By Darl DeVault
The Norman Transcript
NORMAN — Norman resident Edgar L. Frost’s new book, “Port Robertson: Behind the Scenes of Sooner Sports,” offers a new perspective about one of the three coaches most directly responsible for elevating the University of Oklahoma’s football program to national prominence.
The first-time author’s original research with oral histories may elevate former OU wrestling coach Port Robertson’s efforts to the exalted status Bud Wilkinson and Gomer Jones achieved since coaching OU’s 74-game conference football unbeaten streak.
Although not explicitly revisionism, Frost’s unique investigation provides fans and historians a touchstone if that process is undertaken — by making sure their stories outlive the eyewitnesses to history for the first time.
Frost’s chronicling of Robertson’s three national championship wrestling teams and early modern era OU football coaching also sets a new standard for historians with his writing style.
The Oklahoma Heritage Association published this first footnoted historical work written about Robertson depicting his nearly 40-year role in OU athletics as part of its Oklahoma Trackmaker Series in April.
While the project started with four of Robertson’s former wrestlers asking the writer to pen this hardcover, 208-page richly illustrated work, many more former OU athletes came forward to share their memories and photos once Frost began his research.
The book authoritatively recounts their long-held belief that Robertson deserved more credit as the academic linchpin of the athletic department. In the memories of these former athletes, Roberson was the person most responsible for shaping them into men.
Rather than glorifying him, the author brings Robertson to life by relating the complexity of the many student-athletes interactions wherein he served as a role model. The narrative skillfully blends the many instances of Robertson’s daily academic contact with athletes and those times when he was forced to take action as the legendary disciplinarian of that era.
Frost details several ways the coach went out of his way help athletes retain their eligibility, reinforcing that his impact went well beyond coaching the freshman football team.
It is obvious to the reader that Frost’s robust original research gave him the confidence to write with a strong voice. He richly describes Robertson’s total support for his wrestlers and the program he brought back from obscurity (no scholarships) at OU that won national championships in 1952, 1953 and 1957.
The coach’s success on the mat, a career .750 winning percentage, is still the best for any OU wrestling coach, who only coached after his tenure. Robertson’s devotion to coaching the Sooner freshman football team is another important subject the book brings to life.
Frost may have helped raise the level of writing about that Wilkinson era by sharing Robertson’s former student-athlete’s worshipful oral histories in a style that may soon be judged as literature.
On his way to turning this oral history into prose, Frost rivals Studs Terkel’s style in the 1974 book “Working,” that same style that later won the Chicago writer the 1985 Pulitzer Prize in General Nonfiction. Frost’s book is comparable to Terkel’s work in this new author’s portrayal of the different facets of Robertson’s devotion to his alma mater and its student-athletes.
For most OU fans, this vivid depiction of first-hand accounts from this era will probably be a great read. For the reader who has direct knowledge or a background in the way history has portrayed OU’s early success, this is literature.
This writer also sees literary similarities in one passage that resemble Earnest Hemingway’s style. Although Hemingway didn’t write nonfiction in book form, what passes between the ambulances drivers in “A Farewell to Arms” might be nonfiction.
Author Frost’s treatment of the sensitive subject of whether Robertson was abusive reads like Hemingway — straight forward, no excuses, the quality of words that pass among men in stressful situations.
Historians may need to revise their versions of history associated with that era and explore new scholarship and original research to properly incorporate this newfound information.
Perhaps this new voice chronicling OU football should try documenting the entire Wilkinson era in this manner. Frost is already one third of the way to completing that book in elevating Robertson to Wilkinson’s status in his exhaustively documented first book celebrating that OU legacy.
Whether history will ever see Bud Wilkinson, Gomer Jones and Robertson as pulling equally on the yoke of OU’s athletic program in the 1950s is yet to be seen. For myself, I am now revising an article about Wilkinson’s genius (substitution and recruiting two equal-talent first units) that was published twice in Oklahoma magazines during 2013.
My new post-Frost-book outline for that article is Wilkinson (as the mastermind), Jones and now Robertson equal in their contributions to coaching the Wilkinson era, while Harold Keith’s stellar writing and innovations dispatching early film highlights etched those win streaks into the nation’s sports fans’ memory forever.
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