Behind-the-scenes tales of Oklahoma, Nebraska and faculty soccer’s best recreation


“Holy moly! Man, lady and youngster, did that put ’em within the aisles! Johnny ‘The Jet’ Rodgers simply tore ’em unfastened from their sneakers!”

“I nonetheless get chills listening to that,” Rodgers mentioned.

On Thanksgiving Day 1971, Nebraska and Oklahoma achieved “perfection,” as reporter Dave Kindred described it within the Louisville Instances.

“Generally it do not reside as much as the billing,” mentioned Oklahoma halfback Greg Pruitt. “That one did.”

Billed as “The Sport of the Century,” Rodgers’ epic punt return for a landing — and Lyell Bremser’s indelible radio name — helped top-ranked Nebraska defeat No. 2 Oklahoma, 35-31, in a traditional whose mystique has carried over, nicely previous the lifetime of the rivalry itself. To commemorate the 50th anniversary of the sport, the Sooners and Cornhuskers will meet once more Saturday for the primary time since 2010. Their rivalry may successfully be useless. However that recreation nonetheless lives.

“It had every little thing,” mentioned Invoice Hancock, who then labored in Oklahoma’s communications division earlier than overseeing the Closing 4 for 13 seasons and turning into the chief director of the BCS and the Faculty Soccer Playoff since 2009. “An ideal mixture of issues that made it the largest recreation I’ve ever been related to, and ever shall be related to.”

The showdown featured 17 of the 22 first-team All-Huge Eight picks that season and 27 starters who would get drafted into the NFL. The 2 staffs mixed would produce 12 future FBS head coaches, together with Barry Switzer, Tom Osborne and Jimmy Johnson.

Oklahoma’s wishbone offense averaged 472 speeding yards, an NCAA document that also stands; Nebraska’s Blackshirts protection was giving up solely six factors a recreation.

That day, 55 million folks tuned in to ABC to see what would occur, then a document tv viewers for a school soccer recreation.

The Huskers went on to win a second consecutive nationwide championship that yr, crushing Alabama by 32 factors within the Orange Bowl. Oklahoma, in the meantime, would go 43-2-1 over the next 4 seasons, with two nationwide titles.

To commemorate the 150th anniversary of school soccer two years in the past, a panel of 150 media members, athletic directors and former gamers and coaches voted on the best video games in faculty soccer historical past. The Sport of the Century took the No. 1 spot.

The identical panel voted the 1971 Huskers because the greatest team in faculty soccer historical past, and the 1971 Sooners as the best workforce with a loss.

Via greater than two dozen interviews, ESPN went behind the scenes of the Sport of the Century to uncover the untold tales, which included the clandestine friendship of Rodgers and Pruitt, Nebraska’s food-poisoning paranoia, Oklahoma’s sign-stealing try, an unintended movie show rendezvous and a Selmon Brothers Thanksgiving dinner caper.

‘Oh my god, he is gonna go!’

Within the 1960s, following the retirement of legendary coach Bud Wilkinson, the Sooners had fallen on laborious instances. However Switzer, then a budding assistant, noticed Texas prep phenom quarterback Jack Mildren as a possible ticket out of the doldrums. The Southwest Convention had limits on how usually a coach might go to a recruit. The Huge Eight, and thus Oklahoma, had no such rule.

“I used to be on the market each week,” Switzer mentioned. “I would eat supper with the household, Jack and Richard [Mildren’s brother] would return to check of their room, Mary Glynne [Mildren’s mom] and I might wash the dishes, then I might sit down with Larry [Mildren’s father] and watch ‘Hearth Studio’ with Porter Wagoner and Dolly Parton.”

Even with Mildren on board, the Sooners continued to battle till they turned to the wishbone in 1970. With Mildren and Pruitt main the way in which, Oklahoma shortly was a juggernaut.

“Jack Mildren was such a magician,” mentioned Jim Walden, a Nebraska assistant then who would later turn out to be the pinnacle coach at Washington State and Iowa State. “He ran that wishbone like he’d been operating it his total life.”

Mildren might need been the magician. However Pruitt made the wishbone magical, and Switzer believed that warranted a nickname. So at some point through the 1971 season, he summoned Pruitt to his workplace.

“He had his T-shirt on his desk with ‘Hey’ on the entrance and ‘Goodbye’ on the again,” Pruitt recalled. “He informed me he wished me to put on the shirt.

