Bud Wilkinson, who earned a master's degree in English from Syracuse University, wanted to be a professor, but he got sidetracked into winning football games. From 1948 through '58, his teams at Oklahoma were the college gridiron equivalent of the New York Yankees, amassing a record of 107-8-2, including 47 consecutive victories, an almost unfathomable number, then and now. Coaches of that era were frequently tyrants, but Wilkinson was a graceful and dignified presence who treated his players like people. "You could feel like quitting school and joining the French Foreign Legion," remembers Billy Pricer, a Sooner fullback from the mid-'50s, "then you'd go over and talk to him for 15 minutes and come out of his office singing Boomer Sooner, thinking you owned half the university."
On Feb. 9, Wilkinson, Oklahoma's Gridiron Galahad as one journalist called him, died of congestive heart failure at the age of 77. He had suffered a series of strokes, the last of which, in November, stole much of his vision. That was a cruel blow for Wilkinson, an avid reader.
His Sooner teams were reflections of himself—quick, organized, well conditioned, creative. Wilkinson, a star quarterback (in those days he called the signals and did the lion's share of the back-field blocking) at the University of Minnesota who in 1937 led the College All-Stars to a win over the professional champions, the Green Bay Packers, continually tinkered to find a new wrinkle on the basic Oklahoma split T. He ran a no-huddle offense, called the Go-Go, in the '50s. "I've only known one genius in my lifetime," says Eddie Crowder, Oklahoma's quarterback in 1950, '51 and '52 and a longtime coach at the University of Colorado. "His name was Bud Wilkinson."
Though his name was associated with winning, Wilkinson also had his setbacks. A registered Democrat who hitched his political star to Republican Barry Goldwater after leaving the university to enter politics, he lost a race for a U.S. Senate seat from Oklahoma in 1964, a victim of the Lyndon Johnson landslide. He gained access to President Richard Nixon's inner circle in '69—he had the title of consultant—but eventually found himself sealed off by Nixon's closest aides, Bob Haldeman and John Ehrlichman, and quit.
And in '79, a year after he jolted the sports world by leaving the comfort of the college football broadcasting booth—where he was actually able to communicate without a lot of volume or a telestrator—and accepting the St. Louis Cardinal coaching job at age 61, Wilkinson was fired by Card owner Bill Bidwill. He had started 0-8 in 1978, finished at 6-10 and was 3-10 with three games left in his second season when Bidwill, who is still looking for the right man, axed him.
Perhaps the best epitaph for Wilkinson comes from former Sooner running back Prentice Gautt, whom Wilkinson recruited in 1957 as the first black athlete at Oklahoma. "I place him completely above words like pettiness and prejudice" says Gautt. "Those things weren't in him."
Break a Leg!
With several New York City police officers looking out for hidden batons, 100 aspiring Tonya and Nancy look-alikes took the ice Monday morning at Manhattan's Rivergate Ice Rink to audition for Comedy Central's Spunk: The Tonya Harding Story, a five-minute spoof of a TV movie. The women skated (sort of) and emoted—"All I ever wanted to do was win the gold for my country," intoned one Tonya wannabe in a black NO COMMENT sweatshirt.
Though casting was not completed by Monday afternoon, two candidates distinguished themselves. Sarah Oliver, 20, a junior at the University of Connecticut and a novice skater, won over the judges with her uncanny resemblance to Kerrigan both in terms of looks and personality. And gum-chewing Tracy Hunt, 26, a Long Island hairdresser, simply was Tonya, with her blond hair pulled back. In a departure from reality, though, Oliver and Hunt quickly became friends.
Spunk, which portrays Kerrigan as a villainous media hog and Harding as a heroic ice princess, will air on Feb. 22, one day before the Lillehammer battle begins.