Sports

Behind-the-scenes stories of Oklahoma, Nebraska and college football’s greatest game

“Holy moly! Man, girl and youngster, did that put ’em within the aisles! Johnny ‘The Jet’ Rodgers simply tore ’em unfastened from their sneakers!”

“I nonetheless get chills listening to that,” Rodgers stated.

On Thanksgiving Day 1971, Nebraska and Oklahoma achieved “perfection,” as reporter Dave Kindred described it within the Louisville Instances.

“Typically it do not stay as much as the billing,” stated Oklahoma halfback Greg Pruitt. “That one did.”

Billed as “The Recreation of the Century,” Rodgers’ epic punt return for a landing — and Lyell Bremser’s indelible radio name — helped top-ranked Nebraska defeat No. 2 Oklahoma, 35-31, in a basic whose mystique has carried over, nicely previous the lifetime of the rivalry itself. To commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the sport, the Sooners and Cornhuskers will meet once more Saturday for the primary time since 2010. Their rivalry would possibly successfully be useless. However that recreation nonetheless lives.

“It had every part,” stated Invoice Hancock, who then labored in Oklahoma’s communications division earlier than overseeing the Remaining 4 for 13 seasons and changing into the chief director of the BCS and the School Soccer Playoff since 2009. “An ideal mixture of issues that made it the most important recreation I’ve ever been related to, and ever might be related to.”

The showdown featured 17 of the 22 first-team All-Large Eight picks that season and 27 starters who would get drafted into the NFL. The 2 staffs mixed would produce 12 future FBS head coaches, together with Barry Switzer, Tom Osborne and Jimmy Johnson.

Oklahoma’s wishbone offense averaged 472 dashing yards, an NCAA report that also stands; Nebraska’s Blackshirts protection was giving up solely six factors a recreation.

That day, 55 million folks tuned in to ABC to see what would occur, then a report tv viewers for a university soccer recreation.

The Huskers went on to win a second consecutive nationwide championship that 12 months, crushing Alabama by 32 factors within the Orange Bowl. Oklahoma, in the meantime, would go 43-2-1 over the next 4 seasons, with two nationwide titles.

To commemorate the a hundred and fiftieth anniversary of school soccer two years in the past, a panel of 150 media members, athletic directors and former gamers and coaches voted on the best video games in faculty soccer historical past. The Recreation of the Century took the No. 1 spot.

The identical panel voted the 1971 Huskers because the greatest team in faculty soccer historical past, and the 1971 Sooners as the best workforce with a loss.

By greater than two dozen interviews, ESPN went behind the scenes of the Recreation of the Century to uncover the untold tales, which included the clandestine friendship of Rodgers and Pruitt, Nebraska’s food-poisoning paranoia, Oklahoma’s sign-stealing try, an unintended movie show rendezvous and a Selmon Brothers Thanksgiving dinner caper.

‘Oh my god, he is gonna go!’

Within the Sixties, following the retirement of legendary coach Bud Wilkinson, the Sooners had fallen on arduous occasions. However Switzer, then a budding assistant, noticed Texas prep phenom quarterback Jack Mildren as a possible ticket out of the doldrums. The Southwest Convention had limits on how typically a coach may go to a recruit. The Large Eight, and thus Oklahoma, had no such rule.

“I used to be on the market each week,” Switzer stated. “I would eat supper with the household, Jack and Richard [Mildren’s brother] would return to check of their room, Mary Glynne [Mildren’s mom] and I might wash the dishes, then I might sit down with Larry [Mildren’s father] and watch ‘Fireplace Studio’ with Porter Wagoner and Dolly Parton.”

Even with Mildren on board, the Sooners continued to wrestle till they turned to the wishbone in 1970. With Mildren and Pruitt main the best way, Oklahoma shortly became a juggernaut.

“Jack Mildren was such a magician,” stated Jim Walden, a Nebraska assistant then who would later develop into the pinnacle coach at Washington State and Iowa State. “He ran that wishbone like he’d been operating it his complete life.”

Mildren may need been the magician. However Pruitt made the Wishbone magical, and Switzer believed that warranted a nickname. So at some point through the 1971 season, he summoned Pruitt to his workplace.

“He had his T-shirt on his desk with ‘Good day’ on the entrance and ‘Goodbye’ on the again,” Pruitt recalled. “He informed me he wished me to put on the shirt.

