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TGS BIG 12 RETROSPECTIVE...THE KINGS OF THE WISHBONE T
by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor


Thank goodness for the Big 12! (Never mind that its membership counts only ten schools these days...heck, numbers have been meaningless in conference names for many years.) Even though its foundation dates only to 1996, when it welded members of the old Big Eight and four refugees (Baylor, Texas, Texas A&M and Texas Tech) from the dissolving Southwest Conference. The alignment made sense, shaped largely by their shared location on the Plains. After all, Oklahoma (old Big 8) and Texas (old Southwest) was already one of the sport's most revered rivalries, and now they would be in the same league. There was also a synergistic tradition of excellence within the league’s borders that included a lot of the best storylines in college football annals.

Included in the historic roll-call were the 1940s and '50s Sooners machines of coach Bud Wilkinson, Longhorns powerhouses of the '60s and '70s under Darrell Royal (not coincidentally, Wilkinson's quarterback at Oklahoma in the late '40s), and the subsequent Oklahoma machines that coincided with the later years of Royal’s Texas teams through the following decade. Among the most colorful of legendary squads of those eras were the “Wishbone” teams, first, at Texas, then at Oklahoma, which defined a long-ago era in college football and whose reverberations are still being felt today, as the natural progression of those option-based running attacks has transferred to some of the high-tech offensive fireworks now on display, including the passing games of the modern day.

But in our publishing history at TGS that dates to 1957, we’re not sure we’ll ever see an era like the one where the Wishbone took over and effectively dominated college football in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. And the roots of the ‘bone can be traced to the Big 12's bloodlines from the old Big 8 and Southwest Conference days.

More specifically, to Texas and Oklahoma.

The trend toward more running effectively began in 1968, while no one was paying much attention. That year saw the birth of the “Wishbone-T” at Texas, which along with the two-year-old Veer-T at Houston offered coaches a couple of ground-eating attacks, both utilizing a deceptive fast-striking weapon called the triple option. That was also the season when artificial turf surfaces began to pop up all over the country. It was also a year when USC’s O.J. Simpson, Oklahoma’s Steve Owens, and West Texas State’s Mercury Morris proved that a good runner could be overworked and still excel.

Those factors created a new template in college football: ground attacks on occasional faster footing, with top runners getting their hands on the ball more frequently.

Result: see how they run!

When coaches took the time to dwell on the results of 1968, there was a subway rush to the triple option and a mass decision to give their best guy the ball more often. Not only had the option teams heaped up some staggering yardage, the endurance runners had overwhelmed the passers. Indeed, 1968 was the season when four players, led by the record-setting Simpson, gained more than 1500 YR, and sixteen RBs in all gained more than 1000 YR--even ABC-TV’s normally languid Chris Schenkel would take notice.

But it was the Wishbone that would turn college football on its ear. Its creation is famously credited to Royal’s 1968 Longhorns and assistant Emory Bellard, who would eventually experience his own success as head coach at Texas A&M and Mississippi State while employing the same formula. But the birth of the ‘bone actually dates to spring practice, 1968, when Royal pondered a way of getting his two outstanding fullbacks, Steve Worster and Ted Koy, more playing time.

The solution was provided by Bellard, who created a full-house backfield alignment with the fullback position moved closer to the quarterback.

The Wishbone needed a bit of fine-tuning, however, as the Horns opened the ‘68 season by tying Houston and losing to Texas Tech. Thereafter, however, the ‘bone shifted gears, beginning with a 31-3 romp past Oklahoma State and then a mild 26-20 upset of Oklahoma at the Cotton Bowl in the annual shootout at the Texas State Fair, in which the Horns drove 85 yards to the winning TD in the final 2:37. It was QB James Street actually doing more damage through the air on the final drive before Worster bulled across the goal line from short range with just 39 seconds to play to erase a 20-19 Sooner lead.

Like Dr. Frankenstein’s monster that had escaped the laboratory, so had the Wishbone, ready to do damage to the college football countryside.

