OU Football and the “new Oklahoma”

Since I returned home from Oklahoma I’ve been working on organizing my research and sketching out how to organize my dissertation. I have a lot of little stories and anecdotes, but I’m not sure where to place them within the larger story. I’m still unsure how to construct and layout that story.

In a lot of ways the story is tailor-made. The University of Oklahoma won 47-consecutive games from 1953-1957. They also won 31-straight from 1949-1950. These two streaks serve as the driving narratives. Football and unprecedented success are the story. Yet, in other ways, they’re not the story at all. The immediate questions of “why football” and “what impact did the team and winning have on the university and state” are integral to doing good history. Those questions help separate my project from the other books written about the streak. After my research trip and doing quite a bit of reading I have answers to those questions and others.

The struggle is about organization and arrangement. What’s most logical, what supports my argument best, etc. I want to develop and foreshadow events with context and connections but I don’t want to detour too much from the “main” football story. Maybe this shouldn’t be a concern, because I feel like a lot of my little arguments and assertions take place along these side roads while football itself only loosely connects some of them.  Football is the big image people notice, but the detours are what show the real, new Oklahoma in the postwar era.

The story that I think is at the heart of my dissertation is that of football as a symbol of the new Oklahoma building its image, industry, racial equality, etc. in the postwar Sunbelt. Football and winning are what people notice. It’s what makes Oklahoma and OU so unique and interesting, but along the way, parallel to the streaks, are some really compelling stories about racial integration (both of OU and the team as well as events in Oklahoma City), boosterism (Oklahoma City striving to become the “Detroit of the aviation industry”), the university’s vast expansion (with assistance from the Navy), loyalty oaths, and the state’s political influence.

Image is perhaps the overarching story, of which football is the biggest attention grabber. John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath sets it all in motion. Oklahoma desperately wants to counter the “Okie” image and rebrand the state. Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! helps. So too does a variety of ad campaigns and whistle stop tours by the Oklahoma City Chamber of Commerce (and others). Football success, however, has the largest impact. This is undoubtedly why Oklahoma is one of the major instigators in questioning the NCAAs broadcasting policies during the 1950s. It also affects similar debates as they consider different conference memberships (with the president informing some alumni that while the Southwest Conference has less stringent recruiting rules, OU’s academic reputation would suffer).

Image really is at the fore in both narratives, it’s at the heart of what I mean when I say  the “new Oklahoma” (or “Bud Wilkinson’s Oklahoma” in my working dissertation title). The “new Oklahoma” is complex. It relies on football, the politics of pork, boosterism, mass media, and more, to reshape not just the state’s image but also its racial and economic landscape. There are hints of change in the political climate as well (though they’re not completely achieved until later). I want my dissertation to be about the construction of this “new Oklahoma” while keeping football as the central narrative trunk of which everything else branches off.  It’s hard to strike that balance but I’m excited about where I’m going and I think I’ll be able to get there.

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Remembering my Track Coach

My college track coach passed away suddenly last night. He was only 35. I was on the committee that hired him in 2007, and later served as one of his assistant coaches before going to graduate school. Though there were some growing pains at the beginning, he took the program to new heights. He was a great leader and role model, praying before every team meal, making us remove hats and turning off our phones when we ate, and encouraging us to pursue our dreams. I’m grateful for all of the opportunities and second chances he gave me.

I was a senior during his first year and the transition to a new coach was tough. I was still figuring out my life then and which direction I wanted to go. He knew I had a passion for working with people and the ability to explain complex ideas. He saw something in me and hired me as graduate assistant. We had our differences — mostly philosophical — but worked together to improve the team and recruit talented athletes. Five of the cross country runners I recruited became the centerpiece of the programs ascendancy to the top of the conference standings (we finished last my senior year). We spent a lot of time together those few years. Coaching every day, traveling to cross country, indoor, and outdoor meets. I attended two national meets with him, too.

