The Bud Wilkinson Show: Television, the NCAA, and the Cold War

By Andrew McGregor

During the fall of 1953 Bud Wilkinson, head coach of the University of Oklahoma, launched his own coach’s show. The fifteen-minute program initially aired live on Tuesday nights at 10:15 p.m. on Oklahoma City’s WKY-TV. Plainly titled “Bud Wilkinson’s Football,” newspapers simply described it as “OU’s famous coach discusses football.”[1] The show debuted on September 8, 1953, two weeks prior to Oklahoma’s season opener against Notre Dame, making it the first show of its kind.

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Bud Wilkinson hosting his TV show.

Frank Leahy, head coach of the University of Notre Dame, started a similar fifteen-minute show later that month. The Frank Leahy Show debuted Sunday September 27, 1953 on ABC as a pregame show of the airing of the OU-Notre Dame game film and highlights from the previous day’s game. The show featured an interview with Bud Wilkinson and discussion of the game.[2] Leahy retired following the 1953 season, and transitioned into a regular TV personality and proto-sports analyst. His show continued, but transformed from a coach’s show into traditional football coverage.

Both shows represent the pushback by major college football programs against the NCAA in the ongoing and contentious fight over television. Eager to reap the financial benefits and increased publicity of television, Notre Dame and Oklahoma challenged the NCAA’s authority. With the NCAA – supported by the powerful Big Ten, PCC, and Ivy Group – refusing to relent, Leahy and Wilkinson got creative. This post looks at the development of Bud Wilkinson’s coach’s show and puts it in the context of the debates over TV.

* * * * *

The appearance of television on the college athletics landscape posed a challenge to the status quo, threatening the viability of college athletics and prompting the NCAA into action. According to historian John Sayle Watterson, college football attendance steadily increased following the Great Depression. In 1949, however, attendance declined by 1.3%, surprising many observers, especially when they looked at regional figures that showed a more precipitous drop.[3] Athletic administrator’s immediately blamed TV coverage and the NCAA organized a television committee in 1950 to further investigate the matter.

Declining attendance at college football games worried college leaders because they relied on ticket sales to fund their athletic departments, and in some cases, their universities. Writing in the Saturday Evening Post in 1933, the famed football coach Glenn “Pop” Warner explained, “a big game will sometimes net nearly $200,000 for each of the competing teams, and an outstanding money making team with a good schedule could earn the better part of $1,000,000 in a football season of only three months.”[4] Because of this, Warner continued, “football at many institutions has been Santa Claus not only for the other sports, such as baseball, basketball, track and rowing, but also for the whole educational plan in some instances.”[5] Decreasing attendance, then, threatened the solvency of both athletic departments and colleges as a whole. As an imminent danger to intercollegiate athletics, television offered the NCAA the opportunity to reorient its control and influence in the wake of the failure of the Sanity Code.

The NCAA instituted its TV Plan beginning with an experimental year in 1951. Designed by the NCAA’s TV Committee and approved by 161- 7 vote of the NCAA’s members, the plan limited live-broadcasts of football games to 20 that season, restricted the number of times a team could appear on TV, and included a blackout mechanism to prevent televised games from affecting game attendance. Unlike in previous years where individual colleges or conferences sold their own TV rights, the NCAA negotiated the contract and divided the revenue among member schools. The plan’s restrictions, lesser payout, and the NCAAs skimming of money off the top angered several universities.[6] Notre Dame and the University of Pennsylvania previously had much more lucrative TV deals, and wondered if the NCAA over exerted its power and if the plan was even legal.[7]

While attendance was important in Oklahoma too, state legislators and Sooners fans were in favor of televising games. As the NCAA began implementing its TV Plan, which restricted live-broadcasts, Oklahomans pushed back. The University of Oklahoma languished in the middle, caught between the new authority of the NCAA and dictates of the state legislature. In April of 1951 the Oklahoma legislature joined a handful of states passing resolutions – and considering more stringent action – requiring that the games of their state universities be televised.[8] The Oklahoma resolution copied the language of Nebraska’s Legislative Resolution No. 3 passed in February.[9] The resolutions suggested that college football was a public good, and that many fans were unable to attend games “on account of the size, distance from the stadium and other physical circumstances.”[10] It further noted that “all loyal Oklahomans like to see their University team in action,” borrowing language from the Cold War and Red Scare to emphasize the central role college football played in the American way of life. Indeed, loyal Americans watched college football.

