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Berry Tramel

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OU football: Bud Wilkinson, riverboat gambler

by Berry Tramel Published: July 24, 2011

I blogged the other day about Clendon Thomas and Jay Wilkinson’s recollection of his father turning to Thomas in a crucial situation in 1956, at Colorado.

The story: In what would become game No. 36 of OU football’s 47-game winning streak, the Sooners trailed 19-6 at halftime. Bud Wilkinson gave a “brief but emotional” halftime speech, Jay said, then the Sooners returned to the field. And almost immediately faced 4th-and-2 from their own 28-yard line. Jay’s recollection is that his dad sent Thomas over right guard; Thomas barrelled for three yards, the Sooners went on to score and rally to a 27-19 victory.

An epic gamble. An amazing risk. In that age of defense, to hand the ball over to a foe, deep in your own territory, already down 13 points early in the third quarter, well, that’s quite a call for 1956. Mike Leach in the 21st century is one thing. Bud Wilkinson at the height of the Eisenhower Administration is quite another.

I admitted I didn’t know if the story was true. I couldn’t find mention of that play in the newspaper accounts of the game. I didn’t necessarily doubt Jay Wilkinson, but I’ve become enough of a skeptic that I don’t necessarily accept people’s memories as fact, even if they do belong to someone as solid as Jay Wilkinson.

Well, I can report that Jay had it spot on. The events were just as he described them.

Gary King, a friend of mine and an OU historian who authored a book about the ’56 Sooners, wrote me: “Berry, Jay did not have his fourth downs mixed up. OU did indeed come up with a 4th-and-2 on their own 28 on their first possession of the second half vs. Colorado in 1956, and they were behind 6-19 at the time. I came across this when I was researching my book on the ’56  team. In those days Bud sent out a “newsletter” (which I’m sure must have been written by Harold Keith) that recapped each game. Red Reid (former OU ticked manager) had all these bound into a book which he loaned to me. I later asked Bud and Jimmy Harris about this play and they both remembered it very well. Bud said, “It all came down to one play, and we simply weren’t going to kick.” Harris said, “The way I remember it, it was a ‘short’ two. I think one of the linemen said, ‘We can make it, or I can block my man.’ Thomas carried the ball. I’m sure.”

One of my readers, Morris Blumenthal, also wrote. “Jay Wilkinson was correct. I was at that game in Boulder. It was 4th-and-2 on the OU 28-yard line, and OU picked up three yards for the first down and a CU fan behind me said it is all over.”

How’s that for a 55-year-old memory that still packs a punch.

And I also heard from Jay himself, who is nothing but classy in every endeavor. Here’s what he had to say about his memory being questioned: “I instinctively chuckled this morning (in part due to our friendship) when reading your article that tactfully doubted the accuracy of my story. You were most generous and kind in the event I had actually erred in my recollection of facts.  Sorry to say, at my age, it indeed happens from time to time!

” But then I got to thinking to myself, ‘My goodness, I have carried this story with me for many, many years, and if I don’t have my facts straight now, this can be serious! So I went to my study and opened Harold Keith’s book, Forty- Seven Straight, and was relieved that he had, indeed, captured that play in his book which verified the accuracy of my story.  He surely did not go into as much detail as I, but you must know how pleased I was to have read it! So thanks again for such a nice article and for protecting me in the event I was wrong!  I hope that our paths will cross again in the not too distant future.”

Like I said, Jay Wilkinson is first class. Our shared history is this. My father was Jay’s junior high coach in the 1950s. My dad had mentioned over the years he had coached Jay but never went into much detail. When my dad died in 2007, Jay sent me a priceless letter, talking about what my dad like in those days, all the things he taught the Norman Junior High boys and how Jay’s memories of those days remain vivid.

I never really met Bud Wilkinson. Interviewed him over the phone once. But I’ve experienced something better. I’ve gotten to know Jay.

Anyway, back to Harold Keith’s book. Yep, the play is in there. Keith describes Harris calling the play and tell his huddle, “Let’s block. This might be the ballgame.” Thomas indeed got the first down, behind the blocks of Bill Krisher, Tom Emerson and John Bell. “I knew that Clendon could hit the hole and cut fast,” Harris said. “He was big and fast and easy to hand off to. He and Bob Herndon were the best I ever played with at taking a handoff at full speed.”

Still, what a call. The game, the winning streak, the national championship, everything on the line, and Bud Wilkinson doesn’t play it by the book. Decades later, coaches like Bill Belichick and Barry Switzer would be reviled for making such a call and failing. This was serious business.

Not enough coaches go for it on fourth down. I think we can all agree to that. All kinds of studies show that coaches are too push-button, too stuck in conservatism.

But the call by Wilkinson in 1956 in the Folsom Field Flatirons shows his uniqueness as a coach. We’ve already seen how his hurry-up offense, no-huddle offense is a twist that has embraced 50 years later. Now we’ve also been reminded that he coached not always by rule, but sometimes by feel, which is how the great ones do it.

 

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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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