In the weeks following Bud Wilkinson’s resignation as head football coach at the University of Oklahoma and the announcement of his U.S. Senate campaign, John Cronley of The Oklahoman asked “For where do you go from Olympia?” Likening Wilkinson to the mythical Greek gods, Cronley eulogized Oklahoma’s “Golden Football Era.” The article was both forlorn and celebratory. Oklahomans knew Wilkinson was a rare talent, describing him as a “master of miracles and men.” He led them to the promised land and restored pride in the state. But, at only 47, his retirement seemed premature.
Cronley wondered if Wilkinson “was a victim of his own coaching greatness.” There was little left for him to accomplish on the gridiron. His teams won 14 conference championship and 3 national titles. They compiled massive winning streaks. He coached 36 first team All-Americans and a Heisman Trophy winner. In the process, Wilkinson became Oklahoma’s biggest cultural icon of the 1950s. The Oklahoman believed, “had he wished, he probably could have remained as football coach for life.” Instead, Wilkinson left coaching immortality for a new challenge.
In February of 1964, Wilkinson entered a special election to replace his good friend, Senator Robert S. Kerr, who died a year earlier. Death was an important motivating factor for Wilkinson. Along with the loss of Kerr, John F. Kennedy’s assassination and the death of Wilkinson’s brother pushed the coach to pursue what he considered to be a more impactful and significant career.
The senate campaign was, in many ways, a test to see how important football had become in Oklahoma. Wilkinson was the personification of the team’s success. As The Oklahoman explained “Bud Wilkinson wouldn’t be where he is in politics if it were not for the football team and his gaining favor with Democrats and Republicans by being the winningest coach in the nation.” Could the well-respected and incredibly popular Wilkinson make the jump from cultural icon to political leader? Was the impact of the OU football dynasty enough to propel him to political success? Did college football make for good politics? Those questions were debated in the papers throughout the campaign.
Prentice Gautt, the Sooners first black football player, believed Wilkinson’s role as football coach qualified him for office. An open letter to Wilkinson from the Oklahoma County for Wilkinson Club, of which Gautt was Co-Chairman, suggested that he had “done more for the prestige of the State of Oklahoma than any living person since Will Rogers.” “Through you and your efforts,” the letter continued, “Oklahoma has been lifted from the ‘Okie State’ to one of the top states in the Union.”
Not everyone agreed on Wilkinson’s qualifications. Democratic State Chairman, Gene McGill believed that the campaign would turn the former coach into a “public issue instead of a public idol.” Congressman Victor Wickersham agreed, saying:
“If he thought the Texas team was tough, just wait intil (sic) he meets up with Johnson’s team. I think he’s an excellent coach and fine gentleman. But he’s in for a rough race. He’s going to find out the rules are different.”
The general consensus among Oklahoma politicians was that Wilkinson should stick to football. His inexperience wasn’t an issue for other voters. “A non-politician for a change might improve the government” commented a University of Oklahoma senior.
Maybe the college student was right. Wilkinson cruised to an easy win in the Republican primary. The general election, however, would be even more challenging. Following the New Deal, Oklahomans predominantly identified as Democrats. Newspapers estimated the ratio at 4 to 1. The state hadn’t elected a Republican Senator since 1942. Wilkinson knew this, of course. In fact, he cited the goal of strengthening the 2-party system in Oklahoma as one of his reasons for running. He believed that Democracy needed another voice, more options on the ballot.
In the general election, Wilkinson faced Fred Harris, an Oklahoma State Senator. Harris was a skilled politician who knew the culture of Oklahoma. He painted Wilkinson as a political outsider who was a good football coach but wasn’t prepared to represent the state in Washington. This was an often repeated refrain and a major point of emphasis during the campaign. In fact, Harris’ slogan was “Prepared for the job.”
Senator Mike Monroney, Wilkinson’s good friend, echoed this sentiment. “Bud Wilkinson has been my long-time friend, and I’m deeply grateful for the service he has rendered to Oklahoma athletics,” Monroney said. “He is entering an entirely new field of endeavor requiring entirely different qualifications and skills.” It was an odd position for Monroney to be in. He didn’t “want to get involved in any political head-knocking,” especially with his friend.
