Sanity, Subsidy, and Ransom: The Touchdown Club of Oklahoma and the Birth of NCAA Probation

By Andrew McGregor

“How does a third-rate college football team suddenly become one of the best in the country?” Paul Gardner asked in True magazine amidst OU’s 31-game win streak in October 1950.[1] The University of Oklahoma’s rise from obscurity to football power surprised college football observers. He believed something more than Bud Wilkinson’s coaching skill inspired the team’s sudden improvement. Gardner’s accusations implied a larger conspiracy, something beyond a university emphasizing football as one of its top priorities. He suggested that it was a community project with “700 millionaires – all of them rounding up top talent and delivering same to the campus.”[2] For Gardner, these boosters were the difference makers for Oklahoma and the only explanation for the team’s success.

True magazine, October 1950.

True magazine, October 1950.

The True magazine article appeared at a critical time not just for Oklahoma – who was closing in on the program’s first national championship – but also the NCAA. Questions and concerns over amateurism, athletic scholarships — or “subsidies” as they were referred to then, — and the place of sports in the modern university continued to percolate through conversations about college football. Since the sport’s beginning, a nearly continuous series of reform efforts had tried to “clean up the game,” restore “sanity,” and preserve an idyllic portrait of football as a collection of college boys enjoying an autumn Saturday afternoon.

Idealistic reformers set their sights on limiting the influence of alumni boosters – such as Oklahoma’s Touchdown Club – and returning control to college presidents and faculty members. The most notable of these was the 1929 Carnegie Report on “American College Athletics,” which gathered data hoping to better understand intercollegiate sports in order to reform them. The three-hundred-plus page study optimistically noted that 28 of the 112 colleges it studied sponsored intercollegiate athletics without offering “subsidies,” hinting that change was possible.[3]

While the possibility of change was undoubtedly there, it was not at all likely. Most institutions embraced some type of subsidies, which the study defined as any form of payment or compensation given to a student because of their participation in athletics. This ranged from scholarships, free meals, or books to cash payments, loans, and on-campus jobs. Furthermore, it did not matter whether they came from university officials, coaches, or alumni. They were all considered subsidies by the study, and viewed as antithetical to amateurism. Recruiting joined subsidies as an evil to be rebuked and remedied in the report because both reflected, and often resulted in, the overemphasis and commercialization of college athletics. [4]

Without a framework to punish violators or enact change, the Carnegie Report failed to curb the commercialization and overemphasis of college athletics. Despite this failure, Pop Warner believed that the stock market crash, which occurred six-days after the Carnegie Report was published, and the ensuing Great Depression might be a “blessing in disguise.” [5] Using the language of the period, he explained that the economic crisis would provide the impetus for “a new-deal code to restore normal, sane conditions to college and school athletics, and to football in particular.”[6] Warner envisioned reform as an economic necessity. But, football’s New Deal never came, at least not how Warner envisioned it. Instead, economic necessity led to innovation and further commercialization. Big Ten Commissioner, Major John Griffith, who, like Warner, considered himself a reformer, sought a “survival strategy” to preserve college football.[7] Griffith’s strategy focused on using commercial radio to infuse cash into athletic departments, saving them from budget cuts.

The Second World War offered another opportunity to rethink college athletics. At many colleges, sports teams all but disappeared as the nation’s able-bodied men went off to war. The teams that survived benefited from a new kind of subsidy: the Navy’s V-12 Officer Training Programs. These programs encouraged the maintenance of a normal college life, and permitted officers to partake in intercollegiate sports during their training. Just as commercial radio broadcasts offered an infusion of money to keep athletic departments afloat during the Great Depression, Navy V-12 programs recruited and subsidized college football players during the war.

After the war ended, another crisis loomed. The 1944 G.I. Bill paved the way for returning veterans to attend college. Some veterans already had college football experience prior to the war or in a V-12 program, and sometimes both. The arrival of veterans on campus and their interest in athletics pushed athletic administrators to consider the status of their eligibility. Should their playing time before the war count? Are they free to transfer to new institutions without penalty? The answer to these questions – no and yes, respectively – had the potential to radically alter the postwar intercollegiate athletic landscape.

