In the Tuesday Oklahoman and on the newsok.com website, we ran a photo of Jack Mitchell accompanying the story of his death Monday. He’s wearing one of those old leather helmets, grinning wide and looking goofy.
Don’t buy it. Don’t buy it for a second. That wasn’t the real Jack Mitchell. Jack Mitchell was one of the most dashing figures in Oklahoma football history.
When I heard Mitchell died, I called two people, Barry Switzer and Claude Arnold. Switzer was recruited by Mitchell to the University of Arkansas in 1956. Arnold was a backup quarterback at OU in 1948, when Mitchell was a Sooner all-American.
Two men who had long-ago, but vastly different, experiences with Mitchell. Yet both arrived at the same conclusion.
Mitchell was dashing.
We don’t use that word much anymore. More befitting a an old-Hollywood movie star. Clark Gable or Tyrone Power or someone. But that’s what Mitchell seemed to be.
Here’s what Switzer said: “Very handsome, good-looking. Married a Miss Oklahoma, a very gorgeous blond. She’d come to practice…
“I liked Jack. He could get a team ready to play … he’d sit in the back of the bus and chew tobacco, spit it out the window.
“He had jet-black, wavy hair. He’d run his hands through it. Very animated. I really liked him. He was a motivating coach. Very charismatic.”
Here’s what Arnold had to say: “Jack was a great personality and a great runner. He was great for the split-T. We didn’t throw hardly at all, but his personality was just dynamite. General Jack, we called him. He had everybody in the palm of his hand.
“Jack was such a leader. Such a personality. Great personality.”
Mitchell and Bud Wilkinson were an early-day Jack Mildren and Barry Switzer. Mitchell, recruited by Jim Tatum off an Arkansas City, Kan., train station, played for Tatum in 1946, then was Wilkinson’s quarterback for two seasons. He was OU’s first option QB, a master at the famed split-T, with innovations like the pitch to the trailing halfback and the “spinner,” basically the early counter play.
In Jeff Snook’s What It Means To Be a Sooner, Mitchell detailed some of his life. He was born and raised in Ark City, but his parents divorced and his mother came to OU to pursue a master’s degree; Mitchell lived in the girls dorm and would crawl under the fence at Owen Field to watch the Sooners play football.
Mitchell moved back to Ark City with his mother, who was the city’s librarian, and remembers winning races through the busy streets on Saturday, a sign of speed and agility that was on display a few years later on college gridirons.
Mitchell had a little Forrest Gump to him. He was dianosed with rheumatic fever as a boy and a heart valve problem. He was ordered to bed for six weeks and told he never could be active again. When he came off the bed, naturally, he barely could walk. But Mitchell started walking, then jogging and finally the doctors told him the valve was healing. Finally, he got clearance to play football.
Mitchell became an Ark City star and was recruited by Texas U. coaching legend Dana X. Bible. He went to Texas in 1941; Mitchell’s grandfather told him to join the ROTC, but Mitchell signed up for the Army Air Corps, because he wanted to fly. Alas, Mitchell was color-blind, which ended his pilot hopes. Almost 70 years later, Switzer still would laugh at some of Mitchell’s wardrobe selections, how mismatched they were.
Anyway, Mitchell wanted to switch to the infantry, but according to What It Means To Be a Sooner, a captain told him, “Listen Jack, you have a lot of potential in college athletics, and you are a smart guy … you have a real future. I am not going to sign off on this and send you to the infantry to get your ass shot off.”
Mitchell won that argument and indeed joined the artillery and eventually went to war. “Fortunately, I didn’t get my ass shot off,” he said.
Mitchell returned home in March 1946, wanting to go to school. OU historian Harold Keith wrote in 47 Straightthat Tatum was waiting for Mitchell at the Ark City train depot when Mitchell returned and talked him into attending OU’s spring practice. Mitchell figured he would attend both OU and Texas spring workouts, then decide where he belonged.
That was the famous spring in which Tatum brought in literally hundreds of players. Tatum remembers the 300 or so players forming a circle that “was so damn big, you could hardly see the other side of it.”
Mitchell was playing halfback, but Wilkinson came over after a week and asked him to move to quarterback, explaining the split-T’s prime ballcarrier was the QB. “I never made it back to Texas,” Mitchell said.
Mitchell said that Missouri coach Don Faurot, for whom Wilkinson coached in war-time football, always claimed to have invented the option. But Mitchell says different. The Sooners always called the play depending on the defense; if they faced a 6-2 and the ends boxed out, the quarterback would keep the ball. If the ends faced a 5-3, he would pitch.
During practice one day, the scout-team end kept backing off and backing off. So Mitchell held onto the ball and finally turned upfield. Wilkinson quizzed him why he hadn’t followed through on the pitch that was called.
“It’s just like basketball, Coach,” Mitchell said. “If you have a two-on-one and the defender comes to you, you pass it. If he doesn’t, you keep it.”
Historians credit Faurot with inventing the option in 1941, “but I never saw Missouri run the option the whole time I was at Oklahoma,” Mitchell said.
Wilkinson twice moved Mitchell to halfback, in an effort to get Darrell Royal into the lineup at quarterback. Both times, Mitchell went back to QB. Nothing against Royal, but Mitchell was the greater quarterback. One of the best in OU history.
“I was very fortunate to end up at Oklahoma,” Mitchell told Snook. “To come back and play under a coach like Bud Wilkinson, who taught me so much, remains a great thrill in my life. If it weren’t for Bud, I don’t know what I would have been in life, I really don’t. I went into coaching because of what he taught me and what I learned while at Oklahoma.”
Mitchell went on to become head coach at Wichita State, Arkansas and Kansas. He recruited John Hadl and Gale Sayers to KU. His overall coaching record was 72-61-7; he was fired at Kansas after a couple of dismal seasons in 1965 and 1966.
Mitchell never got the chance to coach at OU. Maybe he would have failed. But it might have been a fabulous fit. Gomer Jones, who replaced Wilkinson in 1964, didn’t have the stomach for the job. Mitchell most certainly would have.
OU football history has had its share of dashing quarterbacks. Jimmy Harris, who went 25-0 as a starter, remains charismatic, 53 years after his final Sooner game. Steve Davis, a Baptist preacher even as a college student who loved Willie Nelson tunes, was a romantic figure. Jamelle Holieway, from Los Angeles and owner of a fur coat, was a character straight out of Guys & Dolls. Sam Bradford today makes the ladies swoon.
But no Sooner quarterback ever was more dashing than Jack Mitchell.