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Oklahoma football: Spy scandal before 1950 Sugar Bowl angered the usually mild-mannered Bud Wilkinson

The refined and sophisticated Wilkinson rarely lost his cool in 17 years as the Oklahoma football coach. Rarely? Try only once. And the Sugar Bowl made him do it.
by Berry Tramel Modified: December 28, 2013 at 2:00 pm •  Published: December 27, 2013
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NEW ORLEANS – The refined and sophisticated Bud Wilkinson rarely lost his cool in 17 years as the Oklahoma football coach.

Rarely? Try only once.

And the Sugar Bowl made him do it.

“Positively furious,” is how George Lynn Cross put it, and OU's 25-year president ought to know. Cross was privy to Wilkinson's outrage at a spying scandal before the 1950 Sugar Bowl.

It's a tale worth re-telling, and it's not all that far removed from 21st- century sensibilities. The 2013 Sooners arrived in the Big Easy on Friday and start Sugar Bowl practice Saturday at the NFL Saints headquarters in suburban Metairie.

Alabama will work out in the Superdome, where the teams play next Thursday.

Advantage Bama? Not in Bob Stoops' eyes.

“I'm OK with where we're going,” Stoops said.

OU practiced at the Superdome 10 years ago during its prep for the national championship game against LSU. In case no one has figured out by now, New Orleans is an LSU town.

Stoops has no empirical evidence that anyone spied on OU workouts before that Sugar Bowl, or that LSU gleaned information about the Sooners, but Stoops never felt comfortable in the Superdome. It's impossible to secure a building like that.

“Too many eyes,” Stoops said.

Sixty-four years ago, there was no Superdome. But there were coaches committed to secrecy. And ne'er-do-wells committed to espionage.

It all made for grand theater before the first OU-LSU Sugar Bowl.

Wilkinson, in his third season as the Sooner coach, had perhaps his greatest team. The '49ers would finish 11-0 and ranked second nationally, with a bevy of veteran seniors who would go on to shape college football long after their playing days. Darrell Royal, Dee Andros, Jim Owens, Wade Walker.

Wilkinson took his team, just as he had for the Sugar Bowl trip the year before, to Biloxi, Miss. Bowls don't let teams get away with that these days, but those were simpler times.

On Dec. 30, Wilkinson returned to the team hotel from practice and found a message entitled “urgent,” according to Cross' book, Presidents Can't Punt.

Wilkinson called the number, and a man who identified himself as Clarence Johnson said that OU's last two practices had been watched by three men stationed atop a garage within viewing of the practice field. Johnson said the men worked with a camera, binoculars and a large scouting chart. They had pulled a tarp over themselves to remain hidden.

The news angered Wilkinson. “That was the only time I ever saw Bud real angry; his face was white,” said then-Wilkinson assistant Pop Ivy, according to 47 Straight, a book by OU historian Harold Keith.

So Wilkinson put aside his gameplan for a spyplan. He recruited Dr. C.B. McDonald of Oklahoma City, who could best be described as a friend of the program; staff videographer Ned Hockman; Biloxi peace officer John Askin Jr.; Biloxi photographer Bill Dennis; and former Tulane football player John Scafidi.

Wilkinson's detective squad was assigned to case the garage at practice the next day, and sure enough, they accosted a man standing on a ladder, watching over the practice fence, screened from the field with a blanket draped between two garages.

What happened next can best be described as straight out of a “Rockford Files” script.

“When the suspect saw the five people approaching with photographic equipment, he hurriedly got down from the ladder, hid behind the door of one of the garages, indulged briefly in profanity, and threatened to smash the camera if anyone tried to photograph him.

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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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