Beyond coaching, the opportunity and flexibility he gave me to coach with him, earn my Master’s of Liberal Arts, and work part time in the archives was integral in helping me figure out what I wanted to do with my life. That was probably one of the most difficult times of my life and I’m grateful for all of the support he gave me. I only coached a year before leaving for Reno to earn my MA, but that year was so pivotal for the trajectory of my life and career. Had I not had that year to figure things out, I don’t know what I’d be doing now.

My coaching tenure didn’t end on the best terms, but we later made amends. I shared with him my MA thesis on my running-hero Billy Mills, which he enjoyed. We also would occasionally exchange text messages — mostly me congratulating him on his the team’s success. We also talked about what I was up to in school. He was genuinely interested in my life and excited about the path I was on. After I became a certified USATF official, he gave me an open invitation to come back and help out with home track meets. Sadly, I never got a chance to.

It’s tragic that he died so young. He influenced so many talented athletes and students at Baker University. He was a tremendous athlete and coach. During his competitive days he won a National Championship in the javelin, but he never really talked about it. That didn’t define him. He was mostly family man and a man of faith. He leaves behind a wife and three young children. RIP Zach Kindler. You were a great coach and an even greater man.

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Billy Mills and the 1959 Big 8 Cross Country Championships

Yesterday when I doing dissertation research at the University of Oklahoma Archives, I came across this document. As you can see below, it’s a copy of the official Big Eight Conference Cross Country Meet results from 1959. At first glance the document was meaningless to me. It’s completely unrelated to my current project on the University of Oklahoma football. At second glance, however, I noticed Billy Mills’ name. Because I wrote my master’s thesis on Billy Mills, I took a quick photo and though it would be fun to share it with him on Facebook (I’m friends with his wife and they share an account). Upon seeing the photo, the shared a couple of short tidbits about the race.

big 8 meet

First, as the document explains, the meet was held in Lawrence, KS on a gusty November day. The University of Kansas won the team title and Billy Mills was their lead runner taking second-place. He finished the 3 mile course, which was in “perfect” condition, in a time of 14:11.0. Miles Eisenman of Oklahoma State won the race in a new meet record of 13:55.2. According to the splits at the bottom of the page, he took the lead around the first mile and never looked back.

Yesterday Mills relayed his experience in the race to me on Facebook. His recollections expand upon the information and add some drama to the meet. The race was pretty rough for him. He, along with 2 or 3 other guys, fell around the 2 mile mark. The fall likely cost him sometime, but he got up and tried his best to chase down Eisenman. Mills finish was important in helping KU secure the team-title. Though this story is relatively briefly and somewhat insignificant, it adds an important personal perspective to official document. By reading the meet results alone, you would never know about the fall and the close physical battle among the runners.

Mills was ecstatic to see the sheet tonight. It clearly took him back. It’s always fun to remember old time and old friends, even those who’ve passed on. According to Mills, Miles Eisenman passed away this year. Seeing this tonight was likely a nice tribute and reminder of that race and his close rivalry. Mills was a junior in 1959. As a senior, he won the 1960 Big 8 Cross Country meet.

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Saying Goodbye to the Track at KU’s Memorial Stadium

kutrackThe University of Kansas removed the track from their Memorial Stadium this week. They were the last BCS conference school to do so. It’s bittersweet to see the track torn out. I have a lot of personal connections to that facility — from both my academic and athletic careers.

Growing up in Kansas running cross country and track, KU was held in high esteem. The University hosted annual cross country and track meets for the region’s best high schoolers each fall and spring. The fall cross country meet predated the state meet and served as a de facto championship for several years. Those early meets were held on the hills surrounding the stadium (now it’s held at Rim Rock Farm, a beautiful cross country course north of Lawrence). But the track meet — the Kansas Relays — was the granddaddy of them all. It lasted three-days and hosted athletes competing at the high school, college, and professional levels. It was a major event that attracted thousands of spectators. As recently as 2006 I remember their being as many as 30,000 spectators — enough to fill half of the stadium.