The NCAA’s TV plan reflected the inconsistencies in Cold War rhetoric, however. As Jeffrey Montez de Oca has written, the logic of the NCAA plan mirrored the idea of containment. Limiting TV broadcasts protected college football, and the American way of life, because doing so ensured the solvency of physical education programs more broadly. The over commercialization of college football would threaten attendance, which would impact the revenue needed to operate intramural programs and minor sports. On the surface this seems slightly silly because today the revenue from TV rights far exceeds attendance, but in the 1950s the concern was not just about big-time football programs. Small schools were the most threatened by TV, and the NCAA plan was aimed at protecting them and the opportunities they provided. The irony, of course, is that the TV plan also meant limiting capitalism and the free market. During the Cold War, free market capitalism needed regulation –to be contained – in order to protect and preserve important American institutions. The NCAA’s emergence as cartel during this period played uncomfortably with the tensions between unfettered capitalism and socialism.

While the University of Oklahoma and the members of the Big 7 agreed to follow the NCAA’s new TV Plan, the state legislature refused to acquiesce. State Senator George Miskovsky was particularly combative, calling the NCAA TV ban an “unlawful coercion” and “an unlawful monopoly.”[11] Miskovsky played a prominent role in a series of legislative moves aimed at challenging the NCAA. He also appealed to the Department of Justice to investigate the TV Committee’s practices and decisions. Of particular concern was ensuring the broadcasting of the 1953 Oklahoma-Notre Dame game throughout the state. Under the TV plan, the game would not be aired in the Tulsa area because Oklahoma City was considered the “home station” of OU. This left many Sooners fans unable to see the contest, which had been sold out for months. Broadcasting the game and ignoring the NCAA’s rules, however, would result in the suspension of the University of Oklahoma and a ban of OU teams from competing in NCAA sanction events.

Miskovsky refused to give up, complaining that the NCAA was subjecting Oklahomans “to a new kind of gangsterism, from an illegal gang” and wanted OU to call their bluff.[12] He believed that OU could win a lawsuit against the NCAA for illegal restraint of trade. A similar lawsuit already existed, however. It was against the NFL, not the NCAA, but its decision would impact the TV plan. Because of the ongoing suit, the NCAA had free reign, knowing that the Department of Justice and other agencies would take no action until it was concluded. Frustrated, Miskovsky continued to push those around him to do something. When it became clear that the NCAA would uphold its TV limitations and Tulsa residents would be unable to see the 1953 Oklahoma Notre Dame game, he urged Oklahoma Governor Johnston Murray to declare martial law at the stadium “to repel any NCAA enforcement.”[13]The governor, who was on vacation in Florida, thought that would be too extreme, and left the ultimate TV decision to the OU Regents.

Ultimately the Regents voted to follow the NCAA rule. Although the vote was unanimous, Regent Quentin Little empathized with Miskovsky. Little was also upset with the NCAA’s heavy handedness and undemocratic nature, asking, “Does the University belong to the NCAA or the citizens of Oklahoma?”[14] These questions of democratic ownership and loyalty, free market competition and collective security plagued many Cold War institutions.

* * * * *

On Saturday, September 26, 1953, Notre Dame defeated Oklahoma 28 to 21. It was the last game OU would lose for the next 4 seasons. The ensuing 47-game winning streak propelled Bud Wilkinson into a national figure. Wilkinson’s fame was helped by more than winning, however, his TV savvy also played an important role. With live-broadcasts severely limited by the NCAA, innovative and alternative broadcasts became a way for coaches and universities to satisfy their fans and boost their images. Most colleges chose to play their highlights and game films on TV. Oklahoma was ahead of the curve, however, and understood the power of television. The development of Bud Wilkinson’s coach’s show to accompany game films represented this savvy, and ultimately helped Oklahoma work within the NCAA’s TV limitations to promote their University and football team.

Howard Neumann developed the concept for Wilkinson’s TV show. Neumann, who worked in television and advertising in Oklahoma City, co-hosted and produced the show. He used his connections to secure sponsors and studio space. Neumann severed a second personality to direct the discussion for a lay audience. Ned Hockman, the Director of Film Production at the University of Oklahoma, also helped film the program.[15] Despite Neumann’s lead role, Wilkinson remained heavily involved in planning the program. Wilkinson offered his input on things such as graphics and developed alternate questions depending on whether Oklahoma won or lost.[16]

Though the NCAA TV Plan severely limited live broadcasts, football obsessed Oklahomans took solace in the weekly airing of game films. WKY-TV in Oklahoma City aired the games on Thursday evening in 1953, before moving them to Sunday afternoon in subsequent seasons. Accompanying Sooner games on WKY-TV was the Bud Wilkinson Show. The first of its kind, the short 15-minute program pioneered the modern coach’s show. Early versions of the show served as a both a preview of upcoming games and a commentary on highlights from the previous week’s matchup.

