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Oklahoma football: Where does Steve Davis rank?

by Berry Tramel Published: March 21, 2013

Whenever I rank OU quarterbacks, I never rate Steve Davis all that high. Same with Jimmy Harris. Sort of strange when you think about it.

Davis went 32-1-1 as the Sooner quarterback. Harris went 25-0. A combined 59 games as the Sooner quarterbacks, with one loss total. In the contemporary atmosphere, Davis and Harris would have been Heisman Trophy contenders. Instead, neither even made all-conference.

You can look it up. The all-Big Eight quarterbacks during Davis’ years were Kansas’ David Jaynes in 1973, Nebraska’s David Humm in 1974 and Kansas’ Nolan Cromwell in 1975.

Steve Davis, Oklahoman Archive

Steve Davis, Oklahoman Archive

The all-Big Seven quarterbacks in Harris’ time were Colorado’s Carroll Hardy in 1954 and Missouri’s Jim Hunter in 1956. No quarterback was selected in 1955.

So it’s not just me. Back when they played, Davis and Harris were not heralded as transcendent players.

There are reasons for that. Some valid, some not. Certainly, both played on OU teams so packed with stars, that even the quarterback could get lost in the shadows.

Harris played with a linebacker, Kurt Burris, who finished second in the 1954 Heisman voting. Then he played with a lineman, Bo Bolinger, who placed ninth in the 1955 Heisman voting. Finally, Harris played with teammates, halfback Tommy McDonald and linebacker Jerry Tubbs, who finished 3-4 in an incredibly tight Heisman vote.

Davis played with the Selmon brothers and Joe Washington. In Davis’ three seasons as the quarterback, 14 of his teammates made all-American. Go back and read that sentence again.  Fourteen! All-conference selectors were looking for reasons to vote off Sooners.

But why Davis? Why the natural tendency to elevate Thomas Lott or J.C. Watts or Jamelle Holieway over Davis?

I was a big Lott fan. Loved his bandana. Loved his smoothness. I loved J.C.’s name and his flair for late-game dramatics. Nebraska 1980. The Florida State Orange Bowl II. And Holieway was an absolute magician running the wishbone.

I generally pick Jack Mildren as OU’s greatest quarterback ever. He set passing records as a sophomore and rushing records as a senior. Mildren oversaw the mid-season transformation of the Sooners from floundering offense to wishbone wizards, which changed college football for a generation. Jason White and Sam Bradford won Heismans, but I would be hard-pressed to move out from Mildren from the No. 1 slot.

The last time I rated OU quarterbacks, this was my list: 1. Jack Mildren; 2. Josh Heupel; 3. Jason White; 4. Sam Bradford; 5. Jack Mitchell; 6. Eddie Crowder; 7. Jack Jacobs; 8. Jamelle Holieway; 9. J.C. Watts; 10. Jimmy Harris.

But Davis’ death Sunday in a plane crash has given all kinds of people pause to examine their memories and Davis’ career.

Statistically, Harris doesn’t measure up to the other great quarterbacks. Even of the ‘50s. You have to go with the intangibles on Harris, which are many. But in 1955, for example, Harris started every game and didn’t even lead the Sooners in passing. McDonald did, out of his halfback position.

Yet Davis carried no such statistical shortcoming. Davis rushed for at least 100 yards more times than Lott, Danny Bradley and Kerry Jackson. Combined. More times than Watts, Darrell Shepard and Dave Robertson. Combined.

Holieway ran for at least 100 yards 10 times in his OU career. Mildren did it nine times. Lott and Charles Thompson eight each. But Davis cracked the 100-yard barrier 11 times, the most of any OU wishbone quarterback. And Davis did it against heavyweights. Nebraska three times. Southern Cal in 1973. Missouri in 1975, which is remembered for Washington’s great heroics in the fourth quarter, but in which Davis rushed 16 times for 135 yards.

And did OU ever have a more clutch passer than Davis? Mildren, who actually was a wishbone quarterback for only 21 of his 34 career games, leads all OU wishbone quarterbacks with 24 touchdown passes. Holieway had 22. Davis had 21.

