Beyond Football: The Political Career of Bud Wilkinson (part 1)

On Saturday, November 23, 1963, Oklahoma and Nebraska were schedule to meet in Lincoln. It was an important game in the Big 8 standings. The Sooners were 7-1 going into the game, 5-0 in conference play. Their only loss that season was to Darrell Royal and a pesky Texas team that seemed to always have Oklahoma’s number.

Nebraska had a good team. They were 8-1 and undefeated heading into their last conference game. Their only loss came against a tough Air Force team. The matchup between the Sooners and Cornhuskers would decide the conference championship.

The Sooners were confident before the game, though Coach Bud Wilkinson, as he did every week, praised the opponent and suggested they might be the better team. Oklahomans knew the truth. In his 16 years at OU, Wilkinson’s Sooners had only lost to Nebraska twice. Oklahoma was the one, true Big Red.

The team flew to Nebraska on Friday morning. They arrived and had lunch at the hotel before tragedy intervened. President John F. Kennedy had been shot in Dallas. Initial reports listed him as seriously wounded but by late afternoon reality had sunk in. The president was dead.

His assassination sent shockwaves throughout the country and the sank the nation into mourning. The assassination had a profound impact on the Oklahoma football program. More than any other football team in the country, the Sooners had a close connection to Kennedy. Coach Wilkinson was friends with Kennedy, and the president seemed to take an interest in the team. The previous January he visited them in the locker room before their Orange Bowl matchup against the University of Alabama. During his short visit he joked that “I thought I’d drop by to see who was physically fit” because Wilkinson was Director of his President’s Council for Physical Fitness. Unfortunately, the Sooners lost that game to the more fit Crimson Tide.

Kennedy’s death rattled the Oklahoma team and their coach. Across the country dozens of games were called off or postponed. These included several major rivalry games such as Harvard – Yale, Wisconsin – Minnesota, as well as Duke – North Carolina, Boston College – Boston University, and Columbia at Rutgers. In-state rival Oklahoma State cancelled their home game against Kansas State, too. On the Tuesday following the president’s death, Army and Navy announced that they were postponing their annual game one week at the request of the Kennedy family.

While most of the college football world responded this way, some teams went ahead and played. Friday night following the assassination, the Nebraska Board of Regents announced that the game with Oklahoma would go on. The Nebraska Board was “deeply sorrowful about the death of President Kennedy,” but believed that “the people of the State of Nebraska wish to have the Nebraska-Oklahoma game as scheduled.” “This will be done.” their statement read.

This was undoubtedly done with some scheduling concerns in mind. The matchup with the Sooners was the last game on Nebraska’s schedule, but the following week Oklahoma was set to take on Oklahoma State. Cancelling the game would affect the Big 8 standings, and postponing it would push it back two weeks to December 7th. There were also issues of travel and expenses, the chaos of refunding and exchanging tickets. And, Oklahoma was already in Lincoln. Faced with a tough decision, Nebraska opted to play the game.

The University of Oklahoma, of course, had to agree to play. They did. According to University President George Cross, it was a difficult decision for him to make. Cross consulted with Oklahoma Governor Henry Bellmon, who left it up to him. He consulted with Wilkinson and the team. They thought playing the game would maintain a sense normalcy and give people a distraction from the tragic events. Some reports even claim that Wilkinson discussed the matter with Bobby Kennedy over the phone, and he suggested they play.

The game was played in front of a dour, cheerless crowd. It was a sloppy game marked by turnovers. The first half was a defensive battle. Oklahoma held tough allowing only a Nebraska field goal, but failed to score. The Sooners’ woes continues in the second half. They lost three fumbles in the third quarter before throwing two interceptions in the fourth. The Cornhuskers led 29-7 with 5:43 left in the game.

Despite the long odds, Oklahoma continued to fight back. Starting at their own 25 yard line, the Sooners found their rhythm. They ran for two quick gains of four yards. The next play resulted in an incomplete pass as the defense hit the quarterback. He was shaken up and replaced. The new quarterback pitched the ball for a deft, six yard rush and a first down. Next, OU took to the air for back-to-back completions of 16 and 15 yards. Now at the Nebraska 31, momentum was building. Three plays later, Oklahoma cut the deficit to 29-14 on a reverse that went for 27-yards. A minute and fifty-seven seconds remained. They were racing the clock.

