Berry Tramel

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Oklahoma football: Remembering the Hoot Owls

by Berry Tramel Modified: March 4, 2014 at 1:35 pm •  Published: March 4, 2014
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One of the best things about my job is the stories I hear. And some of the plum tales come from the old days. Like Bud Wilkinson football.

Benton O’Neal of Ada, one of the three O’Neal brothers to play for Wilkinson at OU, emailed me Monday with a gem of a story. I love the stuff from those days, because it’s so different from what we hear today.

Let me give you an example. Our man John Helsley wrote a nifty story for the Monday Oklahoman about Bob “Pee Wee” Williams, a student trainer/manager for Henry Iba’s Oklahoma A&M basketball teams in the 1940s. Williams was a roommate of the great Bob Kurland. You can read the story here. But there’s a line in the story about Kurland and Williams living together as roommates in the basement of Gallagher Hall. And part of Kurland’s job was to sweep the floor and lock up at night.

Picture that. A 7-foot all-American. One of the transcendent figures in basketball history. A player who led OSU to back-to-back NCAA titles. With a broom in his hand, sweeping up Gallagher Hall.

It was a different time. And the same with OU football in the days of Wilkinson. Here is O’Neal’s story:

“Here is an interesting tidbit about OU teams in the ’50s. While I was on the teams of the ’55, ’56, ’57 and ’58 football seasons, Coach Wilkinson would trim the varsity (seniors, juniors and sophomores) down to about 55 to 60 players.  You will remember in those years you had to play both ways (offense, defense, and special teams).  He liked to have five complete teams at all positions ready to play.

“After these were established, the teammates playfully named the substitute squads.  Of course everyone knew who the starters and alternates were as they played most of the first half and usually the third quarter.  We named the third team the ‘Tiger Squad,’ because they were made up of primarily defensive animals that were learning to play offense.  The fourth team was the ‘Twilighters’ as they would be put into the game as it was getting to be twilight.  The fifth team’s name was the ‘Hoot Owls’ because by the time they got in, the owls would be hooting.

“It was great fun.  These OU teams were so good the twilighters and hoot owls got to play a lot, and when the fifth team was in the game, you could hear the players on the bench going Hwoo, Hwoo, Hwoo.”

Now that’s priceless. I can picture Tommy McDonald, who was always a bit whimsical, going “Hwoo, Hwoo, Hwoo” from the bench. But the regal Clendon Thomas? The tough Jerry Tubbs? The suave Jimmy Harris?

That’s as novel to think about as picturing Bob Kurland sweeping up the gym.

O’Neal helped contribute to a book being written about OU icon Port Robertson, written by Ed Frost, a friend of mine. O’Neal shared with me a couple of dispatches he had with Frost.

“As I know you have heard numerous times, without Port’s guidance and counsel, myself and many of my teammates and friends would not have completed their degrees and education at the University of Oklahoma,” O’Neal wrote. “In my particular situation, I had decided not to tryout for OU’s football team.  I was an average high school player.

“I was a freshman in Cross Center at the start of the 1955 football season. Port contacted me and said, ‘You little PEAHEAD, where are you?’ I told him I was not as good as my brothers Pat and Jay and did not have a football scholarship. He said for me to get my butt over to the dressing room and walk on because he knew I could run. I did and made second-team freshman quarterback, beating out three other frosh quarterbacks on scholarship. He moved me into Jefferson House in the middle of that semester and gave me a half scholarship. How appreciative I was.

“I became discouraged after my junior year realizing I would never play very much because of great OU quarterbacks David Baker, Bobby Boyd and Bob Cornell. My grades started to suffer, and I considered dropping out of school altogether. Port found out about that and once again ordered  me to get back out there on the football field and complete my education. I was glad I did and went to Port to thank him. He said I need you to apply to be a graduate assistant coach, help him coach the freshmen, complete my degree and to take some graduate courses.

“He also thought I might enjoy being a coach, because my brothers were enjoying it at that time. It turned out I was a worse coach than I was a player, so I took my business degree and went  into banking. I just retired from a successful 50-year career in the banking industry. You might say I owe it all to that GREAT MAN, PORT ROBERTSON!

“1955 was the very first year for the Air Force Academy. Since all they had were plebes (freshmen), they scheduled their football season against all Big Eight freshmen teams. Yes, I got out there and completed several passes to fullback Carl Slayton out of the backfield because the Air Force did not cover him. He was a very good player but not a good student. He transferred to another school after one semester. I’m not sure where and never heard from him again.

“This is where I need to tell you about how tough it is to continue to stay out on the OU football team. Remember I walked on in 1955.  There were 35 freshmen on football scholarships and 70 freshmen walkons. Four years later,1958, there were 13 of the original 35 scholarship earners still there plus one walkon, me. (I received a half scholarship half way during my first semester and then a full one for my junior and senior years.)  Two-a-day practices in the Oklahoma heat were brutal and each year I would tell myself if I can make it through these drills, I can do anything. Port always told us the same.

“One day as we were going through a 100-plus degree hot September practice in 1955, one of our freshmen teammates fell to the ground and began to throw up. Coach Port came over to him and said, ‘Don’t do that, it lowers your morale.’ We did not see that guy anymore. It was a time that you did not get water during practice. They did not think you were getting in shape until you got cotton mouth. The trainer would bring out orange and lemon slices at the halfway break during practice. The big mean linemen and linebackers would get all the oranges and leave all the lemons to us little backs. I didn’t care because if you have ever had cotton mouth you know a lemon is not sour…anything moist is very welcome.

“Thanks for letting me vent some old times almost forgotten.”

Vent to us anytime, Benton O’Neal.

 

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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