One day after the assassination of President Kennedy, his friend Bud Wilkinson led the Oklahoma Sooners on to the field to compete for the Big Eight Championship. In this special presentation, we tell the story of that game.
The regents believe the people of Nebraska wish to have this game played as scheduled. This will be done.
Many Americans remember Friday, November 22, 1963, with perfect clarity. It is seared into their memory where they were, and what they were doing when they heard the horrific news that the 35th president of the United States, John F. Kennedy, had died in Dallas, Texas, after being shot.
His death sent the country into a shared sense of overwhelming grief. Classes were cancelled, businesses were closed, activities were cancelled and the daily routine was changed forever.
Set in the middle of this national tragedy was a football game, a contest between Oklahoma and Nebraska. This game would determine the Big Eight champion and the conference’s representative to the Orange Bowl as the host team. The Sooner team was already in Lincoln, Neb., and fans with tickets to the sold out game had arrived as well when the news came about Kennedy’s death.
For Oklahoma head coach Bud Wilkinson, the news had dramatic impact. Wilkinson had served as the director of the President's Council for Youth Fitness, and developed close friendships with members of the Kennedy family.
"Set in the middle of this national tragedy was a football game, a contest between Oklahoma and Nebraska."
Schools across the country cancelled their contests and the NCAA issued a statement that gave the decision on whether to play to the schools involved. Around the Big Eight, four games were either cancelled or postponed. One game, North Carolina State vs. Wake Forest, was played that Friday night and 17 others, including the OU-Nebraska game, were played on Saturday.
To understand the impact of the decision, it’s important to have an idea of the background that the decision was made within.
At 43 years old, John Fitzgerald Kennedy was the second youngest president ever elected to the Oval Office. He was the first Catholic to be elected as president of the United States and the first born in the 20th century. Born in Massachusetts, Kennedy had graduated from Harvard, joined the U.S. Navy and was assigned to command a PT boat in the South Pacific. Following his Naval service, Kennedy served in U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate.
It was just short of Kennedy’s 1,000th day in office, and he had a two-day trip to Texas scheduled as an unofficial 1964 campaign visit. He arrived in Dallas from Ft. Worth to clear skies. The President and the First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy rode in an open convertable limo with Texas Governor John Connally and his wife, Nellie.
"Shots rang out, mortally wounding Kennedy and seriously injuring Texas Governor John Connally."
Huge crowds waited along the route that had been published in local newspapers so that Dallas residents could greet their president. As the motorcade cleared the downtown area, the cars passed in front of the the Texas School Book Depository. Shots rang out, mortally wounding Kennedy and seriously injuring Gov. Connally.
The presidential limo, with Secret Service agents in the vehicle, raced to Parkland Hospital as other vehicles in the motorcade followed. Despite valiant efforts by the medical personnel at Parkland, Kennedy died at 1 p.m. central time, the fourth U.S. President to be killed in office.
I n Lincoln, Neb. on the morning of Nov. 22, Wilkinson already had his team preparing to play Nebraska for the Big Eight title. In February 1961, Kennedy had asked Wilkinson to serve as the director of the President’s Council on Youth Fitness. The invitation was both appealing and daunting. Still, Wilkinson put a plan together and sent it to Washington to see if the President and his advisors approved of it. Soon, the answer came back and the offer of the position was repeated.
There were the usual questions about how he would be able to do two jobs at once, could he handle one during the academic year (OU coach) and the other in the summer time (council director), and, while those questions were difficult for Wilkinson, there was a bigger question in Wilkinson’s mind – he wanted to know if the President was truly committed to the council, a project that he had inherited from the Eisenhower presidency.
When Kennedy tied improving fitness of the country to a security concern, one that would be needed as America positioned itself to continue to compete with China and Russia, Wilkinson was convinced. He accepted the non-paying position and began to focus his detail-oriented attention to the council.
Wilkinson quite literally had to write the complete program from scratch. The council support staff was selected and, with Wilkinson’s vision, the group began working to put together the kind of program that Kennedy had asked for. According to Jay Wilkinson in his book Bud Wilkinson An Intimate Portrait of an American Legend, the most important thing was to get children of America moving again as activity was a key component of fitness for his father. To illustrate, he used his father’s own words: “I want our football team to be as good as it possibly can. We hope to develop all our capacities to the fullest possible degree. Our nation is like a football team with outstanding material. We can only be as good as we desire to be. For survival we must want to be the best in every area of life.”
Wilkinson served as director of the program through Kennedy’s term as president. Because of his involvement with this program and the President’s commitment to it, Wilkinson also considered the Kennedy family friends and the feeling was mutual. While Coach Wilkinson revered President Kennedy, he was truly impressed with the younger Kennedy brother, Robert, and the friendship that developed between the two men would play a huge role during the tragic weekend of November, 1963.