The meet has been held annually for over 80 years. It’s been an important meet in the history of the sport, too. During track and field’s heyday Relay Carnivals became common and extremely popular. Nationally there are four major relay meets: the Penn Relays, Texas Relays, the Drake Relays, and the Kansas Relays. The Kansas Relays are continuing on, of course. Track and Field has long been one of KU’s marquee programs and they built a brand-new, state-of-the art facility, which the program badly needed.

My sadness in seeing the track go is strictly nostalgic. By most accounts the Memorial Stadium track wasn’t great. It was one of the few facilities that I ran on still measured in yards instead of meters (because, as the rumor goes, they didn’t have the room to expand it). I always remember it being a little hard, uneven and patchy. But the surface didn’t matter to me and thousands of other athletes. It was an honor to be running at KU, dwarfed by the towering walls of the stadium under the bright lights, with a rowdy crowd cheering you on. The atmosphere of it all was great.

Of course, beyond that atmosphere was the history. The Kansas Relays and the University of Kansas track and field program has an illustrious past (and present). KU has won a handful of NCAA team championships in the sport (including the women’s last year). They team has also developed several Olympians and world record holders. As a distance runner I was well versed in this history growing up. Glenn Cunningham held the mile record in the 1930s, Wes Santee held it while chasing the 4-minute barrier in the 1950s, and Wichita East high school phenom Jim Ryun set his mark before matriculating to KU in the 1960s. Billy Mills won the 1964 Olympic 10,000m after graduating from KU and later held the 6-mile world record. Al Oerter, another KU alum, won four Olympic gold medals in the discus. They all competed and practiced on that track. Basketball great Wilt Chamberlain even competed for the Jayhawk track team.

When I was in college I competed in the 4-x-mile relay at the Kansas Relays. I recorded my career fastest mile time as a split in one of those races. I don’t know if it was the lights (the race was after dark), the crowd, the adrenaline, or just the history, but I’ll never forget that race. I was a pretty mediocre runner throughout my career but I always felt world-class at the Kansas Relays because I knew I was running on the same stretches as my heroes, my feet landing in the same places as theirs.

Saying goodbye to a track with that much history is hard, but the decision is the right one. Almost all major track and field programs now have their own track specific facilities that feature pristine running surfaces, jumping pits, and throwing rings. The nostalgia of Memorial Stadium held KU back in improving these areas. The new improvements will help KU attract top athletes and maintain a high level of success that matches the program’s history.

The sport of track and field has already experienced its decline in popularity. This has been a half-century long process. My own theory blames an increasing move away from team-centered programs towards. It’s rare to find a team that is strong in all facets of the sport — sprinting, jumping, hurdling, throwing, and distance running. Likewise, the sport has increasingly focused on individual marks. As an a former athlete and coach, I admit that these developments have been great for improving performances and developing talent, but as spectator, they make it harder to follow the sport.

In track and field’s heyday the sport centered on weekday duals and weekend meets. Duals required that both team put 2 or 3 individuals in each event. The dual was then scored giving points to each team based on where they placed. Every race mattered. At the end of the dual you had a clear winner and a tidy box-score (like baseball) of the performances for the newspaper. On the weekends, meets operated similarly but with more teams. Winning a meet was a major accomplishment and the goal of many coaches. Fans could follow these results — both in the stands and through newspapers — to measure how well a team was doing.

As I said earlier, the sport has evolved past this. Today some programs focus on training only a handful of event groups. Dual meets rarely exist and team scores aren’t standard at lots of meets. Coaches and athletes are focused on getting certain performances standards to qualify for regional and national meets, not winning team titles. This evolution has been really good for the athletes and has greatly enhanced the quality of the sport. A lot of coaches believe that the old system encouraged over-racing that complicated training schedules making it difficult to achieve peak performances. For example, Wes Santee once remarked that he may have broken the four-minute barrier first, but he was always running 3 or 4 events in meets and never really fresh.