For the remainder of 1968, Texas won all of its games and rolled to 37.4 ppg, with Street emerging as the perfect triggerman for the unique offense, while RBs Chris Gilbert (1132 YR that season), Worster (806 YR) and Koy (601 YR) would run wild.

After the Longhorns destroyed Tennessee, 36-13, in the Cotton Bowl, their new reign of terror continued into 1969, when they swept all before them, including an epic 1 vs. 2 showdown at the end of the regular season at Arkansas, 15-14, then taking down a Notre Dame team that ended the Irish's 45-year bowl absence in a pulsating 21-17 Cotton Bowl that gave Royal his second national title (he had earlier won with the 1963 Longhorns).

Perhaps no other offensive formation would impact college football so greatly during our publishing history...both for the good and the bad. Into the ‘70s, dozens of teams would try to replicate the Texas success, with varying results. The problem was that when the Wishbone fell into the hands of mediocre teams with backs who ran with only average speed, and quarterbacks not comfy with the nuances of the attack, the ‘bone could be a bore. It would even become mocked by haughty pro football backers who would use the Wishbone label to decry those offenses not sophisticated enough for the taste of the NFL fan.

Those sorts, however, missed the essence of the ‘bone, which could be a thing of gridiron beauty when featuring proper speed and daring. In such instances, the Wishbone was a magnificent show, as exemplified by those Texas teams and others. Bear Bryant’s Alabama can credit the ‘bone with a revival of its fortunes in 1971. Pepper Rodgers’ UCLA 'bone would break all Pacific Coast rushing records during 1972-73. Bellard’s A&M teams would make a serious move in the national rankings due to the Wishbone in the mid ‘70s. And a handful of others would have success with the 'bone, too.

But the standard for all Wishbones was set not by Texas, Alabama, UCLA, or Texas A&M. Rather, for the best of the ‘bone, none could top the version at Oklahoma.

It took a while, though, for the Sooners to hop on board. Midway through the 1970 season, the Texas version of the ‘bone was still the rage as the Horns continued unbeaten and ranked on top of the polls. Meanwhile, OU coach Chuck Fairbanks was looking for something different after his offense was struggling with the I formation and a form of the Veer, partly because his QB, Jack Mildren, simply didn't throw well enough to provide an aerial threat.

At the time, Fairbanks, after a 10-1 breakthrough campaign in his first season in charge at Norman in ‘67, had been suffering a short run of 6-4-type seasons that the Sooner fans, still spoiled by Wilkinson’s outrageous success in the ‘50s, found hard to accept. "Chuck Chuck" was a favorite slogan of a growing anti-Fairbanks movement.

During one particular sleepness night the week before the Texas game in 1970, Fairbanks arose and decided to make a phone call to his old Michigan State coach, Biggie Munn. After apologizing to Mrs. Munn for waking her, he talked to her husband, who listened to his former pupil’s dilemma. Fairbanks told Munn that he had a QB (Mildren) who could run better than pass, and a fleet wideout (Greg Pruitt) who was as hard to catch as a ghost if he could get his hands on the ball. Knowing of that fancy running attack called the Wishbone being used down at Texas, he was thinking of stealing that offense from Royal, who had beaten him with the ‘bone in 1968 and ‘69. If Royal could do it with his players, why couldn’t Fairbanks do it, too, perhaps with a better set of weapons (Mildren, Pruitt, etc.) than they had in Austin? But he worried to Biggie about what sort of image that might project, borrowing the offense of his biggest rival, right in the middle of the season to boot.

Munn wanted to sleep on the question and said he would call back at 9 AM the next morning.

Sure enough, Munn called, right on schedule. “He didn't tell me to do anything, “ Fairbanks said. “He just asked me if I could convince my staff, and if we could convince the team. I said yes to both."

So, in the week leading up to the 1970 Texas showdown on October 10, Fairbanks, with help from an assistant named Barry Switzer, decided to junk the I and the Veer and instead switch to the Wishbone, which seemed a better fit for QB Mildren, allowing him to use his best tools, his running and his savvy.