"Our nation is like a football team with outstanding material. We can only be as good as we desire to be."
When the Sooners returned to their hotel in Lincoln, the news about the assassination was just beginning to break. Soon after the news was official, postponements of sporting events began to be announced. Oklahoma governor Henry Bellmon announced that the Oklahoma State-Kansas State game would be postponed after conferring with the president of the university, Dr. Oliver S. Willham, and Governor John Anderson of Kansas. Nothing yet had been announced about the OU-Nebraska game.
In his book, Voice of Bedlam, Bob Barry Sr. recalled that tragic weekend. He and broadcast partner, Jack Ogle, had left Oklahoma City Friday morning to drive to Lincoln. They had stopped in Topeka, Kan., for lunch and, when they returned to the car to resume the trip, the radio air waves were filled with news related to the tragic death of the young president. With no cell phones or Internet to communicate, Barry and Ogle decided to continue the trip since Topeka was already more than halfway to Lincoln.
Wilkinson was obviously shaken by the news and his team was equally upset, many of them having had the opportunity to meet Kennedy when he had stopped in to visit the Oklahoma locker room at the Orange Bowl at the end of the 1962 season. A decision had to be made about the key OU-Nebraska game the next day and it was a decision that took most of the rest of the day to make.
Finally, around 7 p.m., a release came from the officer of the chancellor of the University of Nebraska announcing that the game between Oklahoma and Nebraska would be played as scheduled on Saturday. The release indicated that Nebraska Governor Frank Morrison had conducted a poll of the governors of the other five states in the conference to determine if the Saturday schedule of games should be played. The decision to play the game was based on several factors – OU already had a game scheduled the following Saturday with Oklahoma State, arrangements had been made for a closed circuit broadcast in Oklahoma City and Omaha with a live broadcast over a Lincoln station; the game had been sold out for weeks and many of the fans had already arrived in Lincoln and the Sooner team was already in Lincoln; and the game was the most important in the conference this year and transportation difficulties would make it nearly impossible to reschedule without great expense and inconvenience.
The Nebraska Board of Regents issued a statement as well. “The regents believe the people of Nebraska wish to have this game played as scheduled. This will be done.
“The decision has been made after consultation with the president of the University of Oklahoma (Dr. George L. Cross), coaches Bob Devaney of Nebraska and Bud Wilkinson of Oklahoma, Nebraska athletic director Tippy Dye, Big Eight executive director Wayne Duke and Gov. Morrison.
“The Big Eight faculty representatives recommended that the conference games be played.”
Later, it was learned that Gov. Morrison had tried to talk Wilkinson out of playing the game. Wilkinson shared that he had spoken with U.S. Attorney General Robert Kennedy who had advised him to play the game because that would be what the late President would have wanted. Wilkinson had also shared this same information with then-NFL commissioner Rozelle who made the decision for his league to play on Sunday.
Then OU President Dr. George L. Cross was with the team in Lincoln and in his book, Presidents Can’t Punt, he wrote that after discussions with Wilkinson, a few members of the team and Gov. Bellmon, who left the decision up to the university, OU officials notified Nebraska officials that the Sooners were willing to play the game even though many afterward indicated that they really had wished they could go home and be with their families as this became one of the first national tragedies shared by families in their living rooms in front of the television set.
Dr. Cross continued in his book by describing the day of the game. “The weather was bleak and cheerless the next day. The mood of the capacity crowd in the stadium was somber – in keeping with the weather and the tragedy of the day before. None of the festivity usually associated with a football game was in evidence. Following a prayer and a few moments of silence in honor of the dead President, the game got under way with only restrained expressions of enthusiasm from the crowd.”
Barry’s book recalled the mood of the stadium that day as well through the recollections of Ralph Thompson, then a spotter for Barry, who would become a member of the Oklahoma legislature and well-respected federal judge. “It was awkward and tense for everyone,” Thompson remembered. “No one wanted to seem disrespectful. No one knew exactly what to do. But Bob’s natural, instinctive good nature and good will allowed him to call a great game. He did it in a way that let us in the broadcast booth and all the listeners back home enjoy the game without feeling disrespectful toward the slain President or to the tragic event.”
"None of the festivity usually associated with a football game was in evidence. Following a prayer and a few moments of silence in honor of the dead President, the game got under way with only restrained expressions of enthusiasm from the crowd.”
The radio broadcast was unusual as the network decided to eliminate commercials and play funeral music during breaks. As each break started, the listeners were told what company had used that time throughout the season and that the owner of the business had donated the time for a moment of silence out of respect for the late president, John Fitzgerald Kennedy. Local stations were given the option of playing the music or inserting local commercials.