Track and field is a different sport now. And, in a lot of ways, it’s a better sport now, too. The removal of the track from Memorial Stadium at the University of Kansas is a part of the sport’s evolution. It’s actually fairly remarkable that KU kept its track inside of stadium this long. But those of us versed in its history know why they did. That’s why the news this week tugs at the hearts of those of us who are nostalgic for the large crowds of yesteryear, but also excites us as we see KU moving forward to build on its tradition in the new world of track and field.

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World Cup Predictions and Personal Reflections

The 2014 FIFA World Cup begins today. It’s the biggest sporting event in the world and one of the most exciting. It’s a truly global event with a fascinating and storied past. Brazil will be at the center of the world for the next few weeks. While most people will be focused on the pitch, there will certainly be coverage of the social, political, and economic conditions of Brazilians. Criticism of FIFA and other international sporting organizations will follow. Protests of corruption and the increasing failures of what some might call “sports diplomacy” are likely.

While the World Cup is significant on a global level, it also carries national significance. Every four years Americans ESPN renews their interest in soccer and columnists wax eloquently on their hopes for the future. Purists will deride the MLS and it’s quality of play, while others point out its increasingly popularity and commercial success in cities like Seattle, Portland, and Kansas City and extoll the rising American soccer culture. In the wake of the concussion crisis and concerns over CTE in youth sports, there will undoubtedly be hundreds of stories imaging a future sporting landscape with soccer at the center. Soccer, of course, has been the #1 youth sport in the United States for decades.

The World Cup carries personal significance for me, too. I’m a sports fan and I’ve always enjoyed soccer. I played it briefly in elementary school and continued to pay attention to local teams as I aged. I grew up liking soccer, but never knowing about the world of soccer. I didn’t know about the World Cup. I didn’t know about the EPL, La Liga, or Budesliga. I didn’t become aware of a lot these things until high school and college. Soccer was something I played at recess.

The first vivid World Cup memory that I can recall was the U.S. winning the Women’s World Cup in 1999. Then, the next year the Kansas City Wizards won the MLS Cup. I remember watching the game, annoying my brother by flipping between it and the Kansas City Chiefs game. That’s what being a soccer fan meant to me.

In high school I supported our soccer teams. Many of my cross country and track teammates played soccer in the alternate season. I knew that they were good. They won a couple of state titles and many went on to play in college. But in that moment, I never really got it. I never understood the club scene, where teammates would leave practice to go to soccer practice. I  did know that the “Total Futbol” slogan used by my school’s coach was really a style of play borrowed from the fantastic Dutch teams.

It’s funny now. All those years I considered myself a soccer fan, but I barely even knew what soccer was. My love for the game was born and bred on the playground and coddled by the success of my local teams. It wasn’t until college that I saw the larger picture. My college’s teams were quite good and I became an instant fan. We had rowdy crowds with creative chants and championship banners. Several of our players came from the UK. During my four years, soccer games not football were the place to be.

Captivated by this culture, I enrolled in a History of the World Cup course January of my sophomore year. It was an “Interterm” class between the fall and spring semester. Three weeks of going to one class sandwiched between indoor track practices.  This course (and all interterm courses at my school) wasn’t designed to be rigorous, but rather fun, engaging, and exploratory. One of the goals of the class was to prepare us to be intelligent and engaged fans for the 2006 World Cup in Germany. I recall the instructor asking us how many World Cups the United States had won the first day, and several of us had no clue. The class was a mix of the history of soccer and the laws of the game as well as the World Cup. Our main assignments was to give a presentation on a historically significant match for a country we selected. I chose 1966 England and talked about the “phantom” goal, using as a segue to talk about goal-line technology.

