By Clay Horning
The Norman Transcript
NORMAN — It’s all very precise these days, because precision is a worthwhile end and technology allows for it.
That’s why The Norman Transcript, with just, so, detailing gives you three pages of Sooner football every Sunday (and Twitter coverage throughout the game, and real-time breaking news online, etc., etc., etc.).
Then there’s the fact that newspapers, like The Transcript, have lost their monopoly on the news and that, not so strangely, has made our coverage of things held most dear, like Sooner football, bigger and better than ever.
Copy’s produced every day, usually two or more items and with frequent notepads — yet invented in days of yore — because if you don’t get it here, you may look for it elsewhere.
Because of all that, it’s easy to presume, 55 years ago, Sooner football, the national standard under Bud Wilkinson, was nonetheless receiving comparatively scant coverage.
It was bigger than life.
“OU Belts Notre Dame 40-0 in Top Rating Bid,” read the Oct. 28, 1956 front page headline trumpeting what remains the Sooners’ lone gridiron victory over the Irish.
The Transcript sent sports editor Jack Bickham to the game and photographer Jim Boatright, even in a day Associated Press photos ran in the paper every day.
Bickham wrote three stories: a gamer, a fan reaction story that was short on quotes but long on eye-witness testimony, and a sidebar about Wilkinson saying his team had better not let success go to its head.
Of course, if the players read Bickham’s gamer, as they must have because newspapers were king, it couldn’t help but go to their head a little.
“Oklahoma, now absolutely the nation’s finest football team, slaughtered the University of Notre Dame here Saturday,” Bickham wrote. “The score was 40-0 and it could have been higher.”
The gamer and the fan story began on the front page and jumped to the sports page. The Wilkinson sidebar began on the sports page. The game story was mammoth. Good thing they played in the afternoon. Bickham earned his money.
About 13 months later it was a different story. Bickham was there that day at Owen Field, too. This time, because the Sooners were home, he had help from Jack Bagby, who wrote more news than sports, and Phil Parrish.
“Sixty-two thousand football fans saw history made in Norman Saturday, but 54,000 of them wished they hadn’t.”
A reaction story, the Page 2 headline above Bagby’s jump proclaimed “Loss Spreads Gloom Over Owen Field.”
Parrish’s story looked on the bright side. The really bright side. They just don’t write ‘em like this any more:
“It’s tough to lose at any time. It was agony for the OU Sooners who had won 47 straight football games, but the remorse lasted only until a good hot shower washed away the shock of a 7-0 defeat by Notre Dame. Then a new and alien cry arose from these boys who had never known defeat on a college football field —”We’ll get ‘em next week. We’ll start a new string.”
The sports editor got to the heart of it.
“An era ended Saturday. Oklahoma lost. It was Notre Dame, the last team to defeat the Sooners (in 1953), that did it again Saturday,” Bickham wrote. “The Irish, twice beaten this season, threw up cunning defense to stop Coach Bud Wilkinson’s seemingly cold crew cold, then marched 80 yards in the final period for a 7-0 victory. Thus was shattered the all-time collegiate winning streak. It stopped at 47 games. Also ended was the all-time collegiate scoring streak. It stopped at 123 games.”
In addition to a picture of the Irish lifting coach Terry Brennan on their shoulders, there was a two-column mug shot of Wilkinson on the front page, appearing to reflect, said to have been taken in the postgame locker room.
Nobody gets that kind of access anymore. Then again, nobody wrote a column about Wilkinson’s too-conservative game-plan either.
All of it was set under a front page headline that read “Ramblers upset Sooners, 7-0, To Snap Victory String at 47.”
Bagby jumped to Page 2 and Bickham and Parrish jumped to the sports page, accompanied by five more pictures.
It was big in the 80s, too, when Barry Switzer won his last national championship, but there was no front-page story. And big in the 70s, when Switzer won two straight. It was on the front page, too, but not like it was in the 50s. And the night OU won its second straight national championship, though it had to wait to be sure after beating Michigan at the Orange Bowl, sports editor Jim Weeks was the only one in Miami carrying the Transcript’s banner.
It wasn’t 1956 and 1957, back when Sooner football was putting Norman and the state on its back.
It wasn’t, you know, everything.
As for that rallying cry Parrish wrote about after the loss, about starting a new string the next week?
Well, OU lost only once the next season, to Texas, then three times in 1959 and six times — six times! — in 1960 and five times in ‘61.
Then Wilkinson went 16-5 his last two seasons before handing over the reins to Gomer Jones, who proved much better at getting a student residence hall named after him than winning football games.
The Sooners are still waiting to beat Notre Dame again. They’ve had five chances. Saturday makes six.
Bob Stoops isn’t buying the history angle. He won’t be selling it to the players.
“I could try to engage them all I want in what happened and what and when (it happened) and I don’t think it’s going to matter,” he said.
Maybe not on the field.
But a few feet off the field, where turf famously meets brick and almost 90,000 fans, it matters.
Probably more than he’ll ever know.
Clay HorningFollow me @firstname.lastname@example.org
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