“And that it had higher be ‘Good day, Goodbye’ on Saturday.'”

At Nebraska, Rodgers may additionally make magic with the ball in his palms.

“Johnny in your facet was value 13-14 factors,” stated Osborne, Nebraska’s offensive coordinator in 1971. “Pound-for-pound, he most likely was pretty much as good a soccer participant as I used to be ever round.”

Through the postseason awards circuit in 1970, Rodgers and Pruitt turned shut. The next summer season, Pruitt surreptitiously visited Rodgers in Lincoln with none of their teammates understanding; Rodgers returned the journey in Norman. And every week through the 1971 season, the 2 talked over the cellphone.

“Simply speaking trash to one another,” Rodgers stated.

That contributed to the buildup to the Nebraska-Oklahoma recreation. And, finally, to Rodgers’ punt return.

“The practices turned very intense, particularly on particular groups, as a result of Johnny was one of many main returners within the nation,” Pruitt stated. “So the coaches saved attempting to emphasise that to comprise Johnny, you retain your lane to maintain him corralled. However as a result of Johnny and I had been doing all this trash-talking I wasn’t listening. I used to be going to get Johnny and dump him on his head on nationwide TV and shut his mouth.”

Simply three minutes into the sport, Pruitt would get his probability. Joe Wylie punted excessive to Rodgers, who caught it from his personal 28-yard-line. Pruitt was the primary Sooner there.

“I received a hand on Johnny,” Pruitt stated. “However he made a transfer and I could not maintain him.”

No person else may, both, although Johnson nonetheless believes Rodgers was aided by three uncalled clips through the return.

“And I believe the movie agrees,” added Johnson, an Oklahoma defensive assistant then, who would later develop into the pinnacle coach at Oklahoma State, Miami, the Dallas Cowboys and Miami Dolphins.

Nebraska band member Terry Rush truly agreed with Johnson. However he did not care. That day, a number of members of the band needed to camp on the sideline due to restricted house within the stands. As Rodgers sailed into the top zone to provide Nebraska an early 7-0 lead, Rush could not comprise himself and ran onto the sphere to have a good time the landing with him.

“He caught it and began doing his dance and I stated, ‘Oh my god, he is gonna go!'” Rush recalled. “My adrenaline was most likely pumping about as arduous as his.”

After the breathtaking rating, Rodgers instantly went to the bench and threw up, which truly was nothing new. Rodgers was born with bronchial asthma and tuberculosis and performed soccer with a bleeding ulcer, typically forcing him to eat on the pupil hospital in Lincoln.

In Nebraska, Bremser’s “Holy moly! Man, girl and youngster …” name of the Rodgers return turned iconic. It is nonetheless replayed on the video board at Husker video games and on radio. Households have it memorized. And to this present day, followers greet Rodgers with it once they see him. Bremser’s grandson, James Mackiewicz, stated his grandfather would use “man, girl and youngster” rather than uttering expletives.

“It was [his] option to be excited,” Mackiewicz stated, “and nonetheless keep away from being blue or crass in any type of means.”

For years, Wylie may by no means work out why Nebraska reporters would yearly name him across the anniversary of the sport. Lastly, he requested one in every of them.

“Do not you already know?” one requested him again. “You are probably the most well-known non-Nebraska soccer participant in Nebraska soccer historical past. All people in Nebraska is aware of who Wylie is. He is the punter who punted to Rodgers in Bremser’s name.”

Rodgers by no means let Pruitt neglect how he received the very best of him. In actual fact, he created a everlasting reminder.

Yearly, Rodgers palms out the “Jet Award” to the very best returner in faculty soccer. The trophy is an outline of that punt return. And Rodgers made positive that Pruitt was a part of it, ossifying him in bronze falling down behind him.

“My solely grievance about that trophy is I am unable to bear in mind when Johnny was ever larger than me,” stated Pruitt, who would end second within the Heisman voting behind Rodgers the next season. “You take a look at the trophy and he is twice as massive … simply one other Johnny Rodgers transfer.”

Pregame paranoia

Oklahoma security John Shelley knew the Nebraska recreation was totally different when head coach Chuck Fairbanks shut off the telephones within the soccer dormitory.

“That had by no means been executed earlier than,” added Sooners defensive deal with Raymond Hamilton. “He did not need any distractions.”

Fairbanks had purpose to fret.

