Vernon Louis Parrington and the Beginning of Oklahoma Football

By Andrew McGregor

Football found its way to Oklahoma during the 1890s. The game flowed naturally into the Sooner state, invading its borders like the schooners that raced in during the land rush. Students at the fledgling territorial university took up the activity alongside baseball, with the encouragement of chemistry professor Edwin DeBarr, when the school opened its doors in 1892. Informal scrimmages confined to the borders of campus typified the early game. DeBarr, who had competed at Michigan, seemed to be more interested in baseball, leaving the football squad without a coach. Instead, Jack Harts, a transfer student from Winfield, Kansas who had experience playing football, led the efforts to organize the team and schedule their first game in 1895. The brand new Sooner football team got off to an inauspicious start, suffering an embarrassing 34-0 defeat to an Oklahoma City town team. The following year, despite losing Harts and still not having a coach, the team won both of its games against Norman High School. Sooners football was on the rise.[1]

Football morphed into a formalized campus institution following the arrival of Vernon Louis Parringtonat the University of Oklahoma in 1897. Hired to develop a department of English for the young university, he took on the added unpaid roles of football coach and athletic director. The extra duties were no bother to Parrington, who, like many of the leading Progressive thinkers of the day, viewed sport as an important part of training complete men.[2] Football also played an important role in establishing a university culture. Parrington was intimately tied to both at Oklahoma.

Vernon Louis Parrington c. 1900. Image from Sooner Magazine, Vol. 31, Issue 1, Sept. 1965, 0. 15.

Vernon Louis Parrington, c. 1900. Image from Sooner Magazine, Vol. 38, Issue 1, Sept. 1965, p. 15.

Parrington, who is perhaps best remembered as one of the founders of American Studies, winner of the 1927 Pulitzer Prize for History, and one of Richard Hofstadter’s “Progressive Historians,” embodied Theodore Roosevelt’s “Strenuous Life.”[3] He modeled a form of robust yet genteel masculinity, representing the ideal well-rounded man at the heart of intercollegiate athletics. Oklahoma could choose no better symbol to found their athletic programs.

Like Harts, Parrington came to Oklahoma from Kansas, where he was a professor of English at the College of Emporia. Parrington also coached the “Fighting Presbies” football and baseball teams. His interest in athletics first developed, however, while a youth playing baseball in rural Kansas. Parrington excelled at baseball and nurtured this interest while a prep student at the College of Emporia, likely helping to organize its first baseball team.[4]

In the College of Emporia’s student newspaper, according to historian James T. Colwell, Parrington “urged western colleges to concentrate more on ‘the laurels of the arena’ and less on those of the forum; on athletics rather than oratory.”[5] He focused on both while a student in Emporia, and continued to pursue athletics when he transferred east to Harvard University. Parrington played some baseball while at Harvard, but football caught his eye. “The first [organized] football [game] I ever saw was in Cambridge,” he later remembered.[6] The Crimson were routinely one of the nation’s best teams, providing Parrington the chance to learn the game from the best. While sources disagree on whether Parrington actually played football at Harvard, he certainly studied their methods, bringing them with him back to Emporia.[7]

Following his Harvard graduation in 1893, Parrington returned to Emporia to teach English. That November he lobbied the college’s president, John Hewitt, for permission to start a football team. He led the team as both coach and quarterback. The young professor also mentored the baseball team. Fellow Emporia resident and famed newspaper columnist, William Allen White, recalled that Parrington had a “mean curve,” which he showcased during his summers off on Emporia’s semipro baseball team.[8]

Under Parrington’s tutelage, the College of Emporia’s football team quickly became a winner. Despite the team’s 10-5-1 record from 1893-1896, football remained a controversial activity for many faculty members. They worried about the decorum of athletics, the game as a distraction from academics, and safety. Pressure to ban football was mounting at Emporia. When President Hewitt attended the Kansas College Presidents’ Association meeting in early 1897, football was among the topics of discussion. Other institutions felt equally frustrated by the game’s presence on their campuses. Indeed, Baker University, a similarly sized parochial college in Kansas, banned football in 1893.[9] At the end of the meeting, the presidents approved a resolution banning football, foreshadowing the discontinuation of the sport at the College of Emporia.[10]

The decision probably disappointed Parrington, who reflected later in his life, “I was deep in Athletics–very deep it seems to me now. Especially football.”[11] Given his role founding and playing on the team, he likely took the ban, and other attacks on the sport from his colleagues, personally. To make matters worse, Hewitt also declined to give Parrington a raise. The Oklahoma offer came just in time, it seemed.