The defense was once again formidable, recovering a fumble on the third play of the Nebraska drive. It was Oklahoma ball at the Cornhusker 25 yard line with 42 seconds left. On first down, the Sooners threw a quick strike for a touchdown. The 2-point conversion failed, but Oklahoma was inching closer.

A fumble on the ensuing onside-kick nearly gave the Sooners another possession, but Nebraska was able to corral the ball. They kneeled on the next play, and escaped with a 29-20 victory.

After the game, in his weekly “Football Letter,” Wilkinson wrote, “It seems perhaps a bit strange to say that I am truly proud of our team after losing the conference championship. Yet I am. You are never actually defeated until you give up.” Amidst the chaos and the tragedy surrounding the Nebraska game, the Sooners refused to give up. They rebounded the following week defeating Oklahoma State 34-10 and finished the season 8-2.

Immediately following the season, rumors began to swirl about Wilkinson’s coaching future. Unlike earlier in his career, Sooner fans were not worried about him being lured to another coaching job, but rather leaving sports altogether for a political career. Wilkinson had long shown an interest in politics. During the early 1950s he develop close relationships with Oklahoma’s two U.S. Senators, Robert S. Kerr and A.S. “Mike” Monroney. He also became close with President Kennedy and his brothers while serving as the director of the President’s Council for Physical Fitness. Presidents Eisenhower and Truman were fond of Wilkinson too, and took in Oklahoma games. Truman had the utmost respect for Wilkinson, telling the The Oklahoman “it’s a lot tougher to be a football coach than a president.”

Wilkinson, of course, never thought of becoming president, though running for Governor or Senator did cross his mind. Indeed, in 1961 Oklahoma newspapers were filled with rumors that Wilkinson might run for governor. Both parties wanted him, but ultimately their recruitment efforts failed. Neither could seal the deal. The speculation continued, however. When Senator Kerr died in January of 1963, Wilkinson’s name immediately came up as a possible replacement. He had experience in Washington. He was likeable and well-spoken, friends with the president, and there was no beating his name recognition.

Four days after the Oklahoma State game, Wilkinson’s son, Jay, did little to quell the speculation. On December 4th, the Oklahoma Daily printed an AP article at the bottom of its front page. The headline read “Jay Hopes Bud Will Run.” Through Jay did not know for sure if his father would run, he believed “He’d make a great senator.”

The idea of a sports figure turned politician was peculiar. Boxing hero John “Old Smoke” Morrissey did it in the 1860s as a Congressman from New York. So too did Gerald Ford, who in 1963 was a Representative from Michigan climbing the ladder of Congressional leadership. But neither of them had quite the same acclaim or cushy position. Ford turned down the NFL during an era when salaries were minimal and the league was viewed as second-rate behind the college game. Morrissey was done boxing; past his prime. Wilkinson, on the other hand, was 47. His teams had won 3 national championships and compiled winning streaks of 31 and 47 games. The 1963 season was only the third time his Oklahoma teams failed to win their conference in his 17 years. The idea of leaving all of that behind for a shot at politics seemed ridiculous.

But Wilkinson was considering it. He did little to deny the rumors. Tension was building around the Oklahoma football program.

Caught in the middle was University President George Cross. Since 1961 he’d been responding to questions and rumors about Wilkinson’s political ambitions. In his book President’s Can’t Punt, Cross recounts a story of at least one member of the OU Board of Regents, with the blessing of the sitting governor, trying to convince Wilkinson to “take a leave of absence” and run for Governor in 1962. Wilkinson discussed the proposal with Cross, who believed that the coach never took it seriously.

The whole thing struck Cross as odd. The board member and the governor seemed to be oblivious to university guidelines because “the university had a specific policy that any of its employees who ran for major public office must resign.” While undoubtedly relieved by Wilkinson’s lack of interest, Cross sensed that his interest in coaching was waning. In fact, he openly admitted this disinterest to Cross when discussing an offer to coach at Stanford between the 1961 and ‘62 seasons. Wilkinson thought a change might re-energize him.

Cross was unsure what made Wilkinson stay. Perhaps it was the lure of politics on the horizon and his in-state connections. Or maybe it was the positive outlook for the 1962 season. The program was on NCAA probation in 1960, and the Sooners had the worst two seasons of the Wilkinson era in 1960 and 1961. The promise of the 1962 team may have given the coach hope that the worst was behind him.

