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The final, and the decisive factor in Oklahoma's success is a tall, soft-spoken, almost illegally handsome Minnesotan named Bud Wilkinson. He came to Oklahoma, not intending to stay long, back in 1946 as an assistant to Jim Tatum. He took over as head coach in 1947 and doubtless could be elected governor of the state now if he so desired. He has an engaging, flawless personality, which, after you have been exposed to it for a long time, you examine closely for cracks because it seems too perfect. But the cracks are not there.
Wilkinson organizes Oklahoma football as carefully as a general preparing an invasion—from recruiting to game preparation to public relations. He can conduct a practice, speak to a quarterback club or charm the mother of a high school halfback with equal felicity. And he has a coldly brilliant, inventive football mind. It was Wilkinson, for instance, who came up with the idea of the racehorse huddle which serves two purposes. It allows Oklahoma to exert the strongest leverage on the opposition with its always fresh and eager forces, and it minimizes the time to get set for any changes in Oklahoma's offensive strategy.
The other day, sitting in the rather small and austere office he inhabits at OU, Wilkinson was fiddling with two sets of miniature football players, arranging defenses for the upcoming Colorado game. He was, as usual, dressed impeccably in a soft gray tweed sports jacket, dark gray trousers, button-down shirt. His hair, which is prematurely gray at the age of 41, was brushed back as usual in rather dramatic waves from a high forehead. As he talked he moved the little men, constantly improvising new defenses.
"When you say this, people think you're kidding," he said. "It's trite to say football builds character. No, I would say it takes character to play football. Physique, sure. But it takes mental as well as physical agility and the ability to make the sacrifices you must. The patterns flow and change so quickly."
He moved the little blue men on the defensive team again and set up a single-wing offense with the little red men and studied it a while, lost in thought.
"Why have we won so many?" He thought a few moments, the big hands still on the manikins. "Nothing is as good for a team as winning. I don't mean that the way it sounds. What I mean is the people who come into the pattern mold themselves to fit it. If it is a winning pattern, they fit that. You need good moral character, and we look for that. It's not hard to find around here. Most of the small town people in Oklahoma and Texas are good church people and the kids we get are church kids. Then the juniors and seniors set a pattern of behavior for the youngsters coming in."
"We try to create the atmosphere that the last boy on our squad is as important as the No. 1 boy. The fifth-team boys should do well enough not to slow down the first two units in practice. That's very important. That's why we spend so much time with the boys who play on the lower units."
Clendon Thomas, as an example, started on the fifth unit. "I guess they didn't really want me here an awful lot," he smiled. "I played at Southeast High in Oklahoma City. We only won two games in the three years I played and once we got beat 82-6. When I was a sophomore here I was on the fifth unit, but the coaches work hard with everyone on the squad and I moved up. Even the units have team spirit among themselves."
"It takes four hours of preparation by the coaches for one hour of practice," Wilkinson continued. "We ask the boys to give a lot, but we never ask them to make any more sacrifice than the coaches. We divide preparation into two phases. First, establish the foundation of football you're going to play—fundamentals, offense and defense and setting players in their position. While we're establishing this fundamental soundness, we come up with the 22 best football players on the squad, regardless of position, and we fit them into the positions we figure they can play best. We find that good football players are good at any position. This phase is extremely difficult for both players and coaches, and it takes lots of hard physical work. Then you get into the season when most of the work is mental and that's hard, too, in a different way."