In Norman, Parrington received a hefty raise – a jump from $700 to $1,000 – and the chance to start over.[12] Although there is no evident to suggest that Oklahoma hired Parrington because of his athletic background or that he left Emporia because of the football ban, his experience organizing, playing, and coaching sports teams was a valued asset to the young university.[13] Indeed, he brought with him both an academic and athletic pedigree. Upon his arrival, rumors that Oklahoma landed a Harvard trained football coach energized the campus.

In Parrington’s first year, the team won two games, including the first intercollegiate game in Oklahoma history against Kingfisher College. The team succeeded by following the Harvard system, which Parrington implemented while drilling his charges each afternoon still wearing his classic academic tweeds. The scene pleased University of Oklahoma President David Ross Boyd, who gave Parrington complete reign over the new college’s athletic programs. This resulted in the founding of the Athletic Association in February 1898. While President Ross and Professor DeBarr were among its five-man board of directors, Parrington served as the association’s president. In this role he not only coached the football and baseball teams, but also scheduled and publicized games, and managed their finances.[14]

As head of the English department, Parrington launched the schools first literary magazine, The Umpire. He edited the magazine, which also served as the school’s first newspaper. Within its pages, Parrington merged his literary and pedagogical talents with his interest in sport, often writing about the Sooners’ football exploits. Former Oklahoma Sports Information Director Harold Keith described Parrington’s game stories as “lucid, colorful, and neatly-tuned.”[15] The Umpire along with the football team were instrumental elements of Oklahoma’s budding campus culture, and Parrington’s influence was unmistakable. As Keith and other Oklahoma historians have observed, “Everything Parrington touched, he seemed to vitalize.”[16]

Indeed, under Parrington the football team developed into a winner. The Sooners won two more games in his second year. Parrington had his toughest team in 1899 team. Nicknamed the “Rough Riders” as tribute to Teddy Roosevelt’s robust voluntary cavalry in the prior year’s Spanish-American War, the team finally had enough players to split into two teams for practice scrimmages. This toughened them, preparing them for games against Kingfisher College, the University of Arkansas, and the Arkansas City, KS town team. The game against the University of Arkansas would be their first matchup against another state university. A fourth game had been planned against Fielding Yost’s University of Kansas squad, but the Jayhawks later cancelled without explanation.[17]

The “Rough Riders” swept their collegiate completion before falling to the Arkansas City team in a controversial ending. Trailing by six and driving, the Sooners were stopped short of the goal line when their ball carrier slowed in order to avoiding colliding with a crowd of spectators who had been pushed out onto the field. The disturbance allowed the Arkansas City defense to catch up and smother the Sooners’ hopes for victory as time expired. The crowd’s interference cost Oklahoma the game, handing Parrington his first loss as the Sooners’ coach.[18] Despite the loss, the season was largely a success, leaving Parrington to comment “we are beginning to feel like a university.”[19] News that Oklahoma had secured an agreement to play the University of Texas the following season further soothed the season ending disappoint.

The inaugural Texas matchup in October 1900 pitted a depleted Oklahoma team, who had lost three of its best players, against an unbeaten Longhorns squad. Texas overpowered the Sooners 28-2 in Austin on their way to becoming the “Champions of the South.” Parrington’s young Sooners rebounded, funneling their frustration into a 27-0 thumping of the Chilocco Indian School in Norman a week later. They tallied another lopsided home victory – a devastating 79-0 walloping – over a visiting collection of players from Fort Reno the following week. Kingfisher College tied the Sooners in early November, but Oklahoma finished the season with a third victory in Arkansas City. The strong finish brought Parrington’s record as the Sooners’ coach to 9-3-1.[20]

