I learned a lot from Beano Cook during his time as an ESPN college football personality. Upon his passing on Oct. 11, I began thinking of the many anecdotes I had heard over the years from the “Pope of College Football.” None are more applicable this week, when Notre Dame makes its first visit to Norman in 46 years for a showdown between two Top 10 teams, than a factoid related to Oklahoma’s record 47-game winning streak that Notre Dame brought to a halt.
Even those of us too young to remember are aware of the dominance of Oklahoma in the 1950s under legendary head coach Bud Wilkinson. The Sooners were so good that the Oklahoma freshman class of 1953, led by Pro Football Hall of Fame running back Tommy McDonald did not lose a game during the three years that they were eligible to play (freshmen were ineligible at the time).
The Sooners run of 47 straight victories from 1953-1957, famously ended on a late November Saturday when an unranked Notre Dame team, which had finished 2-8 just a year earlier, rolled into Owen Field and shut out Oklahoma, 7-0. The bit of trivia (or an urban legend, which we’ll get to in a minute) that Cook often cited was that losses to the Fighting Irish bookended the Sooners’ record winning streak.
A much stronger Notre Dame team than the one that ended the streak in 1957 came to Norman early in 1953, led by eventual Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Lattner. A 28-21 loss to the Irish would be Oklahoma’s last for over four years. Why then, was Cook quick to lash out at those who stated that Notre Dame wins over Oklahoma bookended the 47-game winning streak?
“Don’t get caught,” Cook warned. “They lost to Notre Dame but they did not win the next 47 games.
Notre Dame did bookend the Sooners’48-game unbeaten streak, but not the 47-game winning streak. Following the 1953 loss to the Irish, Oklahoma traveled to Pitt, where Cook was a senior at the time. The eighth-ranked Sooners took an early 7-0 lead, but the hometown Panthers rallied late to salvage a 7-7 tie at Pitt Stadium. The following week, when Oklahoma defeated Texas at the Cotton Bowl, was when the winning streak truly began.
This past April (Apri. 24 edition of the ESPNU College Football Podcast), when Cook was still conducting weekly podcasts with ESPN colleague Ivan Maisel, the topic of the Sooners’ winning streak came up during a recollection of Wilkinson’s career during the week of his birthday. Cook clarified the difference between the winning streak and the unbeaten streak.
“They had a tie with Pitt and then won the next 47 games,” Cook explained. “Don’t get trapped. Most people think they lost to Notre Dame, won 47 and then lost to Notre Dame again. They went unbeaten in 48 games. I caught somebody but they wouldn’t pay me."
The story might sound better had the tie against Pitt never occurred, but college football isn’t a Hollywood script, as we find out each and every Saturday.
Alas, there are some remarkable statistics about the history between the Irish and Sooners. This will be the fifth time in the 10 meetings between the programs that both teams were ranked in the Top 10. Notre Dame has won all four prior Top 10 clashes, including the 1953 game.
Notre Dame’s 9.4 points allowed per game this season is second in the nation, but it pales in comparison to the 7.0 average points allowed in its four prior visits to Norman, which include shutouts in 1957 and 1966.
It will truly be a spectacle on Saturday night inside Memorial Stadium, a place in which Sooners' head coach Bob Stoops has lost just four times in his career. It’s the kind of late October game that Cook loved. While he unfortunately is no longer around to witness it, if Brent Musburger or Kirk Herbstreit dare mention on the ABC telecast that Oklahoma’s 47-game winning streak was sandwiched by losses to Notre Dame, I can promise you Cook, wherever he is, will hear it and scoff in a way that only the Pope of College Football could.
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