The 1962 season was indeed a success. Wilkinson claimed his fourteenth conference title and a berth in the Orange Bowl. With President Kennedy on hand, Bear Bryant and the Alabama Crimson Tide, led by a young, cocky Joe Namath, pummeled the Sooners in Miami 17-0. Though no one knew it at the time, it would be Wilkinson’s last bowl game. The loss to Nebraska in 1963 cost Wilkinson’s Sooners both the Big 8 and a repeat trip to the Orange Bowl.

Instead of enjoying the warm Miami sun in January 1964, Wilkinson was dodging questions and writing press releases. Though Wilkinson informally told President Cross he was resigning as head football coach “a few days after the football season,” he wanted to wait a few weeks before they announced it publicly so that he could craft a statement. At the time of this conversation, Cross indicated that Wilkinson had not yet decided to run for Senate and expressed his desire to remain Oklahoma’s athletic director.

The announcement of Wilkinson’s official resignation finally came on January 11th, 1964. In his statement Wilkinson confirmed that he was considering running for Senate, but added “my resignation is not motivated by politics.” Instead, Wilkinson was hoping to end speculation about his future for the good of the team. “I’ve been asked at the end, or near the end, of every season since 1957 when I was going to resign,” he explained. “I would have liked to have decided earlier,” he continued, “but I’ve been to Minneapolis three times since the end of the season. My brother’s recent illness and death have added to my responsibility to his widow and my mother.” Wilkinson also cited the President’s Council on Physical Fitness “as an increasing obligation.”

It is clear that these new burdens weighed on Wilkinson. As recently as September 1963, he told The Oklahoman that “I enjoy coaching very much and as long as I can do an effective job I have no thought of retiring.” “Seriously, I’d be most surprised if I ever left Oklahoma. I’m very happy here at the university,” he added. But Wilkinson was careful to avoid absolutes, “the future just isn’t that certain.” The death of his brother and President Kennedy, were two of those uncertainties.

Reflecting on what made his Dad quit coaching, Jay Wilkinson believed Kennedy’s assassination was a major factor. Though he sometimes disagreed with the President, they had a level of mutual respect that provided Wilkinson with both frequent access to the White House and the freedom to administer the President’s Council on Physical Fitness as he saw fit. Wilkinson frequently told people that he thought his working Washington was more important than his work in Oklahoma. He believed in public service and doing more than sports. The death of his friend, Kennedy, signaled it was time to step up.

Wilkinson’s long awaited entry to Senate race was complicated and delayed for almost a month after he resigned. The main issue was that remained Oklahoma’s athletic director. The board thought this was a strong armed move to force them to hire his long time assistant Gomer Jones. They felt that it prevented OU’s ability to attract good replacement candidates because most would want both jobs — head football coach and athletic director.

Wilkinson meant no harm by his decision to retain the title. He cited other former coaches who left the sideline but stayed athletic director. Instead, he thought the board was playing politics; trying to force him to make a move. They wanted to know not only if he was going to run for senate, but which party he’d affiliate with. Wilkinson had long been rumored to be a Democrat.  He worked with Kennedy after all, and he was a close-friend of Oklahoma Senator Mike Monroney. The Oklahoman described Monroney as “a post-game kibitzer in the Wilkinson kitchen” and Wilkinson as “a social drawing card among the Monroney’s top level guests” in Washington. Their relationship was both personal and professional. Despite these relationship, many observs recall seeing Wilkinson wear an “I Like Ike” pin in 1956. He had also become close with Oklahoma’s Republican Governor, Henry Bellmon. No one knew for sure where his loyalties lay.

On February 5, 1964 Wilkinson officially entered the race. A week earlier he switched his registration from Democrat to Republican. All of the questions had been answered except one, would Wilkinson win?

Andrew McGregor is a PhD Candidate in History at Purdue University and the founder of this blog. You can reach him via email at amcgrego@purdue.edu or on Twitter: @admcgregor85

2 thoughts on “Beyond Football: The Political Career of Bud Wilkinson (part 1)

  1. Pingback: Abundant Sources & Indecisiveness | Andrew McGregor

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