After the 1900 season, Parrington resigned his duties as football coach, although he remained athletic director until he left the university in 1908. President Boyd was disappointed in the coach’s decision, but recognized his vital role to the young Oklahoma campus. Parrington had almost singlehandedly built two important cultural institutions on campus in addition to his teaching duties. In the coming years, he continued to shape not just the culture but the physical layout of the campus. After a demoralizing fire that saw the complete devastation of the university’s sole structure in 1903, Parrington prepared a plan to rebuild the campus that featured multiple buildings positioned around an oval drive. Future construction at the university did not explicitly follow his plan, though an oval drive was created.[21] Later, just before his departure in 1908, Parrington suggested in a report to the Board of Regents that the university pursue a “Collegiate Gothic” style of architecture on campus. He settled on this style after a study of twenty-five campuses, believing it would give the campus a distinctive academic feel reminiscent of Oxford and Cambridge. The Regents agreed and followed his recommendation against the advice of their architectural firm. Thus, Parrington played a pivotal role in developing what architectural historian Carolyn Sorrels described as “a sense of place that is uniquely the University of Oklahoma” and a style that Frank Lloyd Wright labeled “Cherokee Gothic.”[22]

Parrington’s role as athletic director further cemented his legacy at Oklahoma. After his resignation he was responsible for selecting a new football coach, which became an almost annual practice. Former Sooner Fred Roberts – a member of the strong 1899 team – coached the team in 1901 to 3-2 record, losing twice to Texas but beating Baylor University, Fairmont College (later Wichita State), and Kingfisher. Roberts stayed just one year, opting to return to his farm instead of coaching a second season.[23]

Mark McMahon, who played at Texas while earning his law degree, came to Oklahoma in 1902. He led the Sooners for two-seasons, taking the job in order to ease his debts while starting his legal career. According to Keith, McMahon’s style deviated from Parrington’s Harvard system, incorporating trick plays. He was also more competition driven, openly recruiting players and greatly expanding the schedule. He made football his players’ top priority.[24] Oklahoma played twenty-one games during his two-year tenure, an astonishingly high number for the period, going 11-7-3. These schedules featured a number of quality teams, including Arkansas, Kansas, Texas, Texas A&M, and Bethany College.

Fred Ewing coached the Sooners in 1904. Ewing had a standout career at Knox College in Illinois before attending the University of Chicago Medical School, where he was a classmate of Oklahoma Physical Culture Professor D.C. Hall. Ewing almost immediately regretted coming to Oklahoma. “My first impression of Norman was that it was about the end of nowhere,” Ewing recalled to Harold Keith years later.[25] Despite his distaste for the desolate Oklahoma landscape, Ewing achieved moderate success. The Sooners went 4-3-1 during his lone season. The losses came against Oklahoma’s toughest competition: Texas, Kansas, and Bethany. Although the Sooners had now been playing football for ten seasons, they still lagged behind more established programs. Ewing estimated that the talent on his Oklahoma teams roughly matched Knox’s second-team during his playing days.[26] Ewing was the first Sooners coach to use only student players, however, which greatly diminished the amount available talent. Regardless, it was clear that Ewing was unhappy in Norman. Parrington made his final coaching hire in 1905, selecting Bethany College’s Bennie Owen.

Boyd Field at the University of Oklahoma, 1908. Image from:

Boyd Field at the University of Oklahoma, 1908. Image from:

Unlike all of Parrington’s previous hires, Owen had a proven track record of coaching success and the willingness to stay in Oklahoma. In choosing Owen, Parrington found a like-minded coach who stressed fair play and respectful behavior. Owen also understood academics. Although he did not teach at Oklahoma, he served as a chemistry instructor while coaching at Bethany College. These qualities excited President Boyd too, who was pleasantly surprised when Owen accepted the position. Owen had developed a strong reputation while coaching Bethany, then one of the strongest teams in Kansas. Other colleges had tried to lure Owen away from the small Lutheran college in the Swedish colony of Lindsborg, KS, but he resisted. Indeed, the University of Pittsburgh tried to poach him from Bethany two years earlier. By all accounts, landing Owen was a major coup for the University of Oklahoma, especially given its fragile financial situation. In time, Owen would surpass Parrington as the most significant figure in shaping the Oklahoma football program.[27]

Owen built on the legacy Parrington started at Oklahoma. When President Boyd and Parrington were fired in 1908 following Oklahoma’s statehood, in what Parrington later described as “a political cyclone,” Owen became the new athletic director.[28] He provided stability and success to the Oklahoma athletic program in the wake of this political upheaval, directing the Sooners’ athletic programs until 1934. Bud Wilkinson later credited Owen with building the Oklahoma football tradition, but without Parrington, Owen may never have become a Sooner.

