How John Steinbeck's 'Wrath' Birthed a Football Powerhouse

J. Robert ByromCorrespondent IAugust 12, 2010

Bud Wilkinson
Bud Wilkinson

The men of the plains dreaded the blizzards. It was like nothing they had ever heard of before. The blizzards came daily, usually in the early morning, blotting out the sun and covering everything in dust. The dust was everywhere, it came through every crack and piled high on every counter.

Roosters would crow at all times of the day and night as they had trouble discerning the two. The carcasses of cattle were everywhere as the farms disappeared.

The family farmers looked with disdain at the tractor operators tilling what used to be their neighbor's farm. The tractors were constant reminders that they were next and that if the rains didn't come soon they would have to migrate west.

Grass, such a simple plant, is a powerful force.

The Native Americans learned to live with the land, the white man lived off of it. The grass could lay dormant for years until the rains came and then grow taller than men in a few short months.

The natives never disturbed the grass because they knew with its return came the bison herds. The bison itself could sustain the Indian people but the white man had little need of that, and preferred to cultivate the soil to make food grow.

First, they killed off the bison, then they tilled up the grass to plant their farms. They lived off the lands their own way. What they never realized was the grass protected the plains. It could not be killed by the weather, only temporarily put to sleep.

When the droughts came to the southern plains in the early '30s, there was nothing to hold the ground down.  As the temperatures went up, so did the amount of dust in the air. After a few years of this came what Woody Guthrie called the Black Blizzards.

The Black Blizzards turned day into night and covered everything in dust. People put wet cloths over their mouths and eyes just to be able to sleep through the night. The dust would be inches thicker when they woke in the morning.

Handbills were passed out promising plenty of farm work for all in California. The men of the Dust Bowl were not easily fooled, but had no choice as each dusk, their lives grew exponentially harder.

The famous Route 66 had just been completed and it became the only answer for those without hope.

What the people in the fertile California valleys knew and the Okies would soon harshly discover was that there were not plenty of jobs for everyone, just a select few.

By passing out the handbills and having 50 desperate people with absolutely no options showing up for every job, they could pay as little as they liked, which they did.

Okies were pushed into all-to-familiar Hoovervilles where their lives were even worse. In the southern plains of Oklahoma, Kansas, and Texas, at least they owned the dirt that coated their lips, throats, and tongues. In California, they owned nothing.

Entire families worked all day, every day, only to go to sleep with another nickel.

They could not venture into town without seeing signs that said "Coloreds and Okies Not Welcome." Many of the signs lacked the dignity of the word "coloreds" and used more colorful expressions.

Steinbeck grew up in the fertile valleys of southern California.

Steinbeck was horrified by what he saw his own people do to the Okies, so he took to Route 66 traveling back and forth for months. What his travels conceived is considered one of the finest American books ever written, The Grapes of Wrath.

The book was not met with warm welcome from either of its primary subjects, migrant Okies or the Californians. The Californians hated how it portrayed them as cold, heartless abusers and the Okies hated how it portrayed them as dirty and uneducated.

It was banned in school districts in both states and was even debated in Congress as to whether the book should be banned altogether.

By the end of the Dust Bowl, millions had left the southern plains. Some have said more people left Oklahoma during the Dust Bowl than live there today. But as the migrant farmers left, the oil tycoons, doctors, bankers, lawyers, and businessmen became a much bigger percentage of the population of Oklahoma.

Mostly unaffected by the droughts, the Dust Bowl was actually a boon for many like the bankers, who snatched up tons of land and sold it to corporate farms.

What these moneyed men could not see in Steinbeck's book was that the Okies were actually the heroes, doing anything to survive and always helping others even when they could not help themselves.

The books ending is its most controversial part, it showed the main character's sister, Rose of Sharon, breastfeeding an elderly man to keep him from starving to death  

While that hardly causes a batted eye today, in 1930's America, it made the book both obscene and pornographic.

Steinbeck could not leave his California home without being attacked by the same people whom where once proud to call him a native soon.

While Will Rogers could laugh at the image of the Dust Bowl by saying the Okies leaving Oklahoma and moving to California "raised the IQ of both states," the wildcatters and new money of Oklahoma could not see any humor.

One man believed he knew the answer to rectify the state's image problem.

George Lynn Cross rose from an assistant professor to college president in just nine years.

Cross would one day become famous for telling the Oklahoma legislature the reason he needed more money for the University of Oklahoma was he "wanted to build a university the football team could be proud of."

However, before that statement could strike so meaningfully in the hearts of the legislators, he had to build the football program first.