Wylie recalled famed Sports activities Illustrated reporter Dan Jenkins knocking on his dorm room door to conduct an impromptu interview for the legendary cowl story, “Irresistible Oklahoma meets immovable Nebraska.” Sooners security Steve O’Shaughnessy remembered strolling outdoors of the dorm seeing “cameras and microphones all over the place.”

In accordance with newspaper accounts, an estimated 100 sportswriters for at the very least 65 papers from greater than 20 states traveled to Oklahoma that week. Hancock stated the college truly constructed a platform contained in the press field so as to add one other row of seating, just like bleachers.

Nebraska head coach Bob Devaney had his share of worries, too. He even made positive the Huskers introduced their very own meals with them to Oklahoma.

“They weren’t taking any possibilities,” stated Nebraska offensive lineman Mike Beran, “of somewhat further Sooner Sauce on there.”

Initially, Walden wasn’t too involved in regards to the Blackshirts slowing down Oklahoma.

“We placed on a pair video games, and we’re like, ‘We do not know what all of the hubbub is about. They are not essentially that nice of a workforce,'” Walden stated. “However the nearer the sport received, the extra horrifying their offense was. We had the most effective defenses there’s ever been. However the nearer the sport received, it was extra like, ‘Oh my god, we cannot be capable to cease this workforce!'”

The night time earlier than the sport, Walden was up with Nebraska defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin within the foyer of the resort till 3 or 4 within the morning, worrying and ingesting espresso.

“No person may go to mattress,” stated Kiffin, father of Ole Miss head coach Lane Kiffin. “As a result of we have been all desirous about the sport the subsequent day.”

Earlier that night, the Nebraska gamers had gone out to see a film. However as they have been arriving on the theater, the Sooners have been leaving, creating a number of awkward, tense moments.

“Everybody simply stopped,” stated Huskers nostril guard Wealthy Glover, evaluating the scene to a weigh-in earlier than a championship boxing match. “It was like, ‘Who’s [Oklahoma All-American center] Tom Brahaney? The place’s Greg Pruitt? The place’s Jack Mildren?’ That received us fired up for the sport, to see them within the face. ‘OK, we’ll see you tomorrow.'”

The nerves carried over to breakfast game-day morning.

“We’d at all times have steak and eggs,” stated Oklahoma defensive deal with Lucious Selmon. “I could not eat a lot in any respect. In comparison with what I ate, the remainder barely touched theirs. A complete lot of steak was left on the plates that morning.”

‘I would heard … someone was stealing my alerts’

On recreation day, even the climate met the event.

“Chilly, crisp fall climate — basic soccer climate,” Hancock recalled. Kindred scribbled into his pocket book, “Getting grey, as if a snow storm coming into the prairie.”

Snow by no means got here. Nevertheless it did get chilly sufficient that Mildren’s fiancée, Janis, by no means a giant soccer fan — she did not even know who Oklahoma’s quarterback was when associates set them up on a blind date earlier that 12 months — bailed to observe the second half someplace hotter. The couple married two months later, and remained so till he died in 2008.

“He discovered it ironic {that a} recreation his workforce misplaced,” she stated, “was the one he received requested about probably the most.”

Regardless of its close to flawlessness — the 2 groups mixed to commit just one penalty, an offside on Nebraska — the sport in actuality wasn’t fairly as good as Kindred had prompt.

Each groups fumbled the ball away at key moments. Nebraska quarterback Jerry Tagge’s turnover handed Oklahoma possession within the fourth quarter, permitting the Sooners to take a late 31-28 lead (Tagge would later atone).

Even Switzer and Kiffin later regretted a lot of their very own recreation plans: Kiffin believes he overcommitted to containing the choice pitch to Pruitt; Switzer does not suppose he gave Pruitt the ball sufficient.

“I did not put the ball in his palms 25-27 occasions a recreation like I did with [1978 Heisman winner] Billy Sims,” Switzer stated of Pruitt, who completed with simply 53 dashing yards on solely 10 carries. “A fantastic again, you ensure he touches it that many occasions. We should always’ve had performs designed for him to the touch the ball. We did not have them.”

Kiffin was so involved about Pruitt that he tinkered together with his secondary, swinging nook Joe Blahak, thought-about the higher tackler, to security whereas shifting security Invoice Kosch to nook.

Kosch was annoyed as a result of Kiffin and Warren Powers, the secondary coach, wished him to play a special type and farther off the ball than he’d ever performed.

