Now, in 1972, mighty Nebraska has fallen, upset early by UCLA, and it is only reasonable that you have heard those legions of stick-with-'em-through-thick-or-thick Sooner fans once again claiming their heritage—No. 1—the way old Bud taught 'em. Certainly they will get no argument from the battered teams of Oregon or Utah State. The Oklahoma-Fairbanks Wishbone purrs along, even without Mildren. Dave Robertson, his successor, does not run as well, but he passes better, and there is a black freshman quarterback, Kerry Jackson, redeemed by Fairbanks from Galveston, who can run and pass. Pruitt and Wylie may well be the flashiest pair of running backs in the country; All-America Center Tom Brahaney is better than ever; Middle Guard Lucious Selmon, who got his training wrestling hogs and his 250-pound little brother LeRoy on the farm in Eufaula, can bench-press two opponents at a time and is the spiritual leader of a voracious Oklahoma defense and—but what is the use of going through the whole roster?
It is inevitable that Fairbanks be compared with Wilkinson. In his first year as head coach (1967), when without ceremony he was tapped to fill the breach upon the sudden death of Jim Mackenzie, the long gray shadow of Wilkinson loomed over all. Though Fairbanks showed splendid early foot that first season—nine victories plus the Orange Bowl—Chuck chafed under the shadow. Now it is not quite so long. The Wilkinson era has softened in memory to become exactly that, an era, a thing of the past, and Fairbanks can speak genuinely of the importance of a winner's legacy (called tradition in recruiting lexicon). The fact is that aside from their both being big, handsome, mannerly men, each in his way a master of the soft sell, each in his way a skilled raider of the Texas marketplace, the two are not really very much alike.
Wilkinson, the football coach, was a magnetic personality, the fastest, winningest smile east of Tyrone Power. He stood out on the sidelines, dressed smartly in a gray suit and a cowboy hat, and seemed always in evidence, consulting excitedly with assistant coaches, exhorting and cajoling players, peering over the shoulders of referees on crucial yardage measurements. Wilkinson was Oklahoma football.
Fairbanks, on the other hand, blends in. Though his subordinates say he is unquestionably the boss, it is more his style to promote an image of oneness and sameness (his dress on game day is the same as his assistants: white golf shirt, red double-knit pants, rib-soled football coach's shoes). He is an immensely likable man, but if you are sitting in his office listening to him you may notice you have been on the edge of your seat because the footsteps outside are drowning out his words.
There is nothing of the political animal in him. When an aide of Teddy Kennedy's called last week to ask if it would be all right for Kennedy to visit the locker room after the Oregon game, Fairbanks said it would be fine. There were no election overtures intended or made. Kennedy did not come.
What Fairbanks is, says one intimate, "is a good-old-boy type of coach. He accents the positive. He tells players what they like to hear. But you better not cross him." Fairbanks does not have any special hair or dress code. He actually told one player to let his crew cut grow out because it looked better long. But he does have a curfew and finds ways to enforce it.
"He had one kid washing food trays for a month," says an associate, "a star player, too. Everybody thought the boy would quit, but he didn't. He recruits hard but he recruits good kids. That's the kind of solidarity he promotes around here. He believes in esprit de corps, and he gets it. He was concerned because John Keith [the publicist] had taken some names out of the program the other day. He dresses so many players they have to issue duplicate numbers and the names were running off the bottom of the program. Keith had to get the printer to change the type size."
Somehow, finally, it is the irrepressible Pruitt, so far removed in character from his coach, so appealingly different, who puts into place this marvelous team's construction. For, you see, it is compatibility that Fairbanks has achieved, not conformity, and what else can you say about Pruitt after you have said he is compatible? Sure, he talks a lot. He talks about making 2,000 yards, and being a unanimous All-America, and winning the Heisman Trophy. He talks about the pros and making enough money to retire his mother from the beauty salon. But he also blocks—as hard or harder than he runs, and before he talks of himself he talks of winning, and to a man the Oklahoma players love little old Unlimited Talent. They elected him captain, didn't they? The next time he runs a Wishbone sweep, watch how they block for him.