Harris, on the other hand, was all for head-knocking. Wilkinson had a “Why Rome Fell” campaign speech that highlighted parallel issues in America that needed to be solved. The Harris campaign jabbed back at the former coach explaining “the real reason why Rome fell was that they decided to let the Gladiators run the government.” The witty reply was the work of Harris’ skilled aides, who were quick to put the pressure back on Wilkinson.
This was precisely the Harris strategy heading into their televised debate. Harris hoped to lay out his position and then force Wilkinson to take a stand. Up to that point Wilkinson was reluctant to outline his position. Finally, Harris asked him point-blank if he was supporting Goldwater. A bit surprised by the question, Wilkinson admitted that he was.
Because he was new to politics, Wilkinson surrounded himself with his friends, many from his time with the President’s Council on Physical Fitness, who lacked electoral experience as well. They knew how to raise money but didn’t react well to Harris’ attacks. Instead, they relied on Wilkinson’s connection to gain endorsements. The campaign brought in major politicians to stump for Wilkinson. Eisenhower topped the list, though when an illness prevented him from making the trip, they had to settle for Nixon. Goldwater didn’t make the trip to Oklahoma but mentioned Wilkinson in a speech in nearby Texas. Harris had his own visitors to Oklahoma, too, including President Johnson. But perhaps the most controversial stumper was Strom Thurmond. The Wilkinson campaign sent him to drum up support in the Little Dixie region of southeastern Oklahoma. It proved to be a major blunder. According to Wilkinson’s opponent Fred Harris, “my campaign got an extra benefit from Senator Thurmond’s Oklahoma visit … Thurmond wound up scaring the daylights out of even a lot of conservative white voters with his jingoist speeches, advocating for the escalation of the American war effort in Vietnam.”
Despite these blunders, the race remained close to the very end. Following a speech to the National Press Club in Washington D.C. in September, Wilkinson was asked, “Which is the worst racket — collegiate athletics or politics?” Coaches, he replied, look for “talent good enough to win,” but “in politics, anybody’s a prospect.” Yet, John Cronley recalled that as a coach “never was he fully sold on recruiting.” Would Wilkinson be willing to recruit much needed voters?
The football and politics questions remained a constant throughout the race. Many wondered what impact the 1964 OU football season would have on the race. How would the absence of the beloved coach affect the team? And would the team’s record influence the election? Some believed “if Oklahoma beat Texas it will cost Wilkinson 50,000 votes” because they hadn’t beaten the Longhorns during his last 5 years. A win would mean that Gomer Jones, Wilkinson’s replacement, should have taken over sooner. Others hypothesized that a loss would hurt Wilkinson too because the team needed its leader. Fans and voters would blame him for abandoning the team.
On October 10th, Texas defeated Oklahoma 28 to 7. It was the second loss of the year for Sooners, who began the season ranked #2. A week later they lost again, this time to Kansas by a margin of 15 to 14. The season seemed to be slipping away. Despite these results, Wilkinson still held a slim lead according to an October 23rd New York Times article. The former coach was poised to weather the storm and add one more victory to his impressive resume.
But Harris refused to go away. He canvassed the entire state, shaking hands and giving speeches in small towns. He outworked Wilkinson. The big city newspapers endorsed Wilkinson and the coach carried Oklahoma City and Tulsa, but Harris’ extra work paid off. In any other year the coach would probably have won, but the political novice supported Goldwater and stood with the Republican platform. Wilkinson was caught in the wake of the Johnson landslide and lost by less than 22,000 votes.
“For where do you go from Olympia?” Wilkinson still didn’t know. Perhaps gods don’t make good politicians.
Andrew McGregor is a PhD Candidate at Purdue University and the founder of this blog. His dissertation explores the impact of Bud Wilkinson and college football on Oklahoma. You can reach him via email at email@example.com or on Twitter: @admcgregor85