Oklahoma Football: Why the Sooners' 'Play Like a Champion' motto may be the original

COMMENTARY -- No one at Notre Dame can recall when its 'Play Like a Champions' sign first appeared. But former Sooner players and Bud Wilkinson's son say Bud brought it to Norman with him in the 1940s.
by Berry Tramel Modified: October 23, 2012 at 8:26 am •  Published: October 22, 2012

“I asked everybody, ‘Who took it down?'” Holtz told espn.com in 2006. “Nobody remembered it even being up. So I said, ‘Get that painted up. I'm going to put it in the same place and everybody is going to hit it on the way out to the field to remind them of all the sacrifices they have made, their families have made and other people have made for them to be there.'”

John Heisler, Notre Dame's senior associate athletic director, has authored nine books on Fighting Irish football. He said Notre Dame has tried to find out the origin of the sign Holtz saw. But Heisler told espn.com that no one, including former coaches, remember it.

“I don't even know where the phrase came from, but it certainly has become associated with Notre Dame,” Heisler said.

There's no denying that. In 1991, Notre Dame signed its historic television contract with NBC, which put a camera in the Notre Dame Stadium tunnel. Suddenly viewers all over America saw the Fighting Irish slapping the sign.

* *

PLAY LIKE A CHAMPION TODAY hangs in places besides Norman and South Bend.

Barry Switzer says it was on the wall at Arkansas when he coached at his alma mater in the 1960s. Out in Western Oklahoma, it hung at Thomas High School while the Terriers were winning 35 straight district championships.

And it hung at Bishop McGuinness, where OU center Gabe Ikard went to high school.

Until Monday, Ikard knew nothing of the sign's debate. He figured most schools had the same or something similar.

“Seems like every team has it now,” Ikard said. “A slogan they go with. That's just what we go with. Kind of a ‘Rudy' thing.”

Uh-oh. Cue the Twilight Zone music. Play Like A Champion Today absolutely is a Rudy thing — Rudy Ruettiger's story and subsequent film is as much a part of Notre Dame lore as the Golden Dome and Touchdown Jesus.

McGuinness has Notre Dame's fight song and mascot and leprechaun emblem. And the slogan on the wall.

Ikard figures there's enough room for both OU and Notre Dame to claim the sign.

“They've got great tradition and so do we,” Ikard said. “We've both done enough to forget about the argument of the sign origin.”

Who had it first? It's a wonderful argument for historians and old-timers. A college football mystery that maybe some day will be solved.

Until then, players will touch it and not care from where it came. Instead, they will care where it will take them.

“I don't know much of the tradition behind it,” said OU defensive lineman David King. “When I touch it … you don't want to leave anything out on the field. Put 100 percent in. Don't walk off the field thinking there was something you could have done.”

Now, about that Oklahoma Drill.

Berry Tramel: Berry can be reached at (405) 760-8080 or at btramel@opubco.com. He can be heard Monday through Friday from 4:40-5:20 p.m. on The Sports Animal radio network, including FM-98.1. You can also view his personality page at newsok.com/berrytramel.

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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...
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