“And that it had higher be ‘Hey, Goodbye’ on Saturday.'”

At Nebraska, Rodgers might additionally make magic with the ball in his arms.

“Johnny in your facet was value 13-14 factors,” mentioned Osborne, Nebraska’s offensive coordinator in 1971. “Pound-for-pound, he in all probability was pretty much as good a soccer participant as I used to be ever round.”

Through the postseason awards circuit in 1970, Rodgers and Pruitt turned shut. The next summer season, Pruitt surreptitiously visited Rodgers in Lincoln with none of their teammates realizing; Rodgers returned the journey in Norman. And every week through the 1971 season, the 2 talked over the cellphone.

“Simply speaking trash to one another,” Rodgers mentioned.

That contributed to the buildup to the Nebraska-Oklahoma recreation. And, in the end, to Rodgers’ punt return.

“The practices turned very intense, particularly on particular groups, as a result of Johnny was one of many main returners within the nation,” Pruitt mentioned. “So the coaches saved making an attempt to emphasise that to comprise Johnny, you retain your lane to maintain him corralled. However as a result of Johnny and I had been doing all this trash-talking I wasn’t listening. I used to be going to get Johnny and dump him on his head on nationwide TV and shut his mouth.”

Simply three minutes into the sport, Pruitt would get his likelihood. Joe Wylie punted excessive to Rodgers, who caught it from his personal 28-yard-line. Pruitt was the primary Sooner there.

“I acquired a hand on Johnny,” Pruitt mentioned. “However he made a transfer and I could not maintain him.”

No person else might, both, although Johnson nonetheless believes Rodgers was aided by three uncalled clips through the return.

“And I feel the movie agrees,” added Johnson, an Oklahoma defensive assistant then, who would later turn out to be the pinnacle coach at Oklahoma State, Miami, the Dallas Cowboys and Miami Dolphins.

Nebraska band member Terry Rush truly agreed with Johnson. However he did not care. That day, a number of members of the band needed to camp on the sideline due to restricted area within the stands. As Rodgers sailed into the top zone to provide Nebraska an early 7-Zero lead, Rush could not comprise himself and ran onto the sphere to have fun the landing with him.

“He caught it and began doing his dance and I mentioned, ‘Oh my god, he is gonna go!'” Rush recalled. “My adrenaline was in all probability pumping about as laborious as his.”

After the breathtaking rating, Rodgers instantly went to the bench and threw up, which truly was nothing new. Rodgers was born with bronchial asthma and tuberculosis and performed soccer with a bleeding ulcer, usually forcing him to eat on the pupil hospital in Lincoln.

In Nebraska, Bremser’s “Holy moly! Man, lady and youngster …” name of the Rodgers return turned iconic. It is nonetheless replayed on the video board at Husker video games and on radio. Households have it memorized. And to at the present time, followers greet Rodgers with it once they see him. Bremser’s grandson, James Mackiewicz, mentioned his grandfather would use “man, lady and youngster” instead of uttering expletives.

“It was [his] method to be excited,” Mackiewicz mentioned, “and nonetheless keep away from being blue or crass in any kind of means.”

For years, Wylie might by no means determine why Nebraska reporters would yearly name him across the anniversary of the sport. Lastly, he requested one in every of them.

“Do not you already know?” one requested him again. “You are probably the most well-known non-Nebraska soccer participant in Nebraska soccer historical past. Everyone in Nebraska is aware of who Wylie is. He is the punter who punted to Rodgers in Bremser’s name.”

Rodgers by no means let Pruitt neglect how he acquired the perfect of him. In actual fact, he created a everlasting reminder.

Yearly, Rodgers arms out the “Jet Award” to the perfect returner in faculty soccer. The trophy is a depiction of that punt return. And Rodgers made positive that Pruitt was a part of it, ossifying him in bronze falling down behind him.

“My solely criticism about that trophy is I am unable to bear in mind when Johnny was ever larger than me,” mentioned Pruitt, who would end second within the Heisman voting behind Rodgers the next season. “You take a look at the trophy and he is twice as large … simply one other Johnny Rodgers transfer.”

Pregame paranoia

Oklahoma security John Shelley knew the Nebraska recreation was completely different when head coach Chuck Fairbanks shut off the telephones within the soccer dormitory.

“That had by no means been achieved earlier than,” added Sooners defensive deal with Raymond Hamilton. “He did not need any distractions.”