The relative freedom of the postwar era intensified the recruitment efforts and subsidy bidding war for veteran players. Similarly, the amateur code became increasingly difficult to enforce, because, as historian John Sayle Watterson observed, “the war had introduced so many exceptions.”[8] The exceptions confused coaches and players alike, and seemed to encourage “cheating.” Nearly twenty years after the Carnegie Report, American college athletics remained largely in violation of amateurism and without much regulatory oversight. Finally in 1946, the NCAA called a meeting to create a new plan and establish a code to govern college athletics. Held in Chicago with representatives from over 20 different conferences, the two-day meeting advocated for the elimination of athletic scholarships and off-campus recruiting, and laid the groundwork for the creation of the “Purity Code” (later called the “Sanity Code”) by drafting the “Principles for the Conduct of Intercollegiate Athletics.”[9]

The Purity Code, which went through several drafts, eventually outlined six standards for governing college athletic programs. The code included declarations affirming amateurism and institutional control. It detailed policies requiring athletes be admitted according the same criteria as other students, banning off-campus recruiting, and limiting the sources, type, and amount of financial aid. Finally, the code contained a clause forbidding competition with colleges that did not comply with its guidelines. The NCAA officially approved the full code at its convention in January 1947 and its members made it a part of the NCAA constitution in 1948. Despite its approval, debate and resentment over the newly christened Sanity Code remained threatening the solidarity of the NCAA’s membership and the association’s survival.

Like many of its Southern peers, Oklahoma had mixed feeling about the Sanity Code. University of Oklahoma President George Cross, explained “The University of Oklahoma subsidizes athletes in all sports approved by the Big Seven conference to the extent that scholarships covering tuition and fees are made available to athletes who show need or make a satisfactory academic record.”[10] These subsidies also included providing them with jobs to help them pay for room and board. Somewhat defiantly, Cross declared “I do not subscribe entirely to the NCAA ‘sanity code’ because it does not permit sufficient aid to enable prospective student, otherwise without financial resources to attend college.”[11] According to Cross, the University of Oklahoma’s main goal was to convince the Big Seven conference and eventually the NCAA “to approve an athletic scholarship plan that would take care of the minimum educational expenses and require no service other than participation in the sport.”[12] Cross’s explanation of Oklahoma’s subsidies and his open disagreement with the Sanity Code surprised college football observers and led them to perceive the school as another cheater.

Was Oklahoma cheating? Probably.

The Touchdown Club of Oklahoma, founded during Bud Wilkinson’s first year as head coach in 1947, played a significant role in financially supporting football at the University of Oklahoma. One of the club’s primary aims was “to promote a winning football team, and keep promising recruits in Oklahoma.”[13] And, as Gardner wrote in True magazine, “the Touchdown Club is a heaven-sent instrument for taking full advantage of loop holes in the [NCAA] code.”[14] The club modeled itself after similar booster organizations that supported rival colleges in Texas, like Southern Methodist University’s Mustang Club.[15] The club grew out of efforts in 1946 and 1947 to recruit Lindell Pearson, a promising fullback from Oklahoma City, and ensure he enrolled at Oklahoma. His recruitment offers insight into the status quo of big time college football in the late-1940s and why the NCAA feared booster organizations like the Touchdown Club.

Image by Joe Miller in The Oklahoman Photo Archive.

Image by Joe Miller in The Oklahoman Photo Archive.