True, Fairbanks was effectively sabotaging any OU chances that year vs. the top-ranked Longhorns, who would bring a 23-game win streak into Dallas. Texas was also on alert after barely avoiding a major upset the previous week at Austin against Tommy Prothro’s 3-TD underdog UCLA, needing a desperate 45-yard TD pass from QB Eddie Phillips (who had succeeded Street as the Horns’ wishbone pilot) to WR Cotton Speyrer with just 12 seconds to play to pull out a 20-17 win. The Sooners would be effectively learning the ‘bone on the job vs. Texas, which proceeded to crush OU by a 41-9 count.

But another Wishbone monster was about to escape from the gridiron laboratory...only this one was located in Norman, not Austin. The game films showed the offense had so much potential that Fairbanks told his team, "If anybody else is going to beat us, they better do it quick."

By the end of the 1970 season, OU was moving fast. The Sooners won five of their last seven regular-season games, scaring eventual national champion Nebraska in late November at Lincoln, then tying Alabama in the old Astro-Bluebonnet Bowl at the Houston Astrodome. OU wound up 1970 at 7-4-1 as it further perfected its version of the Wishbone.

Fairbanks had indeed found the offense he wanted. He had also released a football genie in Pruitt, the former split end who was soon to emerge as one of college football’s most devastating weapons as a Wishbone halfback.

And therein was the difference between the early Texas versions of the ‘bone and the Oklahoma style of the early ‘70s. Demon speed. Oklahoma had it and those early Longhorn versions didn’t. Which can be partly attributable to the delays in Austin related to the color barrier, which took longer to break in Texas and the old Southwest Conference. On the other hand, black athletes had long been on rosters at Oklahoma and elsewhere in the Big 8 by the time of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s.

Importantly, Mildren, the quarterback, was sold. "If I do my job right, and read the option right, we can move it on anybody,” said Mildren. “What makes us different from Texas is our speed. They mainly have power, but we've got the jets."

By the beginning of the ‘71 season, Oklahoma’s Wishbone was ready for takeoff. The Sooners routed SMU and Pitt in their first two games, scoring a combined 85 points in the process; Mildren was sharp, Pruitt was running wild, and backfield mates Joe Wylie and Leon Crosswhite were posting big numbers, too. Next, however, would be the first serious test of the ‘71 season, vs. Southern Cal, which entered Owen Field on the heels of back-to-back shutout wins vs. Rice and Illinois.

The result was a final warning shot from Norman to the rest of the country. Pruitt (206 YR) and Mildren (102 YR) paced an infantry assault that gained 516 yards on the ground vs. the proud but bewildered Trojan defense. SC stayed close after converting a pair of fumbles by Crosswhite into first half TDs that limited the Sooners to a 19-14 lead at the break. But Pruitt would break SC’s back with a 75-yard TD jaunt in the 3rd Q, and later Mildren capped a 72-yard march with an 11-yard TD keeper. The nation took notice of the Sooners’ 33-20 win.

The real litmus test would come the following week vs. Texas, whose long win streak had finally been snapped in the previous January’s Cotton Bowl vs. Notre Dame, but which had started 1971 at 3-0, was ranked third in the polls behind only Nebraska and Michigan, and was still operating out of what was perceived to be the Cadillac of Wishbone formations.

For more than a decade the “Red River Shootout” had also belonged to Texas, which had won 12 of the 13 previous meetings, but on this October 9 in Dallas, the day belonged to Oklahoma in an effective passing of the torch in Wishbone excellence. The Sooners outstreaked the Longhorns for a victory that might have been even more convincing than the 48-27 final scoreline if Pruitt had the ball more often en route to a whopping 214 rush yards on the afternoon.

