Feature Photo: Thomas Lott. Sooner great
I have written a series of the greatest running backs in Oklahoma history (from 1960-) that I have viewed in person or on television. A question came up with some friends on who was the greatest Sooner wishbone quarterback of all time. The fact I was blessed to see all of the Sooner wishbone signal callers from the first, Jack Mildren, throughout the history of the offensive set run by the various coaches of the time, I have an imperfect list of my best. From Head Coach Chuck Fairbanks with his top offensive assistant Barry Switzer, through the years following, Oklahoma might not have invented the “Bone”, but it was the Sooners that ran it the best. Out of a high school program in Fort Worth in the mid-fifties Coach Charles “Spud” Cason’s modification of the basic split T, through the the Houston “Veer” under the great Bill Yoeman, a strong influence on the triple option of the wishbone, through the work of Emory Bellard as the offensive genius for Daddy Darrell Royal at Texas, this running offense was the most devastating attack of the 1970’s and 1980’s in college football.
Running the “pure” option required the quarterback to made three decisions on his own while the play is in motion. The decision of the quarterback to hand off to the fullback at a split seconds notice after taking the snap from the center was the first and most safe option of the offense. A defense giving the fullback openings in the line for the straight blocking assignments by an offensive line, usually undersized but very quick, often fast footed, was part of the option. If that could not be slowed or stopped, OU tended to render the words “game over”. Three, four five yards at a pop up the middle and without a stout nose guard and defensive line and backers to stop the belly shot, teams like OU and Texas would pound a defense into submission. Hence, Sooner fullbacks such as Lydell Carr, Leon Crosswhite, and Kenny King became stars in the offense with one hundred yards games the norm on weak defensive teams. Again, it was the best quarterbacks that could made that initial decision.
The second and third part of the triple option relied on the speed as much as the decision making of the man running the show. Yes, only the best wishbone operators made the correct decisions on most every play. Does the end come up and try to tackle the running quarterback or does he stay with the looping half-back? With a quarterback that was as fast as a half-back with the moves of only the best runners in the college game, OU’s wishbone quarterbacks lacked only in making a perfect, often blind pitch to