Wilkinson, Charles Burnham ("Bud")

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WILKINSON, Charles Burnham ("Bud")

(b. 23 April 1915 in Minneapolis, Minnesota; d. 9 February 1994 in St. Louis, Missouri), football coach at the University of Oklahoma whose teams in the 1950s won three national championships and achieved a record winning streak of forty-seven games.

Wilkinson was one of two sons born to Charles Patton and Edith (Lindbloom) Wilkinson. His mother died in 1923 when he was eight years old and his father, a real estate developer and mortgage dealer in Minneapolis, later married Ethel Grace, who enjoyed a warm relationship with her stepson.

In 1928 Wilkinson entered Shattuck Military Academy in Faribault, Minnesota. He was an outstanding preparatory school athlete, earning varsity letters in football, baseball, hockey, and basketball. After graduating from Shattuck in 1933, Wilkinson pursued his education at the University of Minnesota at Minneapolis–Saint Paul, where he played football under the tutelage of the coach Bernie Bierman. In 1934 and 1935 Wilkinson performed as a guard, then switched to quarterback for his final two seasons. During Wilkinson's tenure at Minnesota, the football team won national championships in 1935 and 1937. In his final collegiate appearance as a player, Wilkinson quarterbacked the college All-Stars to a victory over Wisconsin's Green Bay Packers, the 1936 champions of the National Football League (NFL).

After earning his B.A. in English from Minnesota in 1937, Wilkinson worked briefly for his father in Minneapolis before pursuing a career in coaching football. In autumn 1937 he accepted an assistant coaching position at Syracuse University in New York, where he also earned an M.A. in English in 1940. At Syracuse, Wilkinson met Mary Shifflett, and they married in August 1938; they later had two sons. Wilkinson left Syracuse in 1941, returning to the University of Minnesota as an assistant coach.

Wilkinson remained at Minnesota until 1943, when he entered the U.S. Navy. Taking advantage of his football background, Wilkinson served as an assistant coach at the Iowa Pre-Flight School. Wilkinson saw action in the Pacific in 1944–1945 as a hangar deck officer on the aircraft carrier Enterprise. Commended for high performance of duty when his ship was under attack, he was discharged from the navy in 1945 with the rank of lieutenant commander.

After the end of World War II, Wilkinson again briefly worked for his father in Minneapolis, but the lure of football proved too strong. In 1946 Wilkinson accepted the post as the assistant football coach under Jim Tatum at the University of Oklahoma in Norman. When the 1946 team won eight of eleven games, the University of Maryland College Park hired Tatum. Oklahoma's officials filled the vacancy by appointing Wilkinson as the head football coach and athletic director.

Wilkinson's Oklahoma Sooners got off to a rocky start in 1947, winning only two of their first five contests, but after the coach went with younger players, the squad won six of the last seven games. Wilkinson began to create a college football dynasty in Norman. From 1948 to 1959 Oklahoma finished first in the Big Seven Conference. For eleven straight seasons (1948–1958) Oklahoma was selected to the Associated Press's list of top ten college teams. Wilkinson was tapped as the college coach of the year in 1949. Under his leadership the Sooners won three national championships (1950, 1955, 1956). Between 1948 and 1950 the team won 31 straight games, but later eclipsed this mark with a 47-game winning streak (1953–1957) that still stood in 2001 as a standard for college football excellence.

The modest Wilkinson credited much of his success to the split-T formation, pioneered by Don Faurot at the University of Missouri. However, he was responsible for innovations of his own and was a superb motivator. In addition to inventing the no-huddle offense, known in the 1950s as "Go-Go," Wilkinson emphasized teamwork, stating, "If a team is to reach its potential, each player must be willing to subordinate his personal goals to the good of the team." Wilkinson was a master at getting this type of effort from his players.

By the early 1960s Wilkinson's dynasty was in decline. In 1960 he suffered his first losing season at Oklahoma, but his national reputation for excellence was acknowledged when President John F. Kennedy asked the coach to serve part time as an unpaid special consultant on youth fitness. Wilkinson retired as the head football coach at the University of Oklahoma following the 1963 season. During his seventeen-year tenure at the university, Wilkinson's teams won 145 games, lost 29, and tied 4.

Wilkinson sought to capitalize on his football fame by moving into Oklahoma politics. In 1964 he gained the Republican nomination for the U.S. Senate, but the Democrat Fred Harris defeated him in a close election. Wilkinson spent less time in Oklahoma after this unexpected political setback, and pursued business interests in Minnesota and St. Louis, worked as a college football analyst for ABC television, and headed the President's Council on Physical Fitness under President Lyndon Johnson.

Wilkinson retired to St. Louis in the early 1970s. In August 1974 Wilkinson's first marriage ended in divorce, and on 18 November 1977 he married Donna O'Donnohue. Wilkinson surprised many of his friends by returning to the coaching ranks in 1978, accepting an offer to lead the professional St. Louis Cardinals of the NFL. He was unable to recapture his glory days at Oklahoma, and during two seasons with the Cardinals he compiled a record of eleven wins and twenty-one losses. Resigning after the 1979 season, Wilkinson pursued private business in St. Louis.

In late 1993 Wilkinson suffered a series of strokes that destroyed much of his vision. At age seventy-eight he died at his St. Louis home from congestive heart failure after surgery to repair a heart defect. Enshrined in the National College Football Hall of Fame in 1969, Wilkinson and his Oklahoma Sooner football teams of the 1950s attained a mark of excellence that remains unequaled in the history of college football.

A detailed account of the Oklahoma Sooners under Wilkinson's guidance is Harold Keith, Forty-seven Straight (1984). For insights into Wilkinson's successful coaching strategy and philosophy, see Bud Wilkinson, Oklahoma Split-T Football (1952), and Wilkinson with Gomer Thomas Jones, Modern Defensive Football (1957). Also see Jay Wilkinson with Gretchen Kirsch, Bud Wilkinson: An Intimate Portrait of an American Legend (1994), and Jim Dent, The Undefeated: The Oklahoma Sooners and the Greatest Streak in College Football (2001). Contemporary accounts of Wilkinson's glory days at Oklahoma include H. T. Paxton, "Visit with Bud Wilkinson," Saturday Evening Post (11 Oct. 1958); and W. B. Furlong, "Coach with Winning Ways," New York Times Magazine (9 Nov. 1958). For Wilkinson's views on physical fitness, see Wilkinson, "Quality Physical Education: A School Responsibility," Education Digest (Mar. 1968). On Wilkinson's return to coaching with the St. Louis Cardinals, see Bruce Newman, "Legend Returns to Turn Them On," Sports Illustrated (31 July 1978). An obituary is in the New York Times (11 Feb. 1994).

Ron Briley

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