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Wilkinson demonstrating a play with his “little men.”

Over the next several seasons, the show moved time slots and expanded. The show grew to thirty minutes in length for the 1956 season. In the longer version of the show, Wilkinson led in-depth discussions of the X’s and O’s, using a chalkboard and his magnetic “little men” to diagram plays. Some shows also featured demonstrations of new football technology, such as “injury hip pads,” while others featured guests and coaching demonstrations, like former Notre Dame coach Frank Leahy, Michigan State coach Duffy Daugherty, and Georgia Tech coach Bobby Dodd. A key component of the longer version was providing “the ‘behind-the-scenes’ aspects of key plays, and players.”[17]

Wilkinson also offered “tips for youngsters on how to train for football” and explained “commonly misunderstood rules.”[18] In this way, the show served an important pedagogical function. It gave viewers important lessons about masculinities, physical fitness, and better helped them understand key components of the American way of life (i.e. football). This function of Wilkinson’s show foreshadows his later involvement as the director of John F. Kennedy’s President’s Council on Physical Fitness aimed at combatting the Cold War “muscle gap.”

Following the success and popularity of the Bud Wilkinson Show in the fall of 1953, Wilkinson was approached about doing a nationally syndicated sports program. The new show, called “Sports for the Family,” was carried by over 40 stations and began in 1954. The fifteen-episode program featured Wilkinson talking about multiple sports, including ten episodes on football, two on bowling, and one on golf, basketball, and baseball each. [19] Wilkinson, Neumann, and Hockman filmed the show during the summer break in the little theater at Oklahoma City’s Municipal Auditorium to avoid distracting Wilkinson from his coaching duties.[20]

“Sports for the Family” was a hit. Sponsors quickly lined up to produce more series in following years. The titles of the new shows varied, including, for example, “Inside Football with Bud Wilkinson” and “Inside Sports with Bud Wilkinson.” These shows continued in a similar format, but attracted big name guests such as Bob Hope, Patty Berg, and Doak Walker. Amidst the commercial success of the show, Wilkinson and his partners refused to accept sponsorships from liquor, beer, or cigarette companies, instead choosing the U.S. National Guard.[21] The National Guard hoped to use Wilkinson to help them with recruitment. As the Sooners’ winning streak continued, he became an increasingly more impressive figure. Yet, Wilkinson was not chosen just for his coaching prowess, Hollywood recognized his unique acting skills and ease in front of the camera. He was hard working, well prepared, and easy to work with, unlike other big name coaches or actors.[22]

* * * * *

It is unclear what the NCAA thought of Wilkinson’s show or involvement with TV, but Oklahomans loved it. He boosted the Sooners’ football program and the state. His programs offered an alternative way to get the Oklahoma “brand” out there. The combination of the Sooners’ winning streak and Wilkinson’s TV fame helped facilitate the rehabilitation of the state’s image, distancing the state from the pejorative “Okie” stereotype.

In time, Wilkinson, and the Sooner football program, came to embody the quintessential Cold Warrior. When Kennedy famously told his aides “I want someone like Bud Wilkinson” to lead his Presidents Council on Youth Fitness in 1961, his name likely sprang to mind not just because of Oklahoma’s success but also due to his national profile. Wilkinson’s national sports shows put him in the living rooms of millions of people. They also turned him into a spokesman for the National Guard. In addition to being a successful coach, he was friendly, handsome, and well spoken. Kennedy knew that he would be the perfect ambassador for physical fitness because he already was.

The show did not solely benefit Wilkinson, Oklahoma greatly benefited as well. His show gave the football program, university, and state a national profile. It attracted new fans that enjoyed his show and felt compelled to root for him.[23] Although national recruiting had not yet taken hold, the show inspired recruits to consider Oklahoma. Prentice Gautt, Oklahoma’s first African American football player, recalls watching the show and wanting to play for Wilkinson as a result.

Finally, the Bud Wilkinson Show played an important Cold War function — it taught physical fitness to youths and instructed fans on the sport, spreading the American way of life. Indeed, as Jeffrey Montez de Oca has argued, TV shows and articles about college football played an important pedagogical role in instilling proper American values centered on consumerism and physical activity. For Montez de Oca, consuming football on TV represented a kind of fortified masculinity, that allowed men to preserve their virility by participating in the ritual of college football and exercising to stay physically fit, while also living a suburban, consumerist life. While the NCAA often privileged a certain type of consumption of college football – stadium attendance – shows like Bud Wilkinson’s served an important role and operated within the NCAA’s framework cementing college football’s place in Cold War culture. While it impossible to fully unpack the complexity of the Cold War era and the connections between football, physical fitness, masculinity, and television in this short space, it is clear that the coach’s show emerged as a key space within this culture. Bud Wilkinson’s show highlights these connections, underscores the priorities of Oklahomans, and helps us question the often-confusing logic of the NCAA.

