1977 Oklahoma Football: The National Title That Got Away

Barry Switzer’s Oklahoma Sooners were a program that was at least as good—if not better—than anyone in college football. Switzer inherited a team that was already operating at an elite level in 1973 and promptly went 10-1. He followed that up with back-to-back national titles in 1974 and 1975. In 1976, a couple of losses cost them a major bowl bid, but they still went 9-2-1 and finished #5. The 1977 Oklahoma football team got right to the brink of winning it all again, before a stunning Orange Bowl collapse.

The Sooners were stacked with All-Americans, particularly on defense. George Cumby led the linebacking corps and was Big Eight Defensive Player of the Year. Daryl Hunt was another All-American linebacker. Reggie Kinlaw anchored the defensive line, and Zach Henderson did the same in the secondary. Oddly, as a unit they only ranked 43rd in the nation for points allowed.

OU’s wishbone offense produced a running game that was both balanced and explosive. Thomas Lott was the quarterback and though he only threw 36 passes for the entire season (or less than a typical OU quarterback today throws in a single game), Lott’s 760 rush yards led the squad.

Elvis Peacock and Kenny King each ran for over 600 yards. King had a good NFL career ahead of him with the Oakland Raiders. Further down the depth chart was a sophomore named Billy Sims who ran for over 400 yards, averaged better than a six a pop, and set the stage for a career that would ultimately take him to the Heisman Trophy in 1978.

The offensive line was anchored by all-conference performers in Greg Roberts at guard and tackle Karl Baldischwiler. The Sooner offense averaged nearly 33 points a game and ranked sixth in the country.

Expectations were soaring and Oklahoma was ranked #1 in the preseason polls. But in their season opener against a horrible Vanderbilt team, the Sooners barely escaped, 25-23. Pollsters had second thoughts and dropped OU to #5. A 62-24 win over lowly Utah pushed Oklahoma back to #3.

It was time for one of two monster non-conference tests—a trip to Columbus to play fourth-ranked Ohio State. And a wild afternoon of football ensued.

On Oklahoma’s first drive, Lott fumbled, but the ball kicked back up into the hands of Peacock, who raced 33 yards for the score. Then Cumby recovered a fumble, setting up a quick touchdown by Sims. Kicker Uwe von Schamaan, who would define this game before it was over, booted a couple of field goals. With a 20-0 lead in the second quarter, it looked like Switzer would have an easy afternoon.

But backfield players started dropping like flies. Lott was hurt and missed the rest of the game. So did Sims and King. Peacock was the only key running back who played the entire way. And that defense, so talented, but so inconsistent, started to spring leaks. By the third quarter, Ohio State had turned the game entirely around and led 28-20.

Late in the fourth quarter, OU got a drive going and Peacock finished it off with a short TD run. With 1:29 on the clock, Oklahoma went for two points. They missed. It was still 28-26.

It turned out that was a good thing. In this era before overtime, Switzer might have opted to just get out of Columbus with a tie. Instead, he had to call for the onside kick. And it worked, with Mike Baab falling on the ball. Oklahoma drove to the 23-yard line and set up von Schamaan for a field goal try on the last play.

With timeout on the field to freeze the kicker, the Ohio State fans started chanting “Block that kick!!”. But the kicker himself was completely unruffled, going so far as to use his hands to “orchestrate” the chant. Then von Schamaan backed it up by nailing the field goal and getting the 29-28 win.

Oklahoma was back atop the polls. Another unimpressive win, this one over lowly Kansas, 24-9, led the pollsters to drop the Sooners back to #2. It was time for the annual Red River Rivalry game with Texas.

This was a great Longhorn team, with Heisman Trophy winner Earl Campbell in the backfield. Texas came in ranked #5 and led 13-6 late in the game. Oklahoma drove down inside the 10-yard line, but on their last gasp, Lott was stuffed on a fourth down play. The Longhorns had a 13-6 win and would roll on to an undefeated season and #1 ranking going into the bowls. OU was down to #7 and looking to get back in the race.

Oklahoma went to Missouri and again had a shaky outing against a bad team. But again, they escaped, this time 21-17. The Sooners came home to play a good Iowa State team and won easily, 35-16. They were back up to #4 in the rankings. A 42-7 rout of lowly Kansas State was followed by a 61-28 blasting of subpar Oklahoma State in the Bedlam rivalry game.

Colorado was a good team and had won the Big Eight’s Orange Bowl berth a year earlier. They came to Norman on November 12. Oklahoma sent them home with a 52-14 loss. The conference race—and the Orange Bowl bid that came with it—would be settled with a winner-take-all battle on Black Friday at home against #11 Nebraska.

Switzer owned Nebraska throughout the 1970s and in the middle part of the 1980s. It was a game that always settled the Orange Bowl bid and usually had national title implications. This 1977 edition was no exception to any of that. In the first half alone, Lott ran for 119 yards and OU built up a 21-7 lead. The defense forced three turnovers in the second half and closed out the 38-7 triumph. Oklahoma was 10-1, ranked #2 in the country and bound for South Beach.

Texas was committed to the Cotton Bowl, so OU would need Joe Montana’s Notre Dame squad to knock off the Longhorns. If that happened, Oklahoma would be next in line for the national title. Arkansas, ranked #6 and coached by Lou Holtz, was who stood in their way.

The Razorbacks were good, but Oklahoma’s talent level, recent pedigree, and strong close to the regular season made them an 18-point favorite. When off-the-field incidents resulted in multiple Arkansas starters being suspended, the point spread leapt up to (-24).

Then came the events of early afternoon on January 2. Notre Dame crushed Texas. The national title appeared to be gift-wrapped for Oklahoma.

Only the Sooners didn’t know how to accept the gift. Their twin problems—defensive consistency, and a tendency to put the ball on the ground (the downside of the explosive wishbone attack) all came to a head against Arkansas. A pair of early turnovers put Oklahoma in a 14-0 hole. Their rush defense couldn’t stop the Razorbacks. In a stunning development, the game was never even close. The Sooners lost 31-6. They finished #7 in the final polls.

Switzer would do plenty more winning during his tenure in Norman. That includes a national championship in 1985. But there will always be the one that got away in 1977.