I wrote Sunday about Wayman Tisdale ranking with Bob Kurland as the athletes in state history who have most impacted their sport. I figured basketball players naturally impact their teams and games and sports cultures more than do football players, since they have an undeniable bigger influence on games, since they play virtually full games and play sports that have much fewer competitors.
But I didn’t spend a lot of time considering other sports. After some emails and some radio phone calls that made me think a lot more, I stand by Tisdale and Kurland. But there are a lot of athletes that deserve discussion.
First off, remember that this is in no way a list of the greatest athletes. This is a list of athletes who have had the greatest impact. What’s the difference? Here’s an example. I think clearly Troy Aikman is one of the greatest athletes in Oklahoma history. And if you want to think outside the box, consider world champion boxer Sean O’Grady, too. Aikman and O’Grady were sensational athletes; among the best in state history. But what was their influence, their impact, on the Oklahoma sports landscape? I don’t see how it was anything out of the ordinary.
Second, coaches don’t count. Coaches like Henry Iba and Bud Wilkinson and Bertha Frank Teague are a separate list. And neither does coaching count. If John Smith wants on this list, it’s by his wrestling, not his coaching.
Third, if someone didn’t make this list, it doesn’t mean they didn’t make an impact. It’s just that I don’t know what it is. I had several people mention Jim Thorpe, who clearly is the greatest athlete in Oklahoma — and maybe American — history. But did Thorpe change the sports landscape in our state? Maybe he did, but I’m not aware of it. He left Oklahoma at a young age (before high school age) to attend Haskell Indian School in Lawrence, Kan.; went to Carlisle, an Indian boarding school in Pennsylvania; won Olympic gold in 1912 in the decathlon and heptathlon; and then began a professional sports career that centered in Canton, Ohio (NFL) , and New York (major league baseball). What is Thorpe’s Oklahoma impact? State historians and officials are naturally proud of Thorpe and have honored him greatly, with everything from the Jim Thorpe Award in college football to the great rehab center that is part of Integris Health to the state office building that bears his name and sits next to the capitol. But how did he change Oklahoma sports? Some have said Thorpe was a great example to young Indians, but while that might be true in recent years, I don’t see where he was a well-known role model in the 1910s or 1920s or 1930s. Maybe he his impact was great; I just don’t know what it is.
Also, this is not a popularity contest. Joe Washington and Bryant Reeves were as beloved as any athletes ever, but unless someone knows of entire villages where the kids wear silver shoes or a buzzcut, I’m not sure their impact was huge.
Finally, this is an Oklahoma list. It’s not based on how Oklahomans impacted national or world sports. It’s how Oklahomans impacted Oklahoma sports. For instance, the late wrestler Dave Schultz had a huge impact on international wrestling. He is revered in Russia. But Schultz’s impact in Oklahoma was no greater than any other great wrestler, so he’s not on the list.
Clearly, more recent athletes have a great chance at impact, because of the media, which frankly is a part of the Thorpe discussion. That doesn’t preclude old-timers from making the list — Kurland’s final Oklahoma A&M season was 1946 — but it most definitely helps to have played in later years, when television could spread the word more readily.
Anyway, here’s my list of the 15 most influential athletes in state history:
15. Hub Reed: Between Henry Iba’s glory years and the explosion of OU’s BillyBall, the state’s college basketball flag was waved by Abe Lemons and Oklahoma City University, which went to seven NCAA Tournaments from 1956 through 1973. Lemons was known for his long-range sharpshooters, but his best player ever was Reed, the center Lemons inherited when he took over the head coaching job in 1955. In Lemons’ first two years, with Reed at center, the Chiefs advanced to NCAA regional finals, a game shy of the Final Four, setting the foundation for his great OCU run.
14. Allie Reynolds: You want Indian role models, here’s one. SuperChief, they called Reynolds as the ace of the Yankee pitching staffs in the late ’40s and early ’50s. Reynolds later became involved in Oklahoma City’s Red Earth Festival. What everyone has said for two days about Thorpe’s impact on his Native people, actually is true about Reynolds.
13. Stacey Dales: The Courtney Paris years were splendid for OU women’s basketball in terms of attendance and fan fever and visibility. But Paris was at OU because of the success Dales helped establish. Dales was a flashy point guard, and those 2002 Sooners built the attendance base that helped Sherri Coale attract the Paris sisters. Dales, not Paris, is the player most responsible for the wild interest in women’s basketball.
12. Mat Hoffman: Us old codgers don’t want to think of all those bicycle tricks as sport. But thousands of Oklahoma kids were drawn to this revolutionary rider.