Fairbanks had cause to fret.

Wylie recalled famed Sports activities Illustrated reporter Dan Jenkins knocking on his dorm room door to conduct an impromptu interview for the legendary cowl story, “Irresistible Oklahoma meets immovable Nebraska.” Sooners security Steve O’Shaughnessy remembered strolling exterior of the dorm seeing “cameras and microphones in every single place.”

In line with newspaper accounts, an estimated 100 sportswriters for no less than 65 papers from greater than 20 states traveled to Oklahoma that week. Hancock mentioned the college truly constructed a platform contained in the press field so as to add one other row of seating, much like bleachers.

Nebraska head coach Bob Devaney had his share of worries, too. He even made positive the Huskers introduced their very own meals with them to Oklahoma.

“They weren’t taking any possibilities,” mentioned Nebraska offensive lineman Mike Beran, “of a bit further Sooner Sauce on there.”

Initially, Walden wasn’t too involved in regards to the Blackshirts slowing down Oklahoma.

“We placed on a pair video games, and we’re like, ‘We do not know what all of the hubbub is about. They are not essentially that nice of a workforce,'” Walden mentioned. “However the nearer the sport acquired, the extra horrifying their offense was. We had top-of-the-line defenses there’s ever been. However the nearer the sport acquired, it was extra like, ‘Oh my god, we can’t have the ability to cease this workforce!'”

The night time earlier than the sport, Walden was up with Nebraska defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin within the foyer of the lodge till three or four within the morning, worrying and ingesting espresso.

“No person might go to mattress,” mentioned Kiffin, father of Ole Miss head coach Lane Kiffin. “As a result of we have been all interested by the sport the subsequent day.”

Earlier that night, the Nebraska gamers had gone out to see a film. However as they have been arriving on the theater, the Sooners have been leaving, creating a couple of awkward, tense moments.

“Everybody simply stopped,” mentioned Huskers nostril guard Wealthy Glover, evaluating the scene to a weigh-in earlier than a championship boxing match. “It was like, ‘Who’s [Oklahoma All-American center] Tom Brahaney? The place’s Greg Pruitt? The place’s Jack Mildren?’ That acquired us fired up for the sport, to see them within the face. ‘OK, we’ll see you tomorrow.'”

The nerves carried over to breakfast game-day morning.

“We’d all the time have steak and eggs,” mentioned Oklahoma defensive deal with Lucious Selmon. “I could not eat a lot in any respect. In comparison with what I ate, the remainder barely touched theirs. An entire lot of steak was left on the plates that morning.”

‘I would heard … any individual was stealing my indicators’

On recreation day, even the climate met the event.

“Chilly, crisp fall climate — traditional soccer climate,” Hancock recalled. Kindred scribbled into his pocket book, “Getting grey, as if a snow storm coming into the prairie.”

Snow by no means got here. But it surely did get chilly sufficient that Mildren’s fiancée, Janis, by no means an enormous soccer fan — she did not even know who Oklahoma’s quarterback was when mates set them up on a blind date earlier that yr — bailed to look at the second half someplace hotter. The couple married two months later, and remained so till he died in 2008.

“He discovered it ironic {that a} recreation his workforce misplaced,” she mentioned, “was the one he acquired requested about probably the most.”

Regardless of its close to flawlessness — the 2 groups mixed to commit just one penalty, an offside on Nebraska — the sport in actuality wasn’t fairly as good as Kindred had advised.

Each groups fumbled the ball away at key moments. Nebraska quarterback Jerry Tagge’s turnover handed Oklahoma possession within the fourth quarter, permitting the Sooners to take a late 31-28 lead (Tagge would later atone).

Even Switzer and Kiffin later regretted a lot of their very own recreation plans: Kiffin believes he overcommitted to containing the choice pitch to Pruitt; Switzer does not assume he gave Pruitt the ball sufficient.

“I did not put the ball in his arms 25-27 instances a recreation like I did with [1978 Heisman winner] Billy Sims,” Switzer mentioned of Pruitt, who completed with simply 53 speeding yards on solely 10 carries. “An important again, you make certain he touches it that many instances. We should always’ve had performs designed for him to the touch the ball. We did not have them.”

Kiffin was so involved about Pruitt that he tinkered along with his secondary, swinging nook Joe Blahak, thought of the higher tackler, to security whereas transferring security Invoice Kosch to nook.