So in January of 1946, on the heels of the world's greatest war, he stood in front of nine regents and began to speak.

"Gentlemen, I think every man in this room knows why we are here. The war is over and our state is upside down. We must make sure this does not translate into a downward spiral for the university."

One regent, an oilman of unusually high acumen, Lloyd Noble, knew where Cross was going before he finished the sentence.

Noble was an oil legend, followed everywhere he went by wildcatters hoping to find a spot to drill close to his next rig because it seemed he could not poke a stick in the ground without oil gushing out.

"The problem is Steinbeck's damn book," Noble said. "Everyone in this room understands the impact the Okie image is having on our state. Our people need to stop apologizing about where they live."

Cross started the next sentence like they had rehearsed the speech. "There is only one way to get this state back on track, and that's football, football, football. Think about South Bend, Indiana on Saturday afternoons. Think about West Point in late September, think about Harvard and Yale on a frosty November afternoon."

Cross certainly was not going to stop his pitch until he felt the sell was complete.

"Think about Frank Leahy at Notre Dame, Red Blaik at Army, Bernie Bierman at Minnesota. Where can we get ourselves one of these men?"

Of course, Noble had a plan to strike oil with a coach as well.

"We are going to need to recruit a lot of boys out of the military. The NCAA says it is open season on recruits. Military boys can change schools without losing eligibility. I suggest we go after a man who's been coaching one of these military outfits. He'll know where the best players are."

Jim Tatum of Iowa Preflight fit the bill. However, Tatum was far from a people person and to deflect questioning during his interview, he brought along an assistant named Bud Wilkinson.

Wilkinson was more impressive to the regents than Tatum, but the regents knew they could not offer the job to him. So, they offered Tatum the job with one caveat: Wilkinson had to come with him.

Tatum and Wilkinson began the work of scouring the country for the best football talent they could find fresh out of the military.

While paying players was a common practice at nearly all the big-time programs in the '30s and '40s, OU had stopped paying players during the war. Nearly the entire team was drafted after the 1942 season and OU decided there was no need to pay the scrubs. Tatum inherited a desk with nearly $125,000 to help convince players to try out for the University of Oklahoma.

The recruiting wars of 1946 were out of control with schools promising the players cash, cars, and jobs at many universities. It was this summer, more than any other, that convinced the NCAA it needed a compliance staff.

While teams were throwing cash at players all over the country, no one had a plan or the oilmen to bankroll that plan quite like the University of Oklahoma. With Wilkinson's attention to detail and Tatum's deep pockets, they started practice in 1946 with 375 mostly ex-soldiers to start a football team.

They could have started their own league, much less a team, but they knew every player that was there for the tryout was not trying out for any other college football team. So they postponed cutting down the roster as long as they could.

Rodgers and Hammerstein had already launched their own stimulus program to revive the image of Oklahoma with the musical "Oklahoma!" which turned Broadway on its ear for nearly a decade and changed live performance forever.

The Sooners started their season just a little ways north of Broadway against one of the best teams in the country, Army, at West Point.

Army featured two Heisman winners known as Mister Inside and Mister Outside, Blanchard and Davis.

The Sooners lost that first game on a Daryl Royal fumble late in the game as they were deep in Army territory about to tie the game up. Between the gutsy loss and the fame of the musical, the Sooners were treated with great adoration. People crowded around them on the streets just to see if they really talked like the people in "Oklahoma!"

The Sooners left New York well on their way to restoring the pride of the state. Cross knew his plan would work without a doubt now. A 7-3 season and a bowl bid, the first since 1939 for the Sooners, was the beginning of what Barry Switzer has referred to as a "monster that can never be satisfied."

After the season, Bear Bryant left Maryland and Tatum made it known loudly that he wanted the position. He took the job and the $125,000 slush fund with him. The Oileys of Oklahoma could care less. They knew that Wilkinson was their man and would have gladly given Tatum the money just to clear the way for Wilkinson to take over.

Wilkinson was as much of a polar opposite from Tatum as could be. He was what all the new money in Oklahoma wanted to be, highly-polished, well-read and impeccably dressed. He exuded class from every pore and in a time where coaches were more likely to wear overalls on the sideline than a suit, he wore a gray flannel suit with a fedora every Saturday, the exact opposite of the image The Grapes of Wrath left in the minds of millions.

Wilkinson went on to win 13 straight conference championships, three national titles and at one point, 47 straight games.

But one has to wonder, if Steinbeck never wrote that book, would Sooner football be what it is today?


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