That class was the first “sports history” course I ever took. I didn’t realize it then, but it planted a seed. It started me thinking about combining sports and history. I began connecting the dots and discovering how little I really knew. I was a fan, but in a mostly passive and uncritical way. It was easy for me to cheer for my team and my country to win, but I didn’t know the historical contexts and significance of their competitions. I discovered that just as you can often learn more and enjoy watching one player for several minutes rather than following the ball, the same is true for a variety of issues, events, actions, and individuals in sport. The World Cup always serves as a reminder of these things for me, sadly that might be because that the easiest way to enjoy and cope with Team USA.

But this year I’m more excited. In addition to the various national and international stories that I’m interested in, I have a player to watch: Matt Besler. He’s a defenseman on the U.S. National Team, who came up through the MLS. He not only plays for my hometown team, Sporting Kansas City, he also went to my high school. Besler graduated a year after me, but we never knew each other well. I’m excited to watch him for several reasons, but probably most of all is the fact that he represents a sense of place for me. He’s a symbol of my high school, my hometown, and my country. I often wonder why I never got into European soccer during and after college, and I think it’s because I only follow sports team that have a personal connection. There’s a certain provincialism required to be a sports fan, and for me it requires personal connections. I’ll always be a booster of my home town and the colleges I attended. That’s how I’m wired. So while as an American, I’ve always had a connection to team USA , this year it’s even stronger. I’m excited to watch Besler play and continue to build his successful career on the world’s biggest stage.

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ANB Entry, Sports Blog Launch, and Diss. Ramblings

The entry I wrote for American National Biography on US Olympian Harold “Hal” Connolly went live today. You can read it here:http://anb.org/articles/19/19-01012.html It’s free to view for the first 6 months, after that a subscription is required. Although it is basically just a 1,000 word biography, it was a really fun piece to research and write. I didn’t know that much about Connolly before hand. He’s a fascinating figure. His life was so significant beyond just his athletic career. He was born with a deformed arm, he married a Czech athlete during the heart of the Cold War, he one of the first people to admit to using steroids and had a strong stance against punitive testing that he outlined in the NY Times. Later in his life he went to work promoting the hammer throw to young athletes and served as the top administrator for the special olympics. He embodies not just the Cold War era, but so much more. I hope to write more about him someday.

Next week I am launching my new group blogging project: Sport in American History! The site is still under construction as I wait for people to send me their bios, but I’ve got around 10-15 interested contributors, and a dozen or so more interested readers. The first piece will just be an introduction to the blog and outline of what’s to come. After that we’ll be taking turns posting weekly pieces that address current events, review books/films, share new research, and discuss teaching with sport. I’m hoping that it will be a great success but worry that motivating and reminding people to sign up and post regularly could prove to be difficult. The May launch is maybe a bit risky because everyone is busy with finals, but I wanted to have something up there and visible for us to advertise at the North American Society for Sport History meeting in late May. One of our contributors is really active with NASSH and has promised to spread the word. Look out for a new Twitter account for the blog too. 

Beyond these two projects, my own research is going well. I’m proud of my working dissertation title: “From Dust to Dynasty: Bud Wilkinson’s Oklahoma” though I think it makes it sound more like a biography than an exploration of race, politics, and football during Cold War era Sunbelt Oklahoma. Lately, I’ve been compiling preliminary lists of boxes and files that I want to look at when I get to the archives this summer. One of the grants I’m applying for requires it, but it’s going to be useful for other areas of my research too. I’ve had some really good conversations lately about my project and the different historiographies that I’ll be touching. There will definitely be a lot of political history, some race, and, of course, football. I hope to write a longer post on the project and its development in May. For now, the quick hitting themes are:

  • Rehabilitation of Oklahoma’s image (rejection of “Okie” image)
  • The expansion of the University of Oklahoma
  • The integration of OU & OU Football
  • Oklahoman’s as Cold Warriors
  • Postwar Recovery based on the Aviation Industry and Pork Barrel legislation
  • Football, Politics, and the Sunbelt/South

I could easily write a paragraph or two on each of these bullet points explaining them and my preliminary findings as well as connecting them. I’m really excited about the project and all of the different converging ideas and angels to explore. Things seem to be going well, but there’s always more to read, more to discover!