Pearson was an All-State player for Capitol Hill High School and recommended to Wilkinson by Oklahoma City dentist, C.B. McDonald.[16] Though several schools were recruiting him, playing for Oklahoma was one of Pearson’s dreams growing up. He worked selling concessions at Oklahoma games during high school and admired the team. After his graduation from high school in May 1947, Pearson orally committed to Oklahoma.[17]

That summer, the Oklahoma Athletic Department worked with prominent alumni to secure Pearson a summer job. Henry Browne, a Sooners letterman in the late-1920s, agreed to help. Browne managed the Coca-Cola Bottling Company in Oklahoma City, and needed help during the busy summer sales season. He preferred to hire Oklahoma athletes because of their strength and work ethic, and to help out the football team.[18] The aid was not limited to Oklahoma athletes, however. Football boosters arranged a job for Pearson’s girlfriend, Earline Riggs, too. She worked in the office of Bob Bowers’ Oklahoma Transportation Company.[19]

When August arrived, Pearson quit his summer job, but failed to enroll at Oklahoma. Worried about his absence, Wilkinson called McDonald who immediately began searching for Pearson. His parents offered little help, refusing to tell McDonald his whereabouts. After pestering her, his mother finally suggested that McDonald ask Earline.[20]

By this time, Browne and Bowers were involved in the search. Because Earline had worked for Bowers, she helped, telling them that Pearson had enrolled at the University of Arkansas and was a bit surprised that they did not know. The news infuriated Browne, saying, “We can’t just sit here and let Arkansas…come over here and rob us of our best players.”[21] Browne realized that something had to be done. “If we continue to let these boys slip away and do nothing to keep them at home, then these other teams will just run over us,” he said pointing to the future Touchdown Club.[22]

While Lindell Pearson’s recruitment showed the need for a booster organization to help recruit and retain athletes, it also revealed the lengths that Oklahoma supporters would go to build a winning program. McDonald, Browne, and Bowers refused to let him go without a fight. They enlisted the help of Earline (and depending on the account a private detective) to track down Pearson and bring him back to Oklahoma.[23]

As the “rescue mission” played out, more details of Arkansas’ end of the story came to light. While Oklahoma boosters worked to find Lindell and Earline summer jobs, the Razorback coaches focused on Mr. and Mrs. Pearson. Arkansas wined and dined Lindell and his father, Cecil, during their visit to Fayetteville. Cecil was impressed with Arkansas, and asked Lindell, “What would it take for you to go to Arkansas?”[24] Lindell, who still wanted to go to Oklahoma, tried to think of a sum too steep for Arkansas to pay and named $4,000 as his price. The amount was not as outrageous as Lindell had hoped because Cecil finalized a deal. Arkansas agreed to provide tuition, room and board, books, a summer job, and $100 cash per week. Though they did not guarantee a job for Earline, they promised that her visits to Arkansas would be paid for. The linchpin of the agreement, however, was a new car for Cecil. Recognizing the value of the deal, Lindell had little choice but to attend Arkansas.[25]

Upon learning of the arrangement between the Pearsons and Arkansas, Browne and Bowers felt sympathetic for Lindell. He chose Arkansas over Oklahoma not because he wanted to but because it benefited his father. He was in a tough position. If only they could free him from his obligation, Browne thought, then he could return home and play for Oklahoma.[26]

In order for the rescue mission to proceed, Browne went to work raising money to “ransom” Lindell from Arkansas. Bowers and his business partner, Eugene Jordan, pledged $500 each, matching Browne’s initial $1,000 investment. Dr. McDonald chipped in $1,000 too. Another $1,000 came from Harrison Smith, a wealthy Oklahoma City oilman who also owned the Brown Mule Battery Company.[27] And like that, “The Lindell Pearson Ransom Fund,” as some called it, quickly grew larger than the needed $4,000.[28] To complete the “rescue mission,” Carter Mullaly supplied the final provisions: an airplane, pilot, and $500 to smuggle Lindell home.[29] The next day he enrolled at the University of Oklahoma.[30]

The operation’s success along with its surplus money inspired Browne and his legion of donors to create a permanent fund. Harrison Smith, who had a reputation of being an innovated businessman, was particularly excited about the impact an organized club could have on Oklahoma football. He, and the other donors, shared the idea with colleagues and invited them to meet at his house to discuss the creation of the club.[31]

The meeting attracted 30 to 40 of Oklahoma City’s most prominent and wealthy oilmen, executives, and politicians, including current Governor Roy J. Turner and former Governor Robert S. Kerr. Collectively, the attendees have been described as “young, aggressive, self-starting men who possessed a pioneer spirit” that “sincerely believed they could do anything they set out to accomplish.”[32] They were the movers and shakers of Oklahoma, hell-bent on shedding the “Okie” stereotype. And, just as many of them sought to rebuild the Oklahoma economy, they also desired to build a championship football program at the University of Oklahoma. Step one was chartering a new, independent corporation — the Touchdown Club – to fund and promote winning football.[33] The club was officially established in October 8, 1947 with Harrison Smith as its first president. Charter members paid $500 initiation fees while regular members paid only $100. The club charged $50 for annual dues in subsequent years.[34]

The Touchdown Club’s money went towards establishing scholarships and providing loans and gifts to athletes. Beyond their membership dues, some members also became mentors to individual players, giving them advice, jobs, and extra spending money. In exchange for their gifts, members often received preferred parking on game day and much sought after tickets. Furthermore, Wilkinson and his staff sometimes reviewed game films and offered commentary at club luncheons. This provided Touchdown Club’s members with access to Wilkinson who became friends with many of them, inviting them to postgame parties at his house.[35]

The story of Lindell Pearson and the Touchdown Club’s founding highlights the chaotic nature of college football during the late-1940s. Oversight over recruiting, gifts, and financial aid was somewhat haphazard and varied widely by conference. Under the rules of the Big Seven and the NCAA, the bulk of the Touchdown Club’s activities were permissible, although criticized by reformers.[36] Indeed, excessive gifts and high stakes recruiting were one of the leading issues that led to the creation of the Sanity Code in 1948. As the code began to crumble in 1950, the True magazine article sought to remind its readers why the NCAA must take a more active role in policing college athletics. Indeed, the Sanity Code had been effectively neutered at the January 1950 NCAA convention when the membership failed to expel the “Sinful Seven” for violating its dictates. Although Oklahoma was not one of the seven institutions, they likely felt relieved knowing that enforcement of the code failed. True magazine, however, used Oklahoma as an example – in a highly exaggerated fashion according to Cross – to spur on further reform ahead of the 1951 NCAA convention. That reform did not come. Instead, the Sanity Code was further weakened.

In the power vacuum created by the lack of NCAA authoriy to enforce the Sanity Code, the American Council on Education (ACE) tried to flex its muscles and enact its own purity code. The ACE called on accrediting agencies like the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools to help implement reform by threatening universities into de-emphasizing athletics. Because accreditation occurs through regional associations, however, the ACE lacked universal support and cooperation. The North Central, which governed most of the Midwest, was an enthusiastic participant and, perhaps emboldened by the True article, took at aim at Oklahoma. Both Oklahoma and Oklahoma A&M were perceived as sports-obsessed schools. Proving it was serious about reform, North Central threatened to revoke A&M’s accreditation. Unhappy with the bullying accrediting agency, President Cross criticized the new efforts, “The code looks a little rough to me. We may have created another Volstead act.”[37] “I am not in favor of Oklahoma becoming an experimental school where all these things are tried out,” he explained, “This thing can work only if it is put into effect on a universal basis.” Thinking of rival Texas, who fell under the jurisdiction of a different accrediting agency, Cross feared that “if you just put it into effect at one school or conference it would only make those teams inferior.” The plan was unfair.[38]

Joined by other dissenters, the North Central capitulated to pressure and ended its draconian code. The ACE followed suit. The intense efforts at policing college athletics scared many institutions, making the NCAA’s effort more palatable. In February 1953 the NCAA’s members approved a new mechanism for investigation and enforcement that included probation for violators rather than expulsion.

In short time the NCAA began sniffing around the Oklahoma program, most likely motivated by rumors like those in the True magazine article. Acting surprised, George Short, President of the University of Oklahoma Board of Regents, told The Oklahoman, “I still don’t know the real purpose of the NCAA’s request” referring to a three-page questionnaire sent to him by the infractions committee.[39] “Maybe we’ve been winning too many football games or perhaps too many of our athletes have been completing their college educations and earning their degrees to suit other schools,” he added.[40] The questions implied misconduct by well-heeled boosters enticing recruits to campus with big checks, but Short confidently assured the paper that they were only rumors, “I believe that we’ll pretty well scotch the rumor with the report we plan to submit to the NCAA.”[41] It did not, and the NCAA visited the Norman campus that fall to further investigate.

A year after they announced their inquiry into the Sooner athletic program, the NCAA reached its decision. Oklahoma was cheating, and became one of the first institutions place on NCAA probation. The main charges included, providing “cost-free education beyond the athlete’s normal 4-year period of eligibility and of paying medical expenses for the immediate families of student athletes,” which seemed like noble and justified action to Sooner fans, especially since it positively affected Oklahoma’s graduation rate.[42] Jabbing back at the NCAA, President Cross declared, “We have been proudest of all of the fact that our Oklahoma football lettermen are graduating at a 93.1 percent pace. The primary goal of any university student should be to graduate in their chosen field.”[43] “We think if we do not assist those of our athletes whose grades show they are making normal progress to graduate then we are exploiting their football talents.”[44] Cross also explained that the university was forthcoming about its medical subsidies and saw “no other legal way for a married athlete to obtain this help… because our conference puts a definite ceiling on the amount an athlete may earn” which prevents married athletes from taking jobs to take care of their family’s emergence medical expenses.[45] If these violations warranted probation, Oklahoma did not mind because they felt like they acted ethically.

Of course, the NCAA could not leave out the boosters that Gardner so eloquently exposed in his True magazine article. The NCAA believed that OU Boosters – most likely the Touchdown Club – offered “fringe benefits in the form or clothes, miscellaneous gifts of cash and other gifts of relatively nominal value.”[46] Cross admitted to being perturbed by the constant rumors of millionaires buying Oklahoma’s football teams and relieved that the NCAA found little evidence of wrong doing. “Although the NCAA, employing its full investigative machinery, quote properly made an exhaustive, year-long investigation, they did not find a single case of fraud and dishonesty on the part of the university or the Touchdown Club,” he explained, “this NCAA report failed to show that we are guilty of any of the flagrant recruiting practices named in the original allegations.”[47] Cross took pride in the fact that NCAA described the “fringe benefits” offered by boosters as “relatively nominal,” pointing to the difficulty in controlling booster activity. “Mr. Wilkinson not only wrote to the Touchdown Club, emphasizing that no member could give any individual aid to any athlete, but he has taken every precaution to guard against over-zealous patrons bestowing favors upon our athletes,” he reminded The Oklahoman.

Clearly frustrated by the NCAA’s decision, Cross seemed to believe that Oklahoma was being punished for rumors despite telling the truth. Or, perhaps, that the Sooners were being punished for sins committed before the NCAA had power. Either way, Cross and Wilkinson became aware of a new era of NCAA authority where truth and ethics fell under the jurisdiction of Walter Byers, and the Touchdown Club no longer had free reign. Like it or not, reform had finally been achieved.

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] Paul Gardner, “Oklahoma and the Touchdown Club,” True, October 1950, p. 38-39.
[2] Ibid, 87.
[3] Howard J. Savage, with Harold W. Bentley, John T. McGovern, and Dean F. Smiley, M.D., American College Athletics, Bulletin Number Twenty-Three (New York: Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, 1929), p. 241-242.
[4] Ibid, p 224-2Se5.
[5] Warner, “Football’s New Deal,” p. 23.
[6] Ibid.
[7] Kathleen M. O’Toole, “John L. Griffith and the Commercialization of College Sports on Radio in the 1930s,” Journal of Sport History 40, no. 2 (2013), p. 243.
[8] Watterson, College Football, p. 202-208.
[9] Smith, Pay For Play, p. 93.
[10] “Cross Takes Mild Rap at Sanity Code,” The Oklahoman, 15 February 1950, p. 19.
[11] Ibid.
[12] Cross, President’s Can’t Punt: The OU Football Tradition, (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1977), p. 62.
[13] Henry Browne, Jr., and Bob Burke, The Touchdown Club of Oklahoma: The Winning Tradition, (Oklahoma City: Oklahoma Heritage Association, 2008), p. 33.
[14] Gardner, True, p. 89.
[15] Browne, Jr. and Burke, The Touchdown Club of Oklahoma, p. 29.
[16] Sources disagree on whether McDonald was Pearson’s family dentist. George Cross writes that he was and McDonald kept an eye on Pearson’s athletic development throughout childhood. Henry Browne Jr. and Bob Burke acknowledge these claims but state that interviews with Pearson reveal that McDonald was not his dentist. Browne, Jr. and Burke, The Touchdown Club of Oklahoma, p. 24; George L. Cross, President’s Can’t Punt, p. 73.
[17] Browne, Jr. and Burke, The Touchdown Club of Oklahoma, p. 24.
[18] Ibid, 24-25.
[19] Ibid.
[20]Ibid; Cross, President’s Can’t Punt, p. 73.
[21] Browne, Jr. and Burke, The Touchdown Club of Oklahoma, p. 25
[22] Ibid.
[23] All sources note Earline’s involvement, but Cross explains that private detective was used to find Pearson. Browne Jr. and Burke suggest that Earline was solely responsible. Browne, Jr. and Burke, The Touchdown Club of Oklahoma, p. 25; Cross, President’s Can’t Punt, p. 73.
[24] Browne, Jr. and Burke, The Touchdown Club of Oklahoma, p. 26.
[25] Ibid.
[26] Ibid.
[27] Ibid, 26-27.
[28] Jim Dent, The Undefeated: The Oklahoma Sooners and the Greatest Winning Streak in College Football, (New York: Thomas Dune Books, 2001), p. 153.
[29] Browne, Jr. and Burke, The Touchdown Club of Oklahoma, p. 27.
[30] Lindell went on to have a solid career at OU, winning 2 letters in 1948 and 1949 contributing to the 31 game winning-streak. He was declared ineligible for the 1950 season because he played 3 freshman games at Arkansas that included junior varsity players. Cross, President’s Can’t Punt, p. 74; Berry Tramel, “Former Capitol Hill, OU football standout Lindell Pearson dies at 82,” The Oklahoman, 15 March 2011.
[31] Browne, Jr. and Burke, The Touchdown Club of Oklahoma, p. 29-30.
[32] Ibid, 32.
[33] Cross, President’s Can’t Punt, p. 74.
[34] Browne, Jr. and Burke, The Touchdown Club of Oklahoma, p. 34-35.
[35] Ibid, 36-41.
[36] Oklahoma belonged to the Big 6 Conference in 1947. It became the Big 7 in 1948 with the addition of the University of Colorado.
[37] “Cross Labels Code Another Volstead Act,” The Oklahoman, 19 February 1952, p. 40.
[38] Watterson, College Football, p. 273-276.
[39] “Bid Red Finances Scanned,” The Oklahoman, 14 May 1954, p. 1.
[40] Ibid.
[41] Ibid.
[42] “OU Draws Two-Year Probation on Charges of Athletic Violations,” The Oklahoman, 27 April 1955, p. 1.
[43] Ibid.
[44] Ibid.
[45] Ibid.
[46] Ibid
[47] Ibid.

One thought on “Sanity, Subsidy, and Ransom: The Touchdown Club of Oklahoma and the Birth of NCAA Probation

  1. Pingback: Abundant Sources & Indecisiveness | Andrew McGregor

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