By any measure, Davis was an elite quarterback. Leadership. Statistics. Victories.

Reader Mitch Gray sent along this information. He studied the eight games that defined the Davis era: three Texas games, three Nebraska games, the 1973 Southern Cal game and the Orange Bowl against Michigan. You will be stunned at Davis’ production:

1973 USC: The second game of Davis’ career. He rushed for 102 yards on 21 carries and scored OU’s only touchdown in a 7-7 tie. Davis completed just one of six passes for six yards.

1973 Texas: Davis threw just six times but had one of the best passing games in history. Not OU history. Anybody’s history. Davis completed five of six passes for 185 yards and two touchdowns. Davis also rushed nine times for 24 yards and scored two TDs in a 52-13 OU rout.

1973 Nebraska: The Sooner defense completely stymied Nebraska in a 27-0 victory. But Davis rushed 18 times for 114 yards, including a 46-yard TD run off a quarterback sneak. Davis also completed three of 10 passes for 51 yards.

1974 Texas: An old-fashioned brawl, won 16-13 by the Sooners. Davis rushed 27 times for 71 yards and one touchdown, plus he completed three of six passes for 42 yards.

1974 Nebraska: Davis rushed for 112 yards on 27 carries, with two touchdowns, as OU rallied from 14-7 down to win 28-14. Both of Davis’ passes were incomplete.

1975 Texas: UT’s defense stuffed Davis, holding him to minus-22 yards on 13 carries. Davis completed two passes for 76 yards. With 5:31 left, Davis audibled into a play that sprung fullback Horace Ivory for a tie-breaking 33-yard TD run. OU won 24-17.

1975 Nebraska:  Davis rushed for 130 yards on 29 carries and completed one of three passes for 18 yards. He scored two touchdowns as OU wins going away, 35-10.

1976 Michigan: The Sooners win the national championship with a 14-6 victory in the Orange Bowl. Davis was named MVP after rushing for 55 yards on 19 carries, and completing three of five passes for 63 yards.

In those eight games, Davis was 7-0-1. He cracked the 100-yard rushing barrier in four of the games. “These stats are not Wake Forest, Utah State etc.,” Gray wrote. “These are rugged teams built to stop the run. He was 18-of-41 passing but for 438 yards, which is about 10.7 yards an attempt, which is good. (Josh Heupel averaged 7.3 yards per pass). He scored 9 TDs rushing.

“All the accounts indicate he was a great leader. In 1974, OU won a title despite a bowl ban. In the two critical games, Davis led fourth-quarter comebacks in an era where pinball passing did not exist. In fact, a wishbone quarterback was treated brutally.

“It is hard to compare eras and what not, but the gauntlet Davis ran is unsurpassed by any other wishbone quarterback by a solid margin. This includes Mildren, Lott and Watts. This analysis does not prove Davis was better than the others, but it sure puts a heavy burden on someone who wants to elevate those guys OVER Steve Davis.”

And finally, Gray points out that only two of those eight games were played on Owen Field.

“I attended every home game Davis played,” Gray wrote. “Based on NFL standards for judging QBs, he is objectively the best wishbone QB. Davis was NOT slow. Not sure where that comes from except he is white guy recruited with little fanfare.

“Switzer and Blevins always point to the overall talent and they are correct. But Thomas Lott had Sims, King and Overstreet in the backfield. Oubre (actually Greg Roberts) won the Outland. Davis had Joe Washington but also had (Jim) Littrell and Grant Burget. All those ‘70s teams had great talent. And of course, a break here and there was needed. But Davis won the close ones, was smart, tough and dedicated. He was fast enough to have more 100-yard rushing games than any OU wishbone QB and the most TD passes (actually second-most, behind Holieway). He beat Texas and Nebraska three times each.

“No one goes 32-1-1 without great help. But no one wins two straight national titles with anything less than a great winner at QB, especially in the bone, which is the nerve center for the whole offense.”

Gray’s points are more than valid.

The next time I rank OU quarterbacks, I don’t know where Davis will land. But I promise you this, he’s moving up the list.

by Berry Tramel
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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