Kosch could not perceive why. “Mildren cannot throw,” Powers informed him. “All you gotta be is within the space.”

Turned out that day, Mildren may throw.

Seconds earlier than halftime, he related on back-to-back bombs to separate finish Jon Harrison, Mildren’s highschool teammate from Abilene. The second was a 24-yard landing strike to Harrison, propelling Oklahoma to a 17-14 halftime lead.

The Sooners wanted Mildren’s sudden passing to hold with Nebraska. As a result of Glover was wrecking their operating recreation, ending with a game-high 22 tackles, an unheard-of tally for a nostril guard — “greater than most of them get in a 12 months,” Rodgers stated. Glover additionally recovered a fumble.

“Within the press field, I bear in mind Barry and [Oklahoma assistant] Galen Corridor hollering at us, ‘What are they doing defensively?'” Johnson stated. “I saved saying, ‘They’re doing the identical factor each time. They’ve Wealthy Glover over the middle and he is simply stuffing us on the line of scrimmage.”

Days earlier than the sport, Fairbanks had rehired Jerry Pettibone to be the Sooners’ recruiting coordinator. Pettibone’s season with SMU had already completed, so he was already on the Oklahoma sideline.

Pettibone’s sole duty was to check Kiffin to see if he may decide up the sign for a line of defense slant, if solely to assist negate Glover.

“I figured it out about midway via the third quarter,” Pettibone stated. “Earlier than we ran the play, I might sign to our offensive linemen whether or not they have been gonna play it straight or slant.”

After a few collection, Kiffin thought one thing could be up, and waited till the final second to ship his alerts in, stopping Oklahoma from adjusting accordingly.

“I would heard a narrative that someone was stealing my alerts,” Kiffin stated, laughing. “Jerry Pettibone — now I do know who it was!”

Due to Mildren’s heroics — and presumably Pettibone’s subterfuge — Oklahoma roared again from a 28-17 deficit to take the lead off Tagge’s fumble with simply 7:10 remaining.

That is when Rodgers got here via together with his different game-defining play.

Going through third-and-8, Tagge could not discover a receiver open. As an alternative, he discovered Hamilton barreling down straight towards him. Certainly one of Oklahoma’s high defensive gamers, Hamilton had suffered a turf toe damage within the first quarter. That slowed him down all recreation. And on that play, sufficient to permit Tagge to flee.

“Out of all of the performs, that is the one that stands out in my thoughts,” Selmon stated. “There isn’t any doubt in my thoughts had Raymond not been injured, he would’ve made that sack.”

As an alternative, Tagge scrambled to his proper and tossed a dart to Rodgers, who got here via with a diving first-down catch.

“I may catch a BB at midnight at midnight with no moon and my sun shades on,” Rodgers stated. “I wasn’t gonna miss it.”

Nebraska operating again Jeff Kinney, who would end with 174 yards dashing, took over from there. On his thirty first carry, he plunged in from 2 yards out for a fourth landing, his tearaway jersey a tattered mess from the dashing load.

“That was the primary recreation we had tried them,” Kinney stated of the tearaways. “I might’ve appreciated to have had an actual jersey on my again that final quarter as an alternative of my shoulder pads flopping throughout.”

Oklahoma had one closing determined probability to win. However fittingly, it ended with Glover knocking Mildren into the turf.

As Nebraska gamers and followers rushed the sphere, Kinney’s dad met him and took what was left of his jersey. For years, it hung framed within the McCook, Nebraska, barbershop the place Kinney grew up getting his hair lower.

‘It was like we had gained the Tremendous Bowl’

When the Huskers’ workforce aircraft landed again in Lincoln, an estimated 30,000 followers have been there on the tarmac ready.

“There will not be lots of people in Nebraska,” Kiffin stated. “However most of them have been there on the airport.”

So many who the Huskers could not make it to the gate. As an alternative, the pilot parked the aircraft and the gamers received off on the runway, making their means via the Large Crimson horde of cheering followers.

“It was like, ‘Oh my gosh, do you see this?'” Glover remembered saying because the aircraft landed. “It was like we had gained the Tremendous Bowl or one thing.”

The Oklahoma locker room was a far totally different scene.

“No person stated a phrase,” Shelley recalled. “I bear in mind Jimmy Johnson, as exuberant as he’s, he had tears in his eyes. He was hugging all people, hugging me. A whole lot of guys had tears of their eyes. It virtually felt just like the world had come to an finish briefly.”

