Heading into their gridiron contest against Notre Dame on Nov. 16, 1957, the Sooners were ranked No. 2 in the country and riding one of the most memorable winning streaks in sports history: 47 consecutive games without a loss.
Oklahoma was an 18-point favorite in the game and, playing at home, there was no reason to believe the streak wouldn’t extend to 48. But in the waning minutes of the game, with the scored tied at 0-0, Notre Dame mounted an 80-yard scoring drive. Oklahoma could do nothing against the Fighting Irish defense.
A desperation pass was picked off on OU’s last possession of the game, effectively ending any chance the Sooners had of salvaging a tie. OU lost 7-0 in front of 62,000 folks wearing crimson and cream.
It was a poetic end to the streak really. After all, it was Notre Dame that was the last team to beat Oklahoma before the streak began in 1953. The Irish sealed the win by the same scoring margin — seven points — then when it beat Oklahoma 28-21 in Norman.
“All during that streak, Bud would tell us that nobody will remember the number of games we won, but everyone will remember the team that beat us,” said former OU halfback Tommy McDonald.
Well, Wilkinson was right about that. That day was about as bad as it ever got for him while coaching OU. For whatever reason though, the Golden Domers just had his number. In truth, up until quite recently, they had always had the Sooners’ number — and dialed it up quite a bit.
Oklahoma had played Notre Dame nine times before and lost all but one of them. In fact, OU had lost both its meetings with ND prior to the Sooners beat the Irish in 1956. The Golden Domers finished the season a miserable 2-8 that year while Wilkinson’s Sooners won the ’56 national championship. Championships. That’s what Wilkinson was known for.
He’d collect three national championships and 14 conference titles as the headman in Norman from 1947 to 1963. His winning percentage was north of 82 and owned a 6-2 bowl game record. None of that was by accident.
“If you have the will to prepare, things will usually work out quite well, and the will to win will take care of itself,” Wilkinson said.
And, boy, did they ever prepare. His standards were high both athletically and academically for his players. But the former Navy man didn’t make a habit of berating or belittling his players. No, he knew just when to pick them up and just when to put them down. That’s a tool not all of us have in the belt.
“You could feel like quitting school and joining the French Foreign Legion,” said former OU fullback Billy Pricer. “Then you’d talk to him for 15 minutes and come out of his office singing ‘Boomer Sooner,’ thinking you owned half the university.”
Good motivators do that for us all, and Wilkinson was certainly a good motivator. But that’s not what brought me to my keyboard to punch out a few lines about Oklahoma’s most celebrated coach on this day, which would’ve been his 98th birthday.
It wasn’t to bring up just how terrible the Sooners have been against the Irish over the course of their rivalry*. And it wasn’t to remind folks who first created the monster known as OU football. It is because the year before that 47-game win streak ended, two years after Brown v. Board of Education and eight years before the Civil Rights Act passed, Wilkinson recruited a young black running back out of Douglass High School in Oklahoma City.
*2-9 in 11 meetings. Ouch.
Gautt was not just any running back. He was an All-State running back and perhaps the best prep player in Oklahoma in his senior year. Wilkinson wanted the kid but succumbed to pressure not to put him on scholarship for two years. No matter, Gautt wanted to play at OU anyway. He became the first black man to start at OU and put together a college career that saw him average 5.4 yards per carry. In 1991, Gautt attributed much of his success at OU to Wilkinson for helping him become the kind of player, the kind of man, he became.
“If it hadn’t have been for Bud, there wouldn’t have been any way that I’d have made it,” Gautt said. “His talking and believing in me was probably the biggest thing that helped me get over even the thought of being the first black.”
Happy birthday, Bud. Thanks for believing in Prentice Gautt.