NORMAN — Kurt Burris touched the sign as he ran onto Owen Field for the 1953 Notre Dame game. Clendon Thomas did the same before the 1957 Notre Dame game.
Leon Cross touched the sign before the 1962 Notre Dame in Norman. Likewise Granville Liggins in 1966.
PLAY LIKE A CHAMPION TODAY
Bud Wilkinson put up the sign early in his OU coaching career. Maybe in 1947. No later than 1950 or 1951.
That sign today sits in the Switzer Center museum. The words are reprinted on the mural in the tunnel that leads onto Owen Field. So Casey Walker and Trey Millard and Bronson Irwin and Javon Harris will touch the same message as they take the field to play Notre Dame on Saturday night.
But PLAY LIKE A CHAMPION TODAY is part of Notre Dame's lore.
Lou Holtz and NBC and the mystic quality of the Fighting Irish have conspired to place the sign's tradition in Notre Dame's possession, even though it wasn't hung, as far as anybody can remember, in South Bend before 1986.
“They shamelessly stole our ‘Play Like A Champion Today' sign and have claimed it as their own,” OU fan Patrick Fioravanti of Fayetteville, Ark., wrote me the other day. “I often wonder why Lou Holtz didn't also rename the ‘Oklahoma Drill.'”
No one can exactly pinpoint when Wilkinson first mounted the sign.
Billy Krisher and Clendon Thomas were All-American teammates, seniors at OU in 1957. Krisher doesn't recall the sign. Thomas absolutely does.
“I remember it being there from the get-go,” Thomas said.
Calvin Woodworth and Bob Burris were all-Big Seven teammates, seniors in 1955.
Woodworth doesn't remember the sign and believes he would, since he still recalls intricate Wilkinson speeches even to this day. But Burris remembers the sign and says he has pictures of Sooners from his time touching PLAY LIKE A CHAMPION TODAY.
OU historian Mike Treps, who served as the school's sports information director from 1979-94, arrived on campus as a student in 1951 and says the sign was up then.
Ed Lisak, who played for Wilkinson in the late 1940s, doesn't remember the sign. Claude Arnold, who played at OU from 1946-50, says he's “pretty sure” the sign was up in the late 1940s.
Probably the best source is Jay Wilkinson, the 70-year-old son of the famed coach. Jay Wilkinson's memories of OU football in his childhood are pristine.
Jay Wilkinson doesn't know exactly when the sign went up, but he says it was early in his father's OU tenure. Bud Wilkinson became head coach in 1947.
“One of the first things he did when he became a head coach,” Jay Wilkinson said. “It was pretty symbolic of his philosophy and his strategy.”
Jay Wilkinson doesn't know where his dad got the phrase. “I don't think my dad invented it,” he said. “I know that it was a big part of what he believed.”
Lou Holtz became the Notre Dame coach in 1986 and embraced the tradition fully. He came across a photo in a Notre Dame book with the sign “Play Like A Champion Today.”