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.”
“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 firstname.lastname@example.org. 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.