Kosch was pissed off as a result of Kiffin and Warren Powers, the secondary coach, wished him to play a unique fashion and farther off the ball than he’d ever performed.

Kosch could not perceive why. “Mildren cannot throw,” Powers informed him. “All you gotta be is within the space.”

Turned out that day, Mildren might throw.

Seconds earlier than halftime, he related on back-to-back bombs to separate finish Jon Harrison, Mildren’s highschool teammate from Abilene. The second was a 24-yard landing strike to Harrison, propelling Oklahoma to a 17-14 halftime lead.

The Sooners wanted Mildren’s sudden passing to hold with Nebraska. As a result of Glover was wrecking their operating recreation, ending with a game-high 22 tackles, an unheard-of tally for a nostril guard — “greater than most of them get in a yr,” Rodgers mentioned. Glover additionally recovered a fumble.

“Within the press field, I bear in mind Barry and [Oklahoma assistant] Galen Corridor hollering at us, ‘What are they doing defensively?'” Johnson mentioned. “I saved saying, ‘They’re doing the identical factor each time. They’ve Wealthy Glover over the middle and he is simply stuffing us on the line of scrimmage.”

Days earlier than the sport, Fairbanks had rehired Jerry Pettibone to be the Sooners’ recruiting coordinator. Pettibone’s season with SMU had already completed, so he was already on the Oklahoma sideline.

Pettibone’s sole duty was to check Kiffin to see if he might decide up the sign for a defensive position slant, if solely to assist negate Glover.

“I figured it out about midway by way of the third quarter,” Pettibone mentioned. “Earlier than we ran the play, I might sign to our offensive linemen whether or not they have been gonna play it straight or slant.”

After a few sequence, Kiffin thought one thing is perhaps up, and waited till the final second to ship his indicators in, stopping Oklahoma from adjusting accordingly.

“I would heard a narrative that any individual was stealing my indicators,” Kiffin mentioned, laughing. “Jerry Pettibone — now I do know who it was!”

Because of Mildren’s heroics — and presumably Pettibone’s subterfuge — Oklahoma roared again from a 28-17 deficit to take the lead off Tagge’s fumble with simply 7:10 remaining.

That is when Rodgers got here by way of along with his different game-defining play.

Going through third-and-8, Tagge could not discover a receiver open. As a substitute, he discovered Hamilton barreling down straight towards him. Considered one of Oklahoma’s high defensive gamers, Hamilton had suffered a turf toe harm within the first quarter. That slowed him down all recreation. And on that play, sufficient to permit Tagge to flee.

“Out of all of the performs, that is the one that stands out in my thoughts,” Selmon mentioned. “There isn’t any doubt in my thoughts had Raymond not been injured, he would’ve made that sack.”

As a substitute, Tagge scrambled to his proper and tossed a dart to Rodgers, who got here by way of with a diving first-down catch.

“I might catch a BB in the dead of night at midnight with no moon and my sun shades on,” Rodgers mentioned. “I wasn’t gonna miss it.”

Nebraska operating again Jeff Kinney, who would end with 174 yards speeding, took over from there. On his 31st carry, he plunged in from 2 yards out for a fourth landing, his tearaway jersey a tattered mess from the speeding load.

“That was the primary recreation we had tried them,” Kinney mentioned of the tearaways. “I might’ve favored to have had an actual jersey on my again that final quarter as a substitute of my shoulder pads flopping throughout.”

Oklahoma had one closing determined likelihood to win. However fittingly, it ended with Glover knocking Mildren into the turf.

As Nebraska gamers and followers rushed the sphere, Kinney’s dad met him and took what was left of his jersey. For years, it hung framed within the McCook, Nebraska, barbershop the place Kinney grew up getting his hair reduce.

‘It was like we had gained the Tremendous Bowl’

When the Huskers’ workforce aircraft landed again in Lincoln, an estimated 30,000 followers have been there on the tarmac ready.

“There will not be lots of people in Nebraska,” Kiffin mentioned. “However most of them have been there on the airport.”

So many who the Huskers could not make it to the gate. As a substitute, the pilot parked the aircraft and the gamers acquired off on the runway, making their means by way of the Huge Pink horde of cheering followers.

“It was like, ‘Oh my gosh, do you see this?'” Glover remembered saying because the aircraft landed. “It was like we had gained the Tremendous Bowl or one thing.”

