- Wishbone: Oklahoma Football, 1959–1985
Wann Smith’s Wishbone will certainly appeal to college football fans, especially followers of the Oklahoma Sooners. However, readers seeking to understand college football within the larger historical and cultural context of the United [End Page 222] States from 1959 to 1985 will find this volume of limited value. Smith, a free-lance writer and journalist, provides a readable narrative of Sooner football based upon university sport archives and extensive interviews with former Oklahoma players and coaches. The drama of Saturday games is described in considerable detail; yet Wishbone fails to consider the winds of change sweeping through college campuses during the 1960s and 1970s. With the exception of acknowledging the importance of recruiting black athletes, Smith’s history tends to take place within a cultural vacuum.
While Smith’s volume is somewhat narrow in its focus, he has chosen to examine one of the most successful college football programs in post-World War II America. Smith begins his narrative history in 1959 when the glory days of Oklahoma football under the direction of Coach Bud Wilkinson were beginning to fade. Wilkinson, who assumed the coaching reins at Oklahoma in 1947, led the team to national championships in 1950, 1956, and 1957. But from 1959 through 1961, the Sooners under Wilkinson won fifteen games against an equal number of defeats and one tie. Wilkinson, who was occupied with various coaching clinics and serving as director for President John Kennedy’s Council on Physical Fitness, seemed to be losing his recruiting edge. Nevertheless, Wilkinson’s club enjoyed resurgence in 1962 and 1963 before the coach resigned to seek elective office.
Following a legend proved to be difficult for Wilkinson’s longtime assistant Gomer Jones who compiled a losing record in two seasons as a head coach. To replace Jones, the University of Oklahoma tapped Arkansas assistant coach Jim Mackenzie. The hardworking McKenzie, however, died from a heart attack and was replaced by his assistant Chuck Fairbanks. Under Fairbanks, the 1967 Oklahoma team finished second in the nation and won the Big Eight Conference title, but after this initial success the Sooners slumped to a 6–4 mark in 1969.
In October 1970, Fairbanks, concerned about his job security, adopted the high risk, triple option wishbone offense which restored Oklahoma to national prominence. Ironically, Fairbanks was given considerable assistance in learning this offense from archrival University of Texas coach Darrell Royal, who had played at Oklahoma for Wilkinson. For those seeking more inside football knowledge, Smith surprisingly provides little information regarding the intricacies of the wishbone offense.
After the 1972 season and a second place national ranking, Fairbanks left Oklahoma for professional football. He was replaced by assistant Barry Switzer, who would return Oklahoma to the national prominence of the Wilkinson era. Continuing to employ the wishbone formation, Switzer’s Oklahoma teams won national championships in 1974, 1975, and 1985. To run the wishbone, Switzer recruited outstanding African American athletes such as Elvis Peacock, Billy Sims, J. C. Watts, and Joe Washington—all of whom acknowledged the coach’s color blind attitude. The Switzer era came to an end in 1988 when the coach resigned following criminal charges filed against some of his recruits.
Smith’s tale of football excellence at the University of Oklahoma in Norman will delight many football fans. But it is a rather uncritical account. There is little analysis of why controversial but gifted athletes such as Joe Don Looney and Marcus Dupree left the football program. In addition, there is no effort to consider the sociological and financial impact of college football upon higher education in the United States. Instead, Wishbone is a celebration of football on the field, [End Page 223] even as some of the details of October games with Texas and November contests with Nebraska grow a little repetitious.