The Sooners not only won the State Fair Circus for the first time in five years, but they did it in a way that humiliated the Longhorns. Running. Oklahoma simply ran all afternoon long, the way Texas had been doing it to everybody since Royal came up with the Wishbone in 1968 and turning opposing rush defenses into ruins. Oklahoma ran so much that it set a record for points scored on a Royal team at Texas, and the 435 yards the Sooners gained on the ground was 125 yards more than any team had rushed on Texas in Royal’s 15 seasons. The Cotton Bowl throng had gasped in the first half when OU had already piled up 344 rushing yards by intermission.

All of this came against a Texas “D” that was thought to be as tough and quick as ever, particularly against the run. It was also a defense that had certainly looked at more Wishbone than any other, like every day in practice. "This doesn't matter much when the other side has one of those Corvettes and a guy who knows when to pitch it," said Royal. The Corvette, of course, was Pruitt, whose per carry average was almost 11 yards that afternoon.

Pruitt was clearly the major difference in the two teams. Even when Texas had defenders waiting for him at the corners, Pruitt would zip around them after taking the pitch from Mildren. Among Pruitt’s jaunts were 46, 34, 20, 17, 12, and 10-yard gains, and assorted five and four-yarders as he looked as if he might go as far as the Cotton Bowl’s AstroTurf surface would stretch on each carry.

Royal, for one, was hardly amused. "Everybody looks like they're running downhill out there," said the exasperated Longhorn coach before the first half was complete..

Oklahoma had one-upped Texas in one of the staples of the Wishbone, the basic late pitch to the trailing halfback. When Mildren would keep the ball and turn upfield, he would always have a halfback trailing him, ready to take a lateral. When that back was Pruitt, the enemy corners were in real danger; by comparison, the Longhorn runners like Jim Bertelsen looked slow.

Against Texas, Mildren worked the pitch to Pruitt with perfection, occasionally after he had already gained five or 10 yards himself. The Texas defense would finally swarm in on Mildren, but out would go the ball to the streaking Corvette, er Pruitt, who scored the first and third Oklahoma touchdowns on excursions such as that from short distance but his next score (which was his eighth in four games) was the one that crippled Texas for good.

Early in the game, the teams had gone back-and-forth with their dueling Wishbones, but the pattern of the game would change. With Oklahoma leading 21-14, it was the Horns’ turn to score but Texas fumbled instead on its 24-yard line and Oklahoma recovered. By now Pruitt already had gained more than 100 yards and Texas had stationed just about everybody but former President Lyndon Johnson, who was among the usual 73,000 in the Cotton Bowl, on the flanks to stop him. But even LBJ would be helpless to stop what ensured as Mildren faked a counter play and sent Pruitt bursting over right guard...inside this time, not outside.

Pruitt sprang clean at the line of scrimmage and was suddenly confronted by Alan Lowry, Texas' best defender in the secondary who would later become a Texas QB of some repute. Pruitt simply dipped his headgear one way and sent his feet the other, cutting sharply to the right. Lowry was faked out to Fort Worth, and Pruitt flashed 20 lonely yards for the touchdown that made it 28-14.

Up in the press box, longtime Texas Publicist Jones Ramsey said, "I think that move gave me a head cold."

By halftime, the game was not quite out of the Longhorns’ reach, but just barely so as they trailed 31-21. To its credit, Texas had yet to completely surrender, showing its mettle behind backup QB Donnie Wigginton, in for the hurting Phillips, who didn't start because of a pulled hamstring. Phillips, however, would be forced to enter the game at less than 100% capacity in the second half after a rib injury suffered by Wigginton, KO'd early in the 3rd quarter on a possession when the Horns could not capitalize on a fumble recovery deep in Sooner territory.

The game would then turn in Oklahoma's favor once and for all. The Sooners celebrated their defensive stop by driving a methodical 80 yards for the touchdown that made it 38-21, removing whatever drama remained at the Cotton Bowl. Mildren would hit his only pass completion of the day in the drive, a high 40-yarder to his old high school buddy from Abilene, Jon Harrison, who slid out of bounds at the Texas seven-yard line. On the next play Mildren ran the keeper and scored standing up.