The Oklahoma locker room was a far completely different scene.

“No person mentioned a phrase,” Shelley recalled. “I bear in mind Jimmy Johnson, as exuberant as he’s, he had tears in his eyes. He was hugging all people, hugging me. Quite a lot of guys had tears of their eyes. It nearly felt just like the world had come to an finish briefly.”

Selmon had the identical feeling. Till he remembered that his two youthful brothers, Dewey and Lee Roy, had pushed up from Eufaula, Oklahoma, with a plate of his mother’s home-cooked Thanksgiving dinner only for him.

“That was going to be my saving grace,” Lucious mentioned.

It was to not be. The 2 youthful brothers, and future Oklahoma All-America defensive linemen, have been exterior the Sooners locker room ready to admit. They acquired hungry on the drive – and ate Lucious’ Thanksgiving plate. “That made me cry extra,” he mentioned, “than dropping the sport.”

‘They will measure by its normal’

Regardless of the loss, the Sooners went on to the Sugar Bowl, the place they confronted fifth-ranked Auburn on New Yr’s Day. By the second quarter, Oklahoma was already pulling its starters, holding a 31-Zero lead.

“At halftime, I informed our offensive workforce, ‘You understand, there’s two groups in Miami, Florida, watching this recreation,'” Switzer mentioned. “Considered one of them is laughing. The opposite one is questioning, ‘What the hell goes to occur to us tonight?'”

That different workforce was Alabama. And the Orange Bowl went as Switzer had predicted.

Within the first quarter, Rodgers returned one other punt for a landing, and the Huskers coasted to seize the nationwide championship. The Sooners completed No. 2 within the polls. Fellow Huge Eight foe Colorado ended ranked third.

“If we have been No. 1, I can let you know who was No. 1-and-a-half,” Kinney mentioned. “It was Oklahoma.”

Although the Sooners did not beat Nebraska or win the nationwide title that yr, the Sport of the Century helped catapult them into the powerhouse they’d quickly turn out to be.

“I do not assume a dropping workforce has ever gained extra from a recreation than Oklahoma did that day,” Hancock mentioned, “perhaps ever within the historical past of the game.”

Anchored by its wishbone and Selmon Brothers defensive position, Oklahoma re-emerged as faculty soccer’s dominant program. Below Switzer, the Sooners gained nationwide titles in 1974, 1975 and one other in 1985.

The identical month Switzer took over for Fairbanks in 1973, Osborne succeeded Devaney. The Huskers remained elite below him, lastly including three extra nationwide championships within the 1990s.

“Over a interval of about 30 years there, the Nebraska-Oklahoma recreation decided the Huge Eight championship and had nationwide championship implications,” Osborne mentioned. “Oklahoma was a fantastic instructor for us, as a result of we had bother beating them. Oklahoma made us higher. And perhaps in some methods we made them higher, too.”

The Huskers took ideas from Oklahoma’s operating recreation to create their unstoppable I-option offense. After the ’71 recreation, the Sooners would copy Nebraska’s 50 protection to kind their very own dominant defensive position with the Selmons.

The rivalry video games formally ceased in 2010, when the 2 groups met for a closing time as conferencemates within the Huge 12 championship recreation.

“We missed it,” Osborne mentioned, noting how stunned and disenchanted he was when the 2 faculties have been positioned in reverse divisions through the formation of the Huge 12, ending the sport as an annual custom. “We assumed that Nebraska and Oklahoma would proceed to play. And we wished to play Oklahoma.”

This weekend, Huskers and Sooners from that period will reunite. Starting with a 2008 reunion spearheaded by Oklahoma athletic director Joe Castiglione, the dropping workforce has led the cost in remembering the greatness of the sport and its gamers, one thing that is not misplaced on former Huskers.

“They handled us like royalty,” Beran mentioned. “It knocked our socks off.”

Pruitt and Rodgers shall be jawing, somebody will play Bremser’s name, and man, lady and youngster, one in every of faculty soccer’s most storied rivalries will come again to life because the Cornhuskers and Sooners take the sphere on Saturday.

Fifty years later, the Sport of the Century nonetheless holds up. Irrespective of which facet the gamers have been on, whether or not they gained or misplaced, they’re proud to nonetheless be telling its story, simply as Kindred had predicted then.

“What they may do with this Nebraska-Oklahoma recreation is bear in mind it,” he wrote. “They will measure by its normal.”



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