Wilkinson, Charles Burnham (“Bud”)

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Wilkinson, Charles Burnham (“Bud”)

(b. 23 April 1916 in Minneapolis, Minnesota; d. 9 February 1994 in St. Louis, Missouri), football coach at the University of Oklahoma who set the national record for consecutive victories and who restored pride to the state of Oklahoma.

Wilkinson was one of three children (along with brother William and sister Florence) of Charles Patton Wilkinson, a real estate developer and mortgage broker, and Edith Lindbloom Wilkinson, a musically inclined housewife. Wilkinson’s mother died when he was seven, a year after she was involved in a train wreck. Fortunately, Wilkinson’s grandmother and aunt lived in houses adjacent to his father’s and asserted a maternal influence on the young boy. One of Wilkinson’s childhood playmates was Patty Berg, who later gained fame as a champion professional golfer.

In his teens Wilkinson enrolled at Shattuck Military Academy in Faribault, Minnesota, where he lettered in football, basketball, ice hockey, and baseball—the only four-sport letterman in his 1933 graduating class. He graduated cum laude and received awards for combining athletics and academics, and as the school’s best all-around athlete.

Wilkinson entered the University of Minnesota in the fall of 1933 along with about 150 other freshmen football aspirants. As a sophomore in 1934, he came under the tutelage of coach Bernie Bierman, who led the Golden Gophers to three national championships during Wilkinson’s varsity years at Minnesota (1934, 1935, and 1936). Bierman was a low-key, quiet coach, but his strong belief in football fundamentals, hard work, and sharp execution was not lost on his young lineman. As a six-foot-one-inch, 200-pounder, Wilkinson began his varsity career at guard; during his senior year he moved to quarterback (blocking back in the “single-wing”) in Bierman’s power-oriented system. He was a solid performer—an All-America choice in 1935—and was chosen to play in the traditional Chicago College All-Star game in the fall of 1937. He won the Big Ten Medal, symbolic of athletic (he also played golf and ice hockey) and academic excellence, at graduation.

During a trip to Carleton College to play hockey, Bud met his future wife, Mary Shifflett. They married on 20 August 1939 and had two sons—Patrick and Jay, the latter an All-America receiver at Duke University in the 1960s.

A considerable amount of tension existed between “C. P.,” Wilkinson’s strong-willed father, and Bud when Bud took a part-time coaching job at Syracuse University following graduation. C. P. felt that coaching was a waste of his son’s considerable abilities. While coaching football, golf, and ice hockey, Wilkinson earned a master’s degree in English—also his undergraduate major—in 1940. As part of a classroom assignment, he developed, and broadcast over radio, a fifteen-minute “coach’s show.”

Enlisting in 1942, Wilkinson was assigned to the U.S. Navy’s pre-flight program at the University of Iowa in 1943, where he coached the Seahawks’ service team. Don Faurot, of the University of Missouri, was the head coach, and Wilkinson and Jim Tatum were his assistants. Faurot devised the”split-T” formation, a quick-hitting, speed-oriented system, as opposed to the power and plodding of the more widely used “single-wing.”

When the navy disbanded its pre-flight programs in 1944, Wilkinson was assigned as a hangar-deck officer on the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise. He saw intense action in the battle for Iwo Jima as a lieutenant commander.

After the war Faurot returned to Missouri, and Tatum, a University of North Carolina alumnus, became head coach at the University of Oklahoma in Norman. Wilkinson went to Oklahoma as Tatum’s chief assistant. Tatum stayed only a year in Norman, and Wilkinson took over the Sooners in 1947. At thirty-one, he was head coach and athletic director at Oklahoma.

His Sooners were 7—2—2 in his first season, but they then embarked on a thirty-one-game winning streak that included two undefeated seasons, two bowl victories, and the 1950 national championship. During this time, Oklahoma president George L. Cross caused consternation in academic circles when he said, “I’m interested in building a university our football team can be proud of.”

From 1951 to 1953 the Sooners had, for them, several “down” years—a record of 24—4—2. But the team rebounded in 1954 with a 10—0 season, and repeated in 1955 and 1956 with the same record and two more national championships. In 1957 the Sooners extended their winning streak to forty-seven games—the longest ever by a college football team. However, Notre Dame scored a shocking 7-0 upset victory over Oklahoma in Norman on 16 November, the eighth game of the 1957 season.

