Oklahoma football: Watching the 1956 Notre Dame game
The new Sooner television deal with Fox Sports already is paying off. It provides an outlet for OU’s treasure of vintage football film. “Crimson Classics,” they call the feature, and to celebrate OU-Notre Dame week, Sooner Sports TV this week trotted out a replay of the 1956 Sooner-Irish game.
That’s a notable game in OU history because it’s the Sooners’ only victory over Notre Dame. The Sooners popped the Irish 40-0 in South Bend. The next year, of course, Notre Dame stunned the Sooners 7-0 in Norman, ending the 47-game winning streak. That would be quite the video to watch, too. But the ’56 game was interesting. It required some concentration, because it was sans announcers. Just video. You had to pay attention.
Here’s what I found memorable from the video:
* The original black-and-white video was colorized. I know the artistic crowd hates that stuff, but as a football fan, let me be the first to endorse colorization.
A couple of times, the video momentarily reverted back to black-and-white, and the difference was stark in how much easier it was to follow in color.
* This was a fun uniform matchup. Notre Dame wore gold helmets, green jerseys and gold pants. OU wore white, white, white, with the red stripe on the helmet. In the 1952 Notre Dame game at South Bend, the Irish wore green jerseys and the Sooners wore red. The case that one team should wear white was well made.
* A few modern interviews were spliced into the video. Quarterback Jay O’Neal recalled that when Notre Dame took the field that day, the Irish ran right through the Sooner warmup.
“I never saw Coach (Bud) Wilkinson upset too much,” O’Neal said. “He never really got out of control.” But in the locker room just before kickoff, Wilkinson “expressed that was great disrespect. The team responded accordingly.”
* Someone in the last few days, I think it was Clendon Thomas, told me that his most vivid memory of the ’56 game was a one-on-one tackle by Jerry Tubbs of Notre Dame quarterback Paul Hornung.
First drive of the game, there it was. Hornung somehow had some running room, which was rare on this day, and there came Tubbs from his linebacker slot with a textbook tackle. Tubbs grabbed Hornung’s legs, lifted him off the ground and down he went.
* Both teams ran the split-T, but Notre Dame stuck with the traditional, three-back alignment. OU split the split-T most of the day, moving Thomas or Tommy McDonald from halfback to a slot position. Really wasn’t wingback, the OU position of the 1960s. It was very close to where Ryan Broyles played. In the 1950s, they called it “flanker,” one of my favorite football terms.
* Here’s what struck me about the marquee Sooner players. Their versatility. I know we’ve all read about single-platoon football, how everyone played both offense and defense. But until you watch it, it’s hard to appreciate how versatile these guys were. They were complete football players. No specialists.
On one of OU’s first plays, quarterback Jimmy Harris pitched the ball to McDonald, more of a sweep than an option. And then Harris sprinted in front of McDonald to be a lead blocker. Then McDonald pulled up and launched a pass. So just on one early play, you’ve got Jimmy Harris blocking and Tommy McDonald passing. Later in the game, McDonald threw to Thomas for a 50-yard gain.
And we haven’t even got to defense. McDonald had two interceptions that day and Thomas had one. Both scored touchdowns off interceptions.
The versatility showed in later years. McDonald, a pass-throwing halfback at OU, made the Pro Football Hall of Fame as a wide receiver. Thomas had a long NFL career as a cornerback. Harris played several years in the NFL as a defensive back.
I’m telling you. Those guys were football players.
* The other member of that backfield, fullback Billy Pricer, was versatile, too. He had an excellent quick kick in that game. (So did David Baker; I love the quick kick.)
* The officials’ flags were red. I wonder if they were really red and when did that change? Or was that a faux pas of the colorization?
* Notre Dame twice used a funky shift to draw OU offsides. I don’t know how to explain it, other than to say the Irish backs lined up really tight, then shifted backward. Probably something you didn’t much of it back then.
* The Notre Dame end zones had those diagonal lines. Classic. Loved them. (I loved those diamond end zones at Owen Field, too. Can we bring those back, please?)
* When Paul Hornung ran the option, he often pitched the ball back underhanded. Jamelle Holieway he was not.
* There were virtually no shots of Wilkinson. From afar off, you could see him standing on the sideline with his hands in his pockets, with coat, tie and fedora, looking quite regal. I would love to see some sideline footage of Wilkinson.
Think about it. We know all kinds of things about modern coaches. Bob Stoops, Mike Gundy, Mack Brown, dozens of guys in the NFL. We’ve seen them on the sidelines and how they act. We get a great feel for their personalities. Even going back to the ’70s, with Barry Switzer and Tom Osborne, we have the same.\
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