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Thinking and Reflecting on Blogging

Over the past couple of weeks I’ve been reading and thinking about blogging quite a bit. During this time I’ve had several productive conversations about my blog and the American Sport History group blog that I hope to have up an running early this summer. Many of the thoughts I had and ideas I was reading came together for me in yesterday’s live-Tweet of the OAH panel on blogging “Is Blogging Scholarship?” (much of which has been Storified here).  Historiann (Ann M. Little) was a member of the panel and wrote her own blogpost about it here. As response to this conversation, I felt it appropriate to reflect on why I blog, how I use it, and what I’ve gotten out of it.

This blog started as a space for writing and thinking. I’ve tried to update it regularly — which has tended to be every other month, though I always say I’d like to write more often. I also started this site as a place to house pieces of my professional portfolio. I’ve tried to collect bits and pieces of my digital humanities and public history work, share some of my reading lists, and publish a relatively up-to-date CV. It’s essentially serves as a landing page for my professional identity and networking to for people to see what I’m up to.

As I Tweeted this morning, I tend to use my this space to historicize current events, play with ideas, ask for help or feedback on projects I’m working on. In many ways I approach this space like I would a conference papers.  For me, it’s a good way to start the writing process and/or organize my ideas. This aspect of the blog has worked remarkably well for me. I’ve actually turned a couple of the posts into conference presentations. My writings here have also started conversations that have led to me rethinking and radically changing my dissertation topic. 

Perhaps it’s all the psychology and education classes I took as an undergraduate, but self reflection has always been important to me, and when I began was a key part of this blog. I always find reflection to be incredibly useful and rewarding, but also scary because it is intensely private yet can come across as egotistical or self absorbed when made. It’s hard to strike a balance in this type of writing, and is perhaps safest not to publish. I still do it from time to time, because I think they’re worthwhile.

There is risk in blogging. I know it first hand because it has created a few bumps in the road for me. Without going into detail, I’ve learned that it is crucial that we become self aware of not only what we write but how we write. It’s important to be very cautious about certain subjects and to read and reread everything we write to gauge the tone and perspective of the writing. Although blogging tends to be fairly conversational and personal, it still requires careful editing and attentional to detail. This goes for all types of writing we do on our blogs because you never know who’s out there reading.

By and large, this blog been had a positive influence on my professional life. Though I don’t usually receive many on-site comments, this blog has worked remarkably well in tandem with Twitter in starting conversations and creating new connections. Besides getting amazing feedback about my dissertation project, I’ve also been interviewed on Canadian Radio, and invited to join a variety of projects because people have found me through this blog.

My own experiences blogging — both good and bad — offer instructive examples for the larger discussion on whether or not we should blog AND how we should go about blogging. Group blogs have become extremely popular lately and offer a more structured and refined approach to blogging. Earlier this month ProfHacker wrote about How to Run a Group-Authored Blog that has helped inform that way I’ve gone about planning and organizing my new venture. I’ve also drawn ideas from my friends and colleagues who contribute to the U.S. Intellectual History and Religion in American History blogs.

As I launch the American Sport History group blog later this summer, I’m unsure what will become of this space. That blog is focused more on responding to current events, reviewing books/films, discussing teaching ideas with sport, and offering an avenue for younger scholars to share and solicit feedback on their research. I’m hoping that it will be a catalyst in developing a vibrant online community of sports scholars. I hope to keep writing here, though the new blog will be duplicate some of the things I post here my many of my scholarly interests lie outside of American sport. This space may evolve and diversify into my interest areas. For example, I see myself returning to discussions of my exploration in the digital humanities. As I prepare to teach my first class this fall, you can expect to see a post or two about my experiences planning and implementing my syllabus. Regardless of how this space develops, I’m committed to blogging and think it’s a worthwhile endeavor for graduate students and scholars to network, test ideas, and reach broader audiences.

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