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Mildren had to be sold on wishbone

by Berry Tramel Published: May 25, 2008
BARRY Switzer was selling. Jack Mildren wasn't buying. And who could blame him?

The euphoria of 1971 — that special autumn when a dynasty was born, when an offense arrived to brand college football for two decades, when the headlines would scream "Wishbone, We Love You” and "Our Wishbone the Greatest!” — still was a year away.

Oklahoma football in 1970 was one big mess.

Chuck Fairbanks' job was in jeopardy, Barry Switzer had a wild idea and Mildren, who had come to Norman with the kind of fanfare later reserved for Marcus Dupree and Adrian Peterson, was being asked to sign off on his third offense in a five-game span.

A quarter century later, John Blake would be ridiculed for switching schemes like T-shirts on a summer day, and there was no less skepticism in those times.

Fairbanks had been a tough sell. The fans would be a tough sell. Mildren would be the toughest sell of all.

General Jack died Thursday, far too early at the age of 58 but an Oklahoma legend, because he said yes to Switzer. Yes to the wishbone.

"We couldn't have done it without him,” Switzer said.

He meant it all. Not just the mid-stream jump to the 'bone. But the offensive explosion of 1971. The second great Oklahoma dynasty. Empowered coaching careers. All possible because Mildren was capable of mastering the wishbone and willing to do so.

"Jack was very significant in my career and the successes I was able to enjoy,” Fairbanks said. "He had a big role in my life.”

This was the time of the Chuck Chuck bumper stickers. The day after the wishbone's debut, a 41-9 Texas romp, Switzer came away encouraged by OU's ability to move the ball and told colleague Larry Lacewell, "We're on our way.”

Lacewell relayed that message to federal judge Frank Seay, a big Sooner fan, who told Lacewell to tell Switzer that with any more games like that, he was on his way down I-35.

Remember, too, where Mildren was in his career in late September 1970. The most ballyhooed OU recruit ever, in his second year as quarterback, and to show for it he had an 8-5 record, with 11 touchdown passes and 16 interceptions.

Mildren was on the hot seat, too. Fans were wondering what all the fuss was about. Why the kid from Abilene hadn't provided the promised salvation.

Mildren was like most every quarterback who ever lived. He wanted to throw.

But in the off-season of 1970, Switzer kept watching film of Texas' wishbone, and Switzer kept arriving at two verdicts.

1. "That's a hell of an offense.” Switzer kept seeing the standard defenses of the day, split-6 or 4-4, try to slow the Longhorns and get outnumbered on the perimeter. "Hell,” he told Lacewell, "you can't defend that.”

2. Mildren would make a better wishbone quarterback than what Texas had, James Street in 1969 and Eddie Phillips in 1970.

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