In Oklahoma City, more than 7,000 tickets had been sold for the closed circuit telecast at the Municipal Auditorium. Stories from the day after the game indicated that the crowd had come early for the telecast and that scalpers were trying to sell the $2 ticket for as much as $4. More than 5,000 people watched the game in the main auditorium while another 2,000 watched it in the Zebra Room. A telecast from Washington, D.C., opened the broadcast. It featured many of the nation’s leaders paying their respects to President Kennedy as he lay in state in the rotunda of the U.S. Capital. Another tribute to the president was broadcast from the Lincoln TV station and then the game began.
The instructions sent out by the NCAA to schools had directed that those who decided to play were to eliminate the usual pregame festivities, observe a long moment of silence during the pregame and use the halftime for tributes to the slain leader.
Nebraska fans in the stadium ultimately had a lot to cheer for as the Huskers led 3-0 at halftime before taking complete control in the second half. Meanwhile, the crowd gathered in Oklahoma City, mostly made up of Sooner students, acted much like they did when attending games at Oklahoma Memorial Stadium until the Nebraska scoring machine took off in the second half.
Nebraska went 69 yards on the first drive of the second half and scored on a 10-yard touchdown run by Rudy Johnson to lead 10-0. Sooner mistakes set up the next three Nebraska scores. Dennis Claridge scored on a one-yard run after OU fumbled on the Nebraska 29 and the Huskers were up 17-0. OU’s first score came on a pass from Ron Fletcher to John Flynn to make it 17-7.
Nebraska intercepted a pass on the OU 15-yard line and that led to a Kent McCloughan two-yard TD run to put Nebraska up 23-7 with 7:15 to play. Another interception on OU’s next offensive play set up the final Husker TD, a Fred Duda one-yard QB sneak with 5:43 left that gave NU a 29-7 lead. The Sooners would score two more times, first on a reverse by Wesley Skidgel. Then, the Sooners’ Allen Bumgardner recovered an NU fumble that led to a 26-yard TD pass from Tommy Pannell to Skidgel. The two-point try failed and the Huskers had a conference-winning 29-20 win.
In all reality, the game was not as close as the score and Husker fans had plenty to cheer about. One account of the game mentions that the game had to be stopped several times in the second half to clear the field of oranges. The win wrapped up Nebraska’s first undefeated season in conference play since 1940 and the fourth bowl bid in school history for the Husker football program. The win clinched Nebraska’s first conference championship in 23 years and sent Nebraska to just its second Orange Bowl in school history.
Following the game, Sooner players were quick to praise their opponent while pointing to the mistakes OU had made that led to too many NU scores. “We lost,” said tackle Ralph Neely. “It’s over with and there’s nothing we can do about it. I think the Big Eight will be well represented at the Orange Bowl. Nebraska has a heckuva team. I just hope they go ahead to the Orange Bowl and put on a good showing.”
OU would go on the next week to beat Oklahoma State 34-10. That win ended the Sooners’ season as the team had voted after the Nebraska game to not accept any bowl bid, regardless of the bowl that was offering. OU finished the season 8-2 and ranked 10th in the Associated Press poll. The Sooners finished second to the Huskers in the Big Eight standings after having won or shared 15 of the previous 17 league titles.
The 1963 season ended up being the final season on the Sooner sidelines for Bud Wilkinson. In early January of 1964, Wilkinson resigned as head football coach because as Dr. Cross shares in his book that “he could no longer get himself into a proper frame of mind to prepare for a football game and therefore was unable to get his staff ready. If he and the staff were not ready, it followed that the squad would not be ready.”
Wilkinson recommended that Gomer Jones be promoted to the head coach position as Wilkinson planned to remain as director of athletics. By the end of January, Wilkinson resigned as director of athletics.
Later that year, Wilkinson, who had changed his voting party affiliation to Republican, ran for the U.S. Senate seat against a former state senator Fred Harris. To the surprise of many, Harris won the general election by 21,000 votes and Wilkinson was left looking for answers and a job.
Wilkinson would begin a stint in the broadcast booth beginning in January of 1965 and ironically was the color commentator on the ABC broadcast of the “Game of the Century,” the 1971 OU-Nebraska game. In 1969, he was inducted in the College Football Hall of Fame before he returned to coaching with the St. Louis Cardinals in 1978. Two years later, Wilkinson became a broadcaster with ESPN.
For many Americans, though, Wilkinson will always be remembered as the coach who led the Sooners to a 47-game winning streak, 145 career wins and 14 conference titles in his 17-year career. Others will remember him as the person whose professional relationship and friendship with the Kennedys helped a football game be played on a day that the country was consumed by grief, looking for a sense of what the new normal in life would be. After the game, a person commented to Wilkinson that the events in Dallas made the OU-Nebraska game seem less important. Ever the one to have the proper perspective, Wilkinson replied, “It never was as important as some people thought.”
A Special Presentation of SoonerSports.com // University of Oklahoma Intercollegiate Athletics
Written By: Debbie Copp // Video Courtesy of SoonerVision // Site Producer: Russell Houghtaling