Andrew McGregor is a PhD Candidate in the Department of History at Purdue University, where he teaches courses in history and African-American studies. He is also the founding co-editor of this blog. His current research explores the intersections of college football, race, masculinity, and politics in postwar America through the lens of Bud Wilkinson and the University of Oklahoma football dynasty. You can reach him via email at amcgrego@purdue.edu or on Twitter:@admcgregor85

Notes:


[1] The show varied times eventually moving to Thursdays at 7:30 p.m. later in the season. “This Week WKY-TV Low Band Channel 4” The Oklahoma, 6 Sept 1953, 56.
[2] Tim Brooks and Earle R. Marsh, The Complete Directory to Prime Time Network and Cable TV Shows, 1946-Present 9th edition, (New York: Ballantine Books, 2007), p. 498.
[3] ); John Sayle Watterson, College Football: History, Spectacle, Controversy, (Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000), p. 264.
[4]Glenn S. “Pop” Warner, “Football’s New Deal,” Saturday Evening Post, 7 October 1933, p. 80.
[5] Ibid.
[6] There is a vast literature on college football and TV during the 1950s see, for example: Howard P. Chudacoff Changing the Playbook: How Power, Profit, and Politics Transformed College Sports, (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2015), p. 48-54; Jeffrey Montez de Oca, Discipline and Indulgence: College Football, Media, and the American Way of Life during the Cold War, (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2013), p.78-92; Ronald A. Smith, Play-by-Play: Radio, Television, and Big-Time College Sport, (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001), p. 72-78, 85-92; Watterson, College Football , p. 265-277.
[7] University of Notre Dame President Cavanaugh outlines these concerns in a press release. John J. Cavanaugh, Statement on the Question of Televising College Football Games, 15 June 1951 in Football – Television 1950 Folder, Box 77, Cross Papers, University Archives, Western History Collection, University of Oklahoma Libraries, Norman, OK.
[8] Watterson notes that Illinois and Minnesota passed similar resolutions. Ohio and Michigan considered it, but were persuaded against it. Watterson, College Football, p. 271; Senate Concurrent Resolution No. 13, 18 April 1951, in Football – Television 1950 Folder, Box 77, Cross Papers, University Archives, Western History Collection, University of Oklahoma Libraries, Norman, OK.
[9] Legislative Resolution No. 3, 26 February 1951 in in Football – Television 1950 Folder, Box 77, Cross Papers, University Archives, Western History Collection, University of Oklahoma Libraries, Norman, OK.
[10] Senate Concurrent Resolution No. 13, 18 April 1951.
[11] “Senator Renews Battle for Grid Television at OU,” The Oklahoman, 29 Aug 1952, p. 49.
[12] Bill Van Dyke, “Regents Will Obey Football TV Limit,” The Oklahoman, 24 Sept 1953, p. 1.
[13] Ibid.
[14] Bill Van Dyke, “Regents Will Obey Football TV Limit,” The Oklahoman, 24 Sept 1953, p. 2.
[15] “The Bud Wilkinson Show,” Oklahoma Today, Fall 1959, p. 9. You can see episodes of the show here: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PL73jnAiD15NDJEhEDa661eLYti6SbQtwM
[16] Jay Wilkinson with Gretchen Hirsch, Bud Wilkinson: An Intimate Portrait of an American Legend, (Champaign, IL: Sagamore Publishing, 1994), p. 146-147.
[17] Jack Sherry, “Televiews,” The Oklahoman, 9 Sept 1956.
[18] Ibid.
[19] “Sooner Coach Completes TV Sports Series,” The Oklahoman, 20 July 1954, p. 16.
[20] “The Bud Wilkinson Show,” Oklahoma Today, Fall 1959, p. 9.
[21] The first nationally syndicated show was sponsored by Meadow Gold Dairy, and his coach’s show as sponsored by Kerr-McGee Oil (owned by Senator Robert S. Kerr), but most of his national series were sponsored by the National Guard. Ibid.
[22] Ibid.
[23] John Cronley, “Once Over Lightly,” The Oklahoman, 8 Dec 1954.

2 thoughts on “The Bud Wilkinson Show: Television, the NCAA, and the Cold War

  1. Pingback: ICYMI: An Overview of Nearly Everything We Wrote in 2016 | Sport in American History

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