Monthly Archives: August 2014

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.

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.