Berry Tramel: Saluting the Greatest Generation of Sooners

With the ranks of Bud Wilkinson and Jim Tatum's war veterans thinning, Berry Tramel salutes the men who fought and won a world war, then came to the University of Oklahoma and started a football tradition that continues today.
by Berry Tramel Modified: July 11, 2010 at 10:11 pm •  Published: July 10, 2010
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Tatum coached a football team unlike anything the sport has seen before or since. Four years of recruiting classes rolled into one. War-tested maturity. Unbelievable competition.

"It changed you," Sarratt said. "You knew you had to do something. You knew you had to do it quick."

Tatum's tryouts and practices were legendary. Tales over the years told of 350 players on the field that spring and summer, but Lamb said Paine told him there were only about 150 players trying out for Tatum scholarships. Other players agree that number is close to right.

But the toughness of those tryouts has not been exaggerated.

"My God, I never saw so many football players," Dinkins said. "Blood on the moon every day. It was scrimmaging and toughness every damn day."

Claude Arnold didn't last. He had been an OU freshman in 1942, then entered the military. He came back four years later to find the Sooners running the Split-T, which was not conducive to his passing talents, and a quarterback logjam that included two all-time greats, Mitchell and Royal, plus Dave Wallace. Arnold was beat up and out of shape and eventually decided to quit.

Arnold played intramural football for two years, then in 1948, with three years eligibility remaining, he returned to the varsity and in 1950 quarterbacked OU to the national championship.

The 1946 Sooners were stunningly competitive; their 21-7 loss at mighty Army to kick off the season, a game that was tied 7-7 at halftime, might be the important OU game ever, stamping the Sooners as a legit threat.

Said Dinkins, "I've always thought Tatum, whether most people believe it or not, was the start of OU's big-time football."

* * *

But Tatum didn't last. He rubbed administrators wrong. Rubbed regents wrong. Truth is, rubbed players wrong.

When Tatum made noises about jumping to Maryland, OU was more than happy to let him go. The Sooner leadership had wanted Wilkinson to be the coach from the start.

Tatum had brought along the youthful Wilkinson to Norman, and the promotion of Wilkinson was automatic after Tatum left.

Wilkinson's success — three national titles in 17 seasons, the 47-game winning streak — and meticulous coaching is well-known.

But what's often overlooked is the timing. 1947 and that group of football players were the perfect time and place for Wilkinson to take over a football team.

He was dignified. Smart. A commanding personality without raising his voice.

Think how that played to a bunch of war veterans who had been subjected to military discipline.

"Homer Paine loved Bud Wilkinson," Norman Lamb said. "He treated them as gentlemen. Said he'd never been treated that way in his life."

Claude Arnold said Tatum "wasn't nearly as smooth as Bud Wilkinson. Not nearly as likable. More of a hard-ass kind of guy.

"Completely different guy from Tatum. We were aware of that when he (Wilkinson) was the top assistant. He was several cuts above."

Dinkins said Wilkinson changed the culture of OU football. Even before the war, in the Snorter Luster days, Dinkins said the typical Sooner "chewed tobacco and kissed every girl." They were like Plato Andros, the raw-edged Sooner who was "rougher than a cob."

Wilkinson changed that. Dinkins recalls a squad meeting before that 1946 Army game, a trip that included a stay in the historic Hotel Pennsylvania and dinner at the glitzy Cafe Rouge.

"I want you guys to know this," Wilkinson said. "When you're representing the University of Oklahoma, I want you to dress neat, act like gentlemen. I expect that out of you."

Said Dinkins, "It was the darndest thing." The days were over of Sooners throwing wet napkins at each other over dinner. "It made a hell of a lot of difference in what OU football was before the war and what it was after the war," Dinkins said.

The Sooners responded well to dignified authority.

"We'd all been to war, and we knew we had to obey the man at the top," Stan West told OU historian Harold Keith for his Wilkinson-era book, "47 Straight."

Wilkinson was just 30 years old when he became the head coach.

"We were just about as old as he was," Sarratt said. "He didn't have to tell us but one time. Our discipline was already built in. We knew what we had to do. We'd been exposed to a world that had a problem. We solved that, then started looking for our future."

By the 1948 season, the Sooners were Sugar Bowl champs. In 1949, they were undefeated with one of the greatest senior classes in football history. By 1950, they were national champs and had a 31-game winning streak.

The foundation was laid. The championships and bowl games and sold-out crowds and statewide fan base all stemmed from those guys who won a war before they started winning football games.

"We were grown men, in our 20s, we were a little more mature and had gone through more things," Sarratt said. "Our mindset was really good. We knew what we needed to do.

"We were a close-knit bunch. Still are.

"It was a great bunch of people. Brought 'em in from just about every area. It was a great ride, I know that.

"We realize it a lot more than we used to. That feeling's still there."

The 86-year-old Sarratt gets more excited the longer he talks. Says he feels like he could play one more quarter.

But that's not necessary. Sarratt and his old pals have done plenty.

"They were something special," Sarratt says of the many who have died and the few who remain. "A closeness you can't believe. It lights me now just to think about it."

Berry Tramel: (405) 760-8080; Berry Tramel can be heard Monday through Friday from 4:40-5:20 p.m. on The Sports Animal radio network, including AM-640 and FM-98.1.


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...
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