1973 Oklahoma Football: The Switzer Era Begins

Oklahoma football was already an established powerhouse by 1973. The great Bud Wilkinson won consecutive national titles in 1955 and 1956. Chuck Fairbanks had just completed a successful six-year run, marked by consecutive #2 finishes nationally, in 1971 and 1972. The 1973 Oklahoma football season started a new chapter in the great tradition, one that would be arguably the best in Sooner history. Barry Switzer took the helm.

Switzer, the offensive coordinator under Fairbanks who departed for the NFL, was hamstrung with an early disadvantage. Oklahoma was facing two years on NCAA probation for the use of an ineligible player. So there would be no bowl possibilities in this ’73 campaign. But there was still much else to play for—like continuing the high national rankings and reclaiming the throne room of the old Big Eight Conference from archrival Nebraska. The ’73 Sooners did all of that.

An explosive running attack drove the Sooner Schooner in 1973. Waymon Clark and Joe Washington were both 1,000-yard rushers. Washington averaged nearly seven yards per attempt, picking up honorable mention in the All-American voting. Offensive tackle Eddie Foster also got recognition from the All-American voters.

Steve Davis was the quarterback, and while his 42 percent completion rate was a little erratic, even by the standards of an era when throwing was much more difficult than it is today, Davis was really there for his legs. He orchestrated the option, ran for 887 yards himself and when he did throw, he made it count—over 10 yards per attempt. Tinker Owens, whose 18 catches averaged over 26 yards, was the top target. And the Sooner offense ranked sixth in the nation for points scored.

The defense had terrific players, with first-team All-Americans Lucious Sherman at middle guard (the position was basically a nose tackle that could occasionally morph into a middle linebacker), and Rod Shoate at linebacker. Kenith Pope got honorable mention AA in the secondary, with Randy Hughes an All-Big Eight defensive back. The OU defense wasn’t great, but this talent still got them to 14th in the country for points allowed.

After the high national finishes of the previous two years, Oklahoma’s preseason #11 ranking indicates the voters weren’t sold on this new era. It didn’t take long for the Sooners to give them something to think about. After tuning up with a 42-14 win at lowly Baylor, OU went on the road to play #1-ranked and defending national champion USC.

Oklahoma spent much of the first half shooting themselves in the foot with turnovers, but were only down 7-0 at intermission. In the third quarter, Clark tied the game with a 20-yard touchdown run up the middle. Everything held in place from there and it ended a 7-7 tie. But for the Sooners, the tie won them new respect in the polls—they were now up to #6 as the schedule moved into October.

A visit from Miami was next. The Hurricanes had a mediocre season, but were still ranked #17 when they arrived in Norman. OU pulled out a 24-20 win. That set up the Red River Rivalry battle with Texas. The Longhorns were ranked #13 and were the premier power in the old Southwest Conference in the early part of the 1970s.

If the USC game gave voters something to think about, what happened against Texas made the coaches and sportswriters that vote on rankings positively stand up and take notice. Washington got the scoring started when he threw a 40-yard TD pass to Owens off a trick play. After a couple of nice Longhorn drives ended with field goals, Davis hit Owens on a 63-yard touchdown strike. The quarterback again went deep, with a 47-yard touchdown pass. It was 21-6 at intermission, and the avalanche came down in the second half. Davis ran for two TDs in the third quarter. The quarterback only threw eight times, but he completed six of them and they went for 225 yards. The rout kept cascading and it ended at 52-13. Oklahoma was #3 in the nation when the next polls came out.

The Big Eight was deep in good teams. Colorado had been nationally ranked each of the previous two years and came to Norman ranked #6. The Sooners buried the Buffs 34-7 and sent Colorado into a tailspin that left them below .500. Oklahoma hammered mediocre Kansas State 56-14 on the road, then came home and knocked off subpar Iowa State 34-17.

At 6-0-1, there were four games left and all against teams that were at least decent. It started at #10 Missouri. OU won 31-3. The Sooners went on to host Kansas. The Jayhawks were #18, and had the nation’s All-American quarterback in David Jayne. Oklahoma won 48-20.

It was time to face Nebraska. The Cornhuskers had a recent history strikingly similar to that of the Sooners, only a bit better. Nebraska’s Thanksgiving Day win over Oklahoma in 1971 essentially settled the national championship and is widely considered one of college football’s greatest games. The Cornhuskers had also won a national title in 1970, and were coming off a 1972 season where they won the Big Eight.

What’s more, Nebraska also had a new coach, an offensive coordinator that got promoted. Tom Osborne was in charge in Lincoln. The rivalry between Switzer and Osborne would define college football nationally for the next 15 years. And on this Friday prior to Thanksgiving in Norman the pendulum started moving in OU’s favor.

On their second possession, Oklahoma got a 34-yard run from Washington that set up a touchdown. Later in the first quarter, on the Nebraska 47-yard line, OU faced a 3rd-and-1. Davis kept it on a sneak. Not only did he move the chains, he broke free and ran it all the way to the house. It was 14-zip at halftime. A third quarter interception set up another touchdown. The final was 27-0 and the most impressive stat was this—Nebraska never ran a single play in Oklahoma territory. The one play where the Cornhuskers crossed midfield saw them lose it on a fumble. That’s domination.

Oklahoma was now up to #2 in the polls. Voters were willing to consider a probation team for the national championship, but the Sooners were needing a lot of help. The lack of a bowl game meant they couldn’t get a shot at #1 Alabama. Lurking behind them were unbeaten teams in Notre Dame and Penn State. Furthermore, while OU was undefeated, they weren’t perfect. And if you wanted a team that was unbeaten with a tie, both Ohio State and Michigan had their hand up.

In short, there was no reason to expect the Sooners to take the final step up the polls, but there was still the season finale on December 1. The Bedlam rivalry with Oklahoma State was in Stillwater. Oklahoma won 45-18. By the time the bowls sorted themselves out, they finished #3.

The Switzer era was off to a good start. In 1974, it would get even better. Probation wouldn’t stop the Sooners from claiming the national championship. In 1975, Oklahoma won it all again, this time validating their title with an Orange Bowl win.