- Wishbone: Oklahoma Football, 1959–1985
Since World War II, the University of Oklahoma (OU) stands as America’s winningest intercollegiate football program. Journalist Wann Smith has written a detailed narrative of 1950s–1980s OU football, based on extensive interviews. The apparent target audience, Sooners football fans, will likely find it appealing. Scholars, however, will find the book sorely lacking in historical context and critical perspective.
The book’s greatest strength is its original research. As the endnotes attest, Smith combed newspapers and interviewed numerous individuals from 2006 to 2010, including coaches Barry Switzer and Gene Hochevar of OU, as well as Darrell Royal and Emory Bellard of Texas. He also interviewed players such as John Tatum, Greg Pruitt, Kenny King, and Spencer Tillman, as well as the son of OU coach Bud Wilkinson. Lengthy quotations pepper the narrative, giving the book much of its lively character. This strength, however, soon turns into a liability. Multiple quotations include assertions that Smith fails to examine critically. Are we sure that “[r]ace was never an issue” in the 1970s, as Elvis Peacock stated (p. 174) in a 2010 interview? This assertion is reinforced by a 2010 Switzer quotation (p. 156), but the history of race at OU in the era of civil rights and Black Power must have been more complex than the rosy portrait painted by Smith and his interview subjects. In another section that will give critical readers pause, Switzer admitted to giving student-athlete Billy Sims $1,500 in 1978 (p. 238). Was this aid offered with the knowledge of the National Collegiate Association of America (NCAA) or OU officials? Did Switzer break any rules? Smith never tells us; he does not even acknowledge that this action may have been questionable.
Wishbone is a work of chronos, not kairos. The story, although occasionally dramatic, plods through nineteen chronological chapters. While one can certainly appreciate Smith’s attention to detail, the reader quickly gets overwhelmed by the litany of Texas showdowns, Nebraska matchups, and Orange Bowl invitations. A welcome relief is the October 1970 chapter dedicated to the wishbone offense (pp. 119–126). Had the author included more thematic chapters—perhaps focused on rivalries, race relations, recruiting practices, or administrative expectations for coaches, just to name a few—the book could have been more interesting to non-partisans and more useful for sport historians.
Although the book does address some historically significant issues, they are buried in the monotonous chronological organization. For example, readers occasionally glimpse a strange, mid-1900s athletic world in which recruiting practices were not fully standardized and coaches occasionally treated each other as colleagues, not just competitors. An [End Page 367] important passage discusses, albeit not by name, the U.S. Supreme Court case NCAA v. Board of Regents of the University of Oklahoma (1984), which ruled that the NCAA violated antitrust laws by limiting universities’ ability to profit from televised football (pp. 258–260). Such discussions are too brief, and they can hardly be located via an index that is almost entirely comprised of names. There are no entries for the 1984 court case or the NCAA; there is not even a dedicated entry for “wishbone.” The bibliography is similarly weak: only six of its twenty-eight titles can be construed as academic works, and it does not list the interviews.
Finally, a major flaw of the book is that Barry Switzer’s ignominious 1989 resignation is quickly swept under the rug with a long, self-serving quotation in the epilogue. A momentarily inattentive reader might miss the startling fact that four OU players committed unspecified felonies—gang rape and selling cocaine, according to a book listed in Smith’s bibliography—under Switzer’s watch. Like other hagiographic titles penned with football enthusiasts in mind, this book is not critical of collegiate sport. No doubt, many fans see universities as athletic organizations that also grant degrees. But critical readers, who might reasonably expect more from a university press, will want to understand the extent to which...