Berry Tramel

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Oklahoma football: John Campbell remembers Bud Wilkinson

by Berry Tramel Modified: September 6, 2013 at 2:05 pm •  Published: September 6, 2013

John Campbell died last week at age 90, after having lived quite the life. I met Campbell sometime in the ‘80s, when I was at the Norman Transcript and I did a story on Campbell playing in an over-40 basketball league with his two sons. Later, I got reacquainted through OU’s college of engineering, where my wife is a fund-raiser and Campbell was not only a graduate, but a former faculty member.

But Campbell also was a football official, a Big Seven/Big Eight football official, and for years he’s been telling me Bud Wilkinson stories. A few years ago, Campbell wrote an autobiography and included a chapter about his days officiating.

The book is A 20TH CENTURY ODYSSEY. Campbell had a fascinating life. He was part of the team that developed the commercial manufacturing of plutonium, which was used successfully as the explosive element in the bomb dropped on Nagasaki. During 19 years as an OU professor, he became a consultant to the global petroleum industry and eventually started his own company.

So those days on college football gridirons were secondary to Campbell’s life. But they also were interesting.

* Campbell, who grew up in Iowa, began officiating basketball while an Iowa State undergrad in the 1940s. At OU in 1947, Campbell began officiating high school basketball. He got his first jobs by mailing postcards to coaches. The typical payment was $15 a night, plus five cents a mile for expenses.

“My timing was lucky,” Campbell wrote. “The war had interfered with normal activities and the supply of officials was sparse.”

* In 1948, after having started officiating some high school football, Campbell began working some OU scrimmages for Wilkinson.

Campbell said he didn’t have much interaction with the coaches though he did become one of the professors used to help recruit players.

* In 1956, Campbell had become more acquainted with Wilkinson and was asked to audition for a role on Wilkinson’s television show, in which a professor would conduct a weekly science experiment in conjunction with an advertiser.

Campbell was hired for $100 a show. “Needless to say, I signed that (contract) and sent it back immediately before they had a chance to change their mind,” Campbell wrote.

The gig lasted two years.

* Campbell never claimed to be a close friend of Wilkinson’s. Wilkinson called Campbell “Dr. Campbell,” and Campbell called Wilkinson “Coach.”

But Campbell had some great insights into Wilkinson.

“It always has been hard to characterize Bud because he was a product of two diametrically opposite cultures,” Campbell wrote. “He had been raised in a very affluent environment, had a master’s degree in English and was a lover of symphony music and poetry. On the other hand, he was very competitive, had been a very good football player at the University of Minnesota and really liked to coach football.

“He possessed the social graces common to a person with his background and projected this in his public persona. He also had a boyish smile that captivated most who observed it. He projected a public image that was unlike that of the typical football coach of his day.

“Privately, he was a worry wart. His intellectual side and his coaching side seemingly were always in conflict. During the time I knew him, he talked about quitting coaching and returning to the family business in Minnesota several times. I was never part of his private life, but I often wondered if he ever truly relaxed. Anxiety was an integral part of his life that I am familiar with. Once he won, he began to worry and plan for the next one. Although he never let on publicly, a loss devastated him…

“Like so many ultra successful folks, he not only was intelligent, but also was able to focus it on the challenge at hand. It is difficult to talk about Bud without appearing negative, because I liked and respected him. However, I have to honestly say that he was difficult to interact with. He was not a listener and seemed unable to disagree agreeably.”

* Campbell was barred from officiating OU games, because of his OU ties. Wilkinson once approached Campbell and asked him to review the officiating in an OU-Kansas game. Campbell declined and told him the game would be reviewed by the conference office.

* Campbell became a Big Seven official in part because of a dispute with Wilkinson.

A new rule redefined defensive holding. Campbell said he called it four or five times in an OU scrimmage. Wilkinson finally called a halt to the action “and walked over to me,” Campbell wrote. “In a very sarcastic, loud tone, he said I was wrong and should learn the rules before out to work. My equally caustic reply was to the effect  that if he wanted to have a successful season, he had better learn the rules.”

And Campbell stormed off the field.

The next day, Campbell got a call from Wilkinson’s secretary, asking Campbell visit Wilkinson before practice. Campbell told her that not only was he busy, he had nothing to say to Wilkinson. She called back 15 minutes later, pleading for Campbell to come.

“I was still a bit peeved, but I went down prepared to renew our confrontation,” Campbell wrote. “As I walked into his office in the field house, he was sitting behind his desk wearing horn-rimmed glasses and smoking an awful smelling cigar. I later learned he smoked King Edward cigars, about the cheapest available. He motioned for me to sit down, smiled a bit, and said, ‘You really are a hard-headed cuss, aren’t you? We need officials like you in the conference. There is an opening in the officials’ ranks that is my turn to fill. Are you interested?”

Campbell noted that he cleaned up the language bit. He also noted that he most definitely was interested.

“I had learned something else about Bud,” Campbell wrote. “He had respect for those strong enough to stand up to him if they were right. He was willing to compromise his innate vanity to achieve truth.”

* Campbell, who had degrees from OU and Iowa State, could not officiate either school’s games. But he got a full complement of games and was paid $150 a game, plus expenses.

“I never worked for Bud during a game, but those who did were often critical of him,” Campbell wrote. “Apparently he never used foul language but could be very sarcastic and adopt a persona that was equivalent to a parent berating a child. I can believe this because Bud was a fierce competitor and fundamentally an up-tight person – contrary to the public image he projected.”

* In the late ‘50s, Campbell was appointed to the OU Athletic Council as a faculty representative. Wilkinson was athletic director, but Ken Farris basically ran the department.

“He only had much interest in matters that affected football,” Campbell wrote.

On one occasion, the Athletic Council had approved formation of a gymnastics program. Wilkinson was late for the meeting, and upon arriving and being informed, “he immediately complained in a loud voice that the football team made the money and should dictate how it was spent. He was tired of siphoning off football money for other sports.”

Campbell said Wilkinson calmed down when he realized the money was a rather modest sum.

On another occasion, Wilkinson arrived late only to find that the council had just fired basketball coach Doyle Parrack.

“You can’t do that without my approval,” Wilkinson shouted. “We’ll see about that.” And Wilkinson left to complain to president George Lynn Cross. “In about 30 minutes he returned, sat down and, in a very quiet voice, said, ‘Well, I guess he’s fired.’”

Think about that. The athletic director was not even aware that a program had been instituted and a coach fired. Those were different times.

* In 1968, Campbell left OU to form his own company and decided to leave officiating as well.

 


by Berry Tramel
Columnist
Berry Tramel, a lifelong Oklahoman, sports fan and newspaper reader, joined The Oklahoman in 1991 and has served as beat writer, assistant sports editor, sports editor and columnist. Tramel grew up reading four daily newspapers — The Oklahoman,...
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