11. Byron Houston: This will be an unpopular choice, because of Houston’s legal scrapes for indecent exposure. But the presence of Houston at OSU in 1990, upon Eddie Sutton’s arrival, made for a stunning renaissance of Cowboy basketball. A virtually dormant program went to consecutive Sweet 16s the first two years under Sutton, primarily because Houston was around to dominate both ends of the court, and Sutton used that success to build a program that made two Final Fours in his first 14 years.
10. Barry Sanders: OSU’s only Heisman Trophy winner has been gone 21 years, but the Cowboys still get mileage out of Sanders’ legacy. For one thing, Sanders was so special, recruits still remember him. And that Heisman Trophy sitting in Heritage Hall is a reminder that all dreams are possible, even outside one of the elite football traditions.
9. Josh Heupel: Jack Mildren light. Bob Stoops seems too good of a coach not to have had success anyway. But finding a quarterback like this, a leader who could throw, ignited the Stoops era. After five years in the wilderness, a bowl game in Stoops’ first year, a national championship in his second. No way that occurs without Heupel. No way Stoops has the launching pad to win six Big 12 titles in nine years. Mildren and Heupel are clearly the two most valuable players in OU football history.
8. Chris Paul: If we do this list 10 years from now, it’s quite possible that CP3 will have been replaced by Kevin Durant, who could rank much higher. But for now, Paul’s influence can’t be overlooked. The NBA is here with the Thunder not just because the Hornets were here, but because the Hornets were wildly successful here. Maybe the Hornets would have prospered without Paul. Certainly Oklahoma fans scooped up tickets long before they had an idea how good was Paul or how much it was to watch him play. But Paul made the Hornets instantly competitive. He was Oklahoma’s first major-league star. He made the splash into the NBA a breeze.
7. Mickey Mantle: The Yankees were great before Mantle. The Yankees have been great after Mantle. But the Yankees were never as great as they were with Mantle, and that explains the Yanks’ amazing popularity in Oklahoma. With apologies to our nearest neighbors — the Rangers, Astros and Royals — the baseball teams with the most loyal fan followings in Oklahoma are the Cardinals and the Yankees. The Cards because of KMOX radio; the Yanks because of Mickey Mantle. The Commerce Comet remains an Oklahoma icon, even though he hasn’t lived here in 60 years. Fans were drawn to the Yankee pinstripes because of Mantle; they remain drawn.
6. Shannon Miller: Great gymnasts impact their sport more than most athletes. The Olympics every four years produce one or two champions that become cultural phenomenons, and that’s what Miller was in 1992, and when she returned to the Olympics in 1996, her influence soared. Little girls always are drawn to gymnastics because of the Olympics, but that allure was magnified in Oklahoma because of Shannon Miller.
5. Jim Shoulders: A five-time all-around champion in the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association, a seven-time world bull-riding champ and a four-time bareback world champion. Shoulders’ influence stems in large part to the bull-riding school he established. Aspiring cowboys for generations came to Henryetta to learn to rodeo like Shoulders, a cowboy’s cowboy.
4. Jack Mildren: It is no stretch to state that without Mildren, there would not have been a Barry Switzer Era at OU. There might have been a wishbone era, but there’s no reason to believe it would have been successful. OU’s move to the ‘bone in mid-season 1970 was wildly successful because Mildren proved to be a great optioneer, running the ‘bone as well as it’s ever been run, lifting Chuck Fairbanks to an NFL offer and Switzer to the head-coaching position.
3. Prentice Gautt: Oklahoma’s Jackie Robinson. Gautt broke the OU football color line in 1957, and the Sooners took more than a decade head start on the other national powers in Jim Crow Oklahoma. While Texas, Arkansas and the schools of the Southeastern Conference didn’t integrate until 1969 or later, OU began recruiting black athletes in the 1950s. Gautt withstood some unfortunate times but from all accounts displayed grace and honor and paved the way for what is now more than 50 years of great black athletes.
2. Bob Kurland: Without one of the sport’s early great centers, the great Henry Iba run at Oklahoma State would have far less successful. With Kurland, Iba’s Aggies won two NCAA titles, establishing the OSU tradition that carried on into the 1950s, when a young shooter named Eddie Sutton as recruited. It is not clear that Tisdale should rank ahead of Kurland.
1. Wayman Tisdale: For the reasons I gave Sunday. He basically made OU basketball a happening. College basketball in Oklahoma was still a sleepy sport in 1982. Nationally, it was huge, thanks to UCLA and the great teams that followed the Bruin dynasty. But college wrestling was as big as college basketball in 1982, including at OU, despite the Sooners’ 1979 Big Eight championship. Tisdale changed that, making OU hoops exciting and nationally competitive almost overnight, and both OU and Oklahoma State have been soaring in the sport ever since, with only a few hiccups.