NORMAN — During the 1972-73 school year, Sooner fans felt the impact of freshman eligibility inside both Oklahoma Memorial Stadium and the OU Field House, where men's basketball was then played.
Four years after freshmen were granted eligibility in most sports, the NCAA allowed football and men's basketball rookies varsity eligibility in January 1972.
On the hardwood, true freshman Alvan Adams eventually raised his own army, “Alvan's Army,” a rowdy group of high schoolers who sat in the south bleachers and fervently supported the big center from Putnam City High School. He averaged 22.1 points and 13.2 rebounds as a freshman, played two more OU seasons and went on to an outstanding NBA career.
The impact, though, of the 1972 football freshmen was longer lasting — for better or worse.
Reserve quarterback Kerry Jackson rushed for 314 yards and threw for 164, entering games frequently to spell senior starter Dave Robertson.
The next spring, Jackson was set to take over before a transcript error resulted in his ineligibility and sanctions against OU. The Sooners still won back-to-back national championships in 1974 and 1975, but the first was a split title because Oklahoma was on probation.
The fact that halfback Joe Washington played and eventually started in 1972 is especially remarkable, just because of OU's backfield depth in the days when scholarships were far more plentiful than today.
“I expected to play,” Washington said. “If I didn't get to play, I would've been really upset.”
Tinker Owens, on the other hand, was thrilled just to be part of the program at all. The Miami, Okla., native, whose brother Steve was an OU Heisman winner three years earlier, began 1972 as part of the withering frosh team, which survived that year despite varsity eligibility for freshmen.
Owens practiced with the freshmen squad through the first 1972 varsity game, a 49-0 rout of Utah State.
The first Monday after that, he and the other freshmen went through passing drills against the varsity secondary, and Owens hauled in three touchdown receptions.
When it was time for a break and freshmen were leaving, Owens began to take off with them.
Coach Chuck Fairbanks watching practice from a tower, yelled for Owens to get a Popsicle and a Gatorade, spoils usually reserved for varsity players only.
“So I went and got a Popsicle and a Gatorade, and then started to leave again,” Owens remembered with a laugh. “Normally we'd go off to the bar and play shuffleboard ... but he hollered at me again, ‘I want you to stay out here.'”
He'd impressed Fairbanks and other coaches enough to earn a promotion. At the next Saturday's game against Oregon, Owens stood on the sideline, certain he wouldn't see the field. After all, he'd just joined the varsity squad days earlier.
But when starting split end John Carroll was injured, coaches were suddenly yelling for Owens to get in there.
“I didn't think I'd play in the game, so my helmet was on the bench somewhere and I couldn't find it,” Owens said.
Two plays later, he made a diving, 10-yard reception on an out route, leaving radio announcer Bob Barry scrambling, trying to figure out who the heck No. 11 was.
Everyone knew by the end of the season, though, when Owens had 132 receiving yards, caught a 27-yard touchdown and was named MVP of OU's 14-0 Sugar Bowl win over Penn State.
Owens and Washington weren't the only well-known Sooners who contributed as true freshmen on the 1972 team. Lee Roy and Dewey Selmon also played as true freshmen that season, although their full impacts weren't felt until later in their careers.