What started as research for a story turned into a fascinating look into one odd year in Oklahoma high school football.
In October 1953, the Oklahoma Highschool Athletic association voted to abolish football playoffs.
The playoffs had been around for nine seasons, and would go on as scheduled for 1953. But in 1954, there were no crowned state football champions.
On the Oklahoma Secondary Schools Activities’ Association website, on the page where it lists past football state champions, 1954 says, “No championship due to membership vote of ‘too much football.’ Had regular season games only, but were reinstated the next year.”
According to Daily Oklahoman archive stories, common reasons given to abolish the playoffs were 1) too much emphasis on winning; 2) increased pressure on coaches; 3) a longer season.
The vote was taken the association’s annual business meeting, but, according to reports, representatives from a large number of schools weren’t present at the meeting.
A Nov. 3, 1953 Daily Oklahoman column by sports editor John Cronley reported, “with more than 200 schools playing the grid game, only 122 votes were cast.”
The official vote was 78-44, in favor of abolishing the playoffs.
Cronley’s column went on to lambaste the association’s decision. Here are some excerpts:
… Where is the harm in giving the boys something extra to play for, a giant goal each year, an added incentive to strive for, an objective of which to be so proud if achieved?”
Why not decide on the field of battle just what teams are supreme? Isn’t that the basic aim of all sports?
Now it will be back to that ‘mythical’ business, with nothing settled entirely to the satisfaction of all.
(That remind you of anything?)
It all makes for more youngsters playing a better brand of football, and in some places the big kid program is sold primarily on the grounds of being something for the after school hours rather than roaming of streets.
Now ask yourself, what is the youths’ goal from grade through highschool if it isn’t the hope of some day being able to claim he played on the best darn prep team in the country?
So it may be that the die is cast permanently. If so, let the voters answers these queries — If a moderate helping of football is good for a boy, is more of it bad, and if football playoffs are undesirable, why allow to stand such practices in basketball and baseball?
The playoffs were abolished with a simple majority vote, but to reestablish the playoffs would take a three-fourths vote, which was considered all but impossible.
The association tried something different in December 1953 that was as confusing as it was unlikely to work.
The association’s secretary, Lee K. Anderson, and the board of control devised a plan that would have schools vote on having playoffs by classes.
Here was the catch, though: If a majority of schools in any class voted to reestablish playoffs for their class, another vote was conducted of all football playing schools, and that vote would require a three-fourths majority.
A Dec. 8, 1953 Daily Oklahoman article read: “Anderson said the board took the view that most school administrators would take action to give any class the playoffs if schools in that class indicated they wanted the championship series.”
Some classes did vote to reestablish their playoffs, but the wider vote failed, and there were no playoffs in the 1954 season.
Polls and the general sentiment of Oklahomans at the time were firmly for a playoff system.
A Nov. 15, 1953 column by Daily Oklahoman sports writer Lew Johnson said: “In our travels around the state, and during chats with coaches, players and fans, we have found the people to be angry and disgusted with the association.”
Here are excerpts from a Nov. 8, 1953 letter to the editor from Ada resident W.A. Hubbard:
Personally, I am of the opinion that the playoff system was the most progressive move made by the Oklahoma Highschool Athletic Association in the past 20-odd years and its abolition the most retarding.
With the playoff setup, every, the players, student body, and fans, had something to anticipate: competition, honor to be gained and a goal to be reached. Without the playoffs, what’s left? A conference title over a small portion of the state; a rearrangement of schedules; a mythical championship, perhaps, which proves nothing.
Momentum began building to bring back the playoffs between the 1953 and 1954 football seasons.
And by the Oct. 29, 1954 business meeting, the restoration of the playoffs in Classes A, B and C was No. 1 on the agenda.
(Class 2A schools remained firmly against a playoff and didn’t have one again until the 1956 season).
A Ray Soldan Daily Oklahoman column, which ran five days before the board meeting, listed six reasons why the playoffs should be restored:
1) The players themselves want the playoff
2) Fans favor them
3) A better brand of football is produced under the playoffs because there is an added incentive for coaches and players alike
4) Clear-cut state champions are determined
5) It actually shortens the season for all schools except the playoff participants. And those schools certainly don’t mind a lengthened campaign
6) Other assets include financial gains for the schools and increased salaries for the coaches.
Morris superintendent John B. Turner led the charge, speaking passionately at the meeting before the balloting. Turner first began lobbying for a playoff system in 1943.
Saying he represented the fans and student-athletes that weren’t present, Turner went into a impassioned plea for the playoffs while blasting the “slovenly approaches to football players in Oklahoma,” according to a Oct. 30, 1954 Daily Oklahoman article.
He went on to blast school officials for, “not supporting coaches who sweat for two hours every day, and thereby hold your jobs and get raises in pay for you by producing winning teams.”
He continued, saying that playoffs are, “a full expression of democratic process,” and that adding “manly competition in football stops juvenile delinquency.”
After Turner’s speech, Classes A, B and C voted to restore football playoffs for the 1955 season.
In a Dec. 5, 1954, football postseason column, Soldan called the lack of playoffs that season the “Disappointment of the year.”
“With fans, players and coaches like rallying to the defense of the playoff system, the highschool officials saw the error of their previous decision and overwhelmingly voted the football championships back in for the 1955 season,” Soldan wrote.
The 1955 season would be memorable for two reasons — the return of the playoffs, and the first season where black and white athletes played together in many schools, according to Soldan’s Sept. 4, 1955 column.
Then, at the association’s business meeting in October of that year, Class 2A playoffs were restored.
So there is your Oklahoma high school football history lesson for the day.
I love history, so once I started to realize how interesting this was, it became my Sunday evening.
Hope you enjoyed this little trip back in time. I sure did.