan Cromwell, had beaten us by running the wishbone! The only difference was that we'd kept fumbling.
The best way to keep OU fans happy is simple: Beat Texas. Sure, coaches will always say it's just one game out of many, but that's a bunch of bull. Ask the Longhorns' Mack Brown if it's just another game on the schedule, now that he's lost four in a row.
Even more than the Nebraska rivalry, which has been ruined by the Big 12's two-division format (the two schools can now go two seasons without playing each other), the Red River Shootout is the game. Part of that is the old Okie inferiority complex, something everyone in this state feels at one time or another; there's no better cure than kicking Texas's butt. Another factor is that some of our fans reside in enemy territory. Let me put it this way: I don't think a Texas grad has ever come north of the Red River to make a living, but a whole lot of Oklahoma grads have gone south.
At 66 I still celebrate the Sooners' success and bleed for them when they lose. My wife, Becky, and I just moved into a house that's about 500 yards from their practice field. From my porch Tiger Woods could hit driver and three-wood and be right at the 50-yard line. As Bud Wilkinson did for me, I'm trying to be as supportive as I can of Bob Stoops, who has made Oklahoma dominant again. The scary thing about these Sooners is that they're only going to get better. Great players are coming from all over the country to be a part of this, and the program is on an incline.
It's Bob Stoops's monster to feed now, and it's a whole lot of fun to watch.