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 or on Twitter:@admcgregor85


[1] Harold Keith, Oklahoma Kickoff, New Edition, (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1978), p. 6-8; Michael MacCambridge ed., ESPN College Football Encyclopedia, (New York: ESPN Books, 2005), p. 670.
[2] For more on this thinking see: Gail Bederman, Manliness & Civilization: A Cultural History of Gender and Race in the United States, 1880-1917, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995) and Donald J. Mrozek, Sport and American Mentality, 1880-1910, (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1983).
[3] On Parrington as a founder of American Studies, see: Gene Wise, “’Paradigm Dramas’ in American Studies: A Cultural and Institutional History of the Movement,” American Quarterly 31, no. 3 (1979), p. 293-337; on Parrington as a Progressive historian, see: Richard Hofstadter, The Progressive Historians, Turner, Beard, Parrington, (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1968).
[4] For more on Parrington’s youthful baseball exploits, see: Gary Don Poulton, Sportsman, Athlete and Scholar: Vernon Louis Parrington’s Lyon County Years, 1877-1897, MA Thesis, Emporia State University, 1997, p. 50-56.
[5] James T. Colwell, “The Populist Image of Vernon Louis Parrington,” Mississippi Valley Historical Review 49, no. 1. (1962), p. 61.
[6] Quoted in Poulton, Sportsman, Athlete and Scholar, p. 79.
[7] Gary Don Poulton writes that Parrington never played at football Harvard. James T. Colwell, seems to agree, but acknowledges Harold Keith’s claims that he did. Colwell discounts Keith’s claims as undocumented, in Keith’s almost entirely unsourced history of the first twenty-five years of Oklahoma football. Based on my reading of Keith, and his personal papers that include his research notes, it is clear that he did his diligence and people around the Oklahoma believed Parrington played at Harvard. Furthermore, Sooner Magazine reports that Parrington played football at Harvard in a 1965 retrospective article on “The Boyd Years” (though the magazine does rely on Keith’s text for some of its facts). See: “The Boyd Years,” Sooner Magazine 38, no. 1, p. 14.
[8] Poulton, Sportsman, Athlete and Scholar, p. 51, 80.
[9] Hal D. Sears, “The Moral Threat of Intercollegiate Sports: An 1893 Poll of Ten College Presidents, and the End of “The Champion Football Team of the Great West,” Journal of Sport History 19, no. 2 (1992), p. 211-226.
[10] Poulton, Sportsman, Athlete and Scholar, p. 90-92.
[11] Ibid, p. 92.
[12] Richard Hofstadter, The Progressive Historians: Turner, Beard, Parrington, p. 371; BOR Minutes, 12 August 1897.
[13] Most accounts say that Parrington was hired based on the recommendation of Grace King, the head of the department of music at OU, who also grew up in Emporia. Keith, Oklahoma Kickoff, p. 13.
[14] Ibid, p. 15-16, 23-24.
[15] Ibid, p. 16.
[16] Ibid. Hofstadter also refers to this quote, although he fails to properly attribute it to Keith. Hofstadter, The Progressive Historians, p. 370.
[17] Keith, Oklahoma Kickoff, p. 35, 39.
[18] Ibid, p. 45.
[19] Ibid, p. 35.
[20] Ibid, p. 47-52.
[21] The oval drive was named the “Vernon Parrington Oval” in 1942, see: BOR Minutes, 6 Oct. 1942. For more on the architectural and physical campus history of the University of Oklahoma see: Blake Gumprecht, “The Campus as a Public Space in the American College Town,” Journal of Historical Geography 33, no. 1, (2007), p. 78-
[22] Quoted in Gumprecht “The Campus as a Public Space in the American College Town,” Journal of Historical Geography, p. 79.
[23] Keith, Oklahoma Kickoff, p. 53-61.
[24] Ibid, 62-63.
[25] Ibid, p. 93.
[26] Ibid, p. 95, 101.
[27] Ibid, p. 101, 121.
[28] The political turmoil related to the political dynamics of statehood. A Republican Governor and legislature ruled Territorial Oklahoma, but upon statehood Democrats seized control. Eager to exert their power, and perhaps exact revenge, the Democrats terminated President Boyd and many faculty members who they saw as both Republican sympathizers and genteel elites who did not reflect Oklahoma values. For more on these events see: Keith, Oklahoma Kickoff, p. 154-157; David W. Levy, The University of Oklahoma: A History, vol. 1, (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2005), p. 150-199. The phrase “political cyclone” is quoted in: James T. Colwell, “The Populist Image of Vernon Louis Parrington,” p. 65.

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