It was during this amazing winning streak that Wilkinson’s Sooners captured the nation’s imagination. His quick-hitting “split-T” team was also a “hurry-up” offensive machine. Players never sat on the bench; they stood during the entire game. As soon as a play was over, all eleven Sooners bounced up and were quickly ready to run the next play. Their opponents were seldom ready for what was coming next. A stickler for conditioning, Wilkinson’s teams ran, and ran, and ran some more in practice. If a player weighed over 200 pounds, which few Sooners did, he was probably about six-feet-two inches or taller.

In addition to winning coach of the year honors in 1949, Wilkinson helped develop Sooner players Darrell Royal, Jack Mitchell, and Jim Owens, among others, into highly successful coaches. Halfback Billy Vessels won the 1952 Heisman Trophy, college football’s highest individual honor. Just as importantly, Wilkinson racially integrated the Sooners’ football team in 1957 when he played Prentice Gautt, an African American running back.

After the forty-seven-game winning streak ended, Wilkinson’s team was good, but not the juggernaut they once were. To the end of his career at Oklahoma in 1963, his teams posted a 42-20-1 mark—certainly a fine record, but not what Wilkinson and Oklahomans were used to. Overall, his Oklahoma football record was an enviable 145—29-4.

In 1960 President John F. Kennedy recruited Wilkinson to head the President’s Council on Physical Fitness. Spending considerable time in Washington, D.C., Wilkinson became intrigued by the political process. Friends convinced him to run for one of Oklahoma’s senate seats in 1964, the same year he legally changed his name to Bud Wilkinson, perhaps to avoid being listed on the ballot as Charles B. Wilkinson. However, the charismatic coach, a Republican candidate, lost—a victim of Lyndon Johnson’s Democratic landslide victory.

Beginning with a New Year’s bowl game on 1 January 1965, Wilkinson started a long career as an NBC and ABC college football television analyst. He was well prepared, having been the first college coach to have his own television show (1952). In 1978, after a fifteen-year coaching hiatus, Wilkinson was a surprise choice as head coach of the St. Louis Cardinals of the National Football League (NFL). Unfortunately, Sooner magic never materialized with the Cardinals, and thirteen games into the 1979 season Wilkinson was a surprise choice as head coach a combined record of 9–20. He did, however, make an impression on the professional players. As Dan Dierdorf, a Pro Football Hall of Fame inductee, said, “Everyone on the Cardinals’ team is enriched by the fact that for the rest of our lives we can say, ‘I played for Bud Wilkinson.’”

During the Nixon administration, Wilkinson’s organizational skills were put to use as a special consultant to the president. It was during this time that Wilkinson met Donna O’Donnahue, who shared his interest in politics and sports. After divorcing his first wife in 1974, Wilkinson married O’Donnahue on 18 November 1977.

Wilkinson returned to broadcasting and his business interests in 1980, but by 1986 his health began to decline. He suffered from congestive heart failure, and a series of strokes weakened him further. He died in St. Louis from complications of heart disease and strokes. He is buried in Oak Grove Cemetery in St. Louis.

Wilkinson was a man of dignity in a profession not noted for that trait. He was effective and efficient, and his success at Oklahoma is indisputable. When an entire state was looking for something to shed its “Grapes of Wrath” image, Wilkinson’s near-invincible Sooners provided that. Jim Owens, an All-America end and later a great coach at the University of Washington, spoke for many of Wilkinson’s players: “Bud was a man who knew what his job was, knew how to do it surpassingly well, and went about it quietly. He was no shouter, no bully, but you knew where you stood. He was honest, he was fair. He said he expected more from us than football. Above all, he said he expected us to work as diligently at our studies as at football.” Wilkinson’s charge to his players is something that is sorely needed in intercollegiate athletics today.

Charles “Bud” Wilkinson, Oklahoma Split-T Football (1952), is a technical coaching book. Jay Wilkinson, Bud Wilkinson (1994), is a biography written by his son with Gretchen Hirsch. Information about Wilkinson’s life and career can be found in Edwin Pope, Football’s Greatest Coaches (1955), and John D. McCallum, Big Eight Football (1979). There is an obituary in the New York Times (11 Feb. 1994).

Jim Campbell

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