Selmon had the identical feeling. Till he remembered that his two youthful brothers, Dewey and Lee Roy, had pushed up from Eufaula, Oklahoma, with a plate of his mother’s home-cooked Thanksgiving dinner only for him.

“That was going to be my saving grace,” Lucious stated.

It was to not be. The 2 youthful brothers, and future Oklahoma All-America defensive linemen, have been outdoors the Sooners locker room ready to admit. They received hungry on the drive – and ate Lucious’ Thanksgiving plate. “That made me cry extra,” he stated, “than shedding the sport.”

‘They will measure by its customary’

Regardless of the loss, the Sooners went on to the Sugar Bowl, the place they confronted fifth-ranked Auburn on New Yr’s Day. By the second quarter, Oklahoma was already pulling its starters, holding a 31-0 lead.

“At halftime, I informed our offensive workforce, ‘You recognize, there’s two groups in Miami, Florida, watching this recreation,'” Switzer stated. “Certainly one of them is laughing. The opposite one is questioning, ‘What the hell goes to occur to us tonight?'”

That different workforce was Alabama. And the Orange Bowl went as Switzer had predicted.

Within the first quarter, Rodgers returned one other punt for a landing, and the Huskers coasted to seize the nationwide championship. The Sooners completed No. 2 within the polls. Fellow Large Eight foe Colorado ended ranked third.

“If we have been No. 1, I can let you know who was No. 1-and-a-half,” Kinney stated. “It was Oklahoma.”

Although the Sooners did not beat Nebraska or win the nationwide title that 12 months, the Recreation of the Century helped catapult them into the powerhouse they’d quickly develop into.

“I do not suppose a shedding workforce has ever gained extra from a recreation than Oklahoma did that day,” Hancock stated, “possibly ever within the historical past of the game.”

Anchored by its wishbone and Selmon Brothers line of defense, Oklahoma re-emerged as faculty soccer’s dominant program. Underneath Switzer, the Sooners gained nationwide titles in 1974, 1975 and one other in 1985.

The identical month Switzer took over for Fairbanks in 1973, Osborne succeeded Devaney. The Huskers remained elite underneath him, lastly including three extra nationwide championships within the Nineties.

“Over a interval of about 30 years there, the Nebraska-Oklahoma recreation decided the Large Eight championship and had nationwide championship implications,” Osborne stated. “Oklahoma was a fantastic trainer for us, as a result of we had hassle beating them. Oklahoma made us higher. And possibly in some methods we made them higher, too.”

The Huskers took ideas from Oklahoma’s operating recreation to create their unstoppable I-option offense. After the ’71 recreation, the Sooners would copy Nebraska’s 50 protection to kind their very own dominant line of defense with the Selmons.

The rivalry video games formally ceased in 2010, when the 2 groups met for a closing time as conferencemates within the Large 12 championship recreation.

“We missed it,” Osborne stated, noting how shocked and upset he was when the 2 faculties have been positioned in reverse divisions through the formation of the Large 12, ending the sport as an annual custom. “We assumed that Nebraska and Oklahoma would proceed to play. And we wished to play Oklahoma.”

This weekend, Huskers and Sooners from that period will reunite. Starting with a 2008 reunion spearheaded by Oklahoma athletic director Joe Castiglione, the shedding workforce has led the cost in remembering the greatness of the sport and its gamers, one thing that is not misplaced on former Huskers.

“They handled us like royalty,” Beran stated. “It knocked our socks off.”

Pruitt and Rodgers might be jawing, somebody will play Bremser’s name, and man, girl and youngster, one in every of faculty soccer’s most storied rivalries will come again to life because the Cornhuskers and Sooners take the sphere on Saturday.

Fifty years later, the Recreation of the Century nonetheless holds up. Irrespective of which facet the gamers have been on, whether or not they gained or misplaced, they’re proud to nonetheless be telling its story, simply as Kindred had predicted then.

“What they’ll do with this Nebraska-Oklahoma recreation is bear in mind it,” he wrote. “They will measure by its customary.”

https://www.espn.com/college-football/story/_/id/32204968/behind-scenes-stories-oklahoma-nebraska-college-football-greatest-game | Behind-the-scenes tales of Oklahoma, Nebraska and faculty soccer’s best recreation

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