More than game, set, and match. Oklahoma was now the new King of the Wishbone. And Royal would never again beat the Sooners, who proceeded to whip the Horns even worse the next two years, by 27-0 and 52-13 scores, and kept beating Texas up to Royal’s retirement after the ‘76 season.

After that 48-27 win over Texas, it would now be Oklahoma setting the Wishbone standards. The Sooners broke all yardage records in ‘71 when gaining 567 ypg. There was only one team in the country capable of keeping up, Big Eight rival Nebraska, which prevailed in an epic 35-31 victory in their showdown game on Thanksgiving. “You can't stop the Wishbone,” said Pruitt, “you can only outscore it, which is what happened to us. It won't happen again." Sure enough, showing no ill effects from the bitter Nebraska loss, the Sooners wasted little time establishing dominance in the Sugar Bowl vs. Auburn and Heisman Trophy winner Pat Sullivan, burying the Tigers, 40-22.

Despite the graduation of Mildren, the land rush continued into 1972 behind new QB Dave Robertson; in September would come another 731 yards in a 68-3 bombardment of poor Oregon, part of an early-season stretch when OU would outscore its first four foes by a landslide 197-6 margin. Although ambushed at midseason by an aroused Colorado, 20-14, at Boulder, OU would eventually get its revenge on Nebraska at Lincoln and advance again to the Sugar Bowl, where the Sooners had no trouble with Penn State. For the second straight year, OU would finish second in the national rankings, this time behind an unbeaten Southern Cal.

Fairbanks would leave for the NFL and the New England Patriots after the ‘72 season, with Switzer taking over the reins in Norman. The context of the next few years would change that August when OU was hit with a two-year probation by the NCAA as penalty for altering the transcript of QB Kerry Jackson. Switzer, however, was not about to let the Sooners slow down, reminding them that they could still win the Big Eight crown and national title, at least in the AP poll, which despite the probation would recognize OU (even if the UPI poll, conducted by the coaches, wouldn’t).

Switzer’s ’73 Wishbone was typically Oklahoma Awesome: soph Steve Davis had emerged at QB and ran the Wishbone as good or better than Mildren or Robertson, and had exceptional receivers, too, most notably Tinker Owens. After Pruitt had graduated to the NFL and the Cleveland Browns, Switzer merely plugged in rubber-legged soph Joe Washington, a Texas product who played in silver shoes, and FB Waymon Clark, a rugged JC transfer.

The Houdini-like Washington would go on to a career full of highlight-reel moments that amaze us to this day; check out some of the best of Joe on You Tube, including two of the most-electrifying college plays we can recall, one an indescribable punt return that actually lost yardage (but trust us, you’ve got to see it) vs. Southern Cal in 1973, the other an even better punt return for a TD in 1974 vs. Oklahoma State, complete with an "electric slide" move by Joe. To this day, we rate Washington as perhaps the most-exciting college football player in our 56 years of TGS publishing.

As for Switzer’s Oklahoma, despite probation (bowl bans in ‘73 and ’74, national TV bans in ‘74 and ‘75), it would go unbeaten in ‘73 and ‘74, its only blemish a 7-7 tie vs. USC in ‘73, and would claim half of the national title in ‘74. The following year, 1975, though the Sooners suffered a midseason upset loss to Nolan Cromwell and Kansas, they would eventually lay claim to the national title after their return to postseason action and a 14-6 Orange Bowl win over Michigan. Which allowed OU to leapfrog Ohio State in the final poll after the Buckeyes were upset in the Rose Bowl by Dick Vermeil’s UCLA.

Quite a Sooner legacy, an era with roots in that midnight phone call from Chuck Fairbanks to Biggie Munn in 1970 that got the ball rolling for the Wishbone in Norman.

Forms of the ’bone remain to this day, with related variations used by the service academies, Georgia Tech, and a handful of others.

Still, no one has ever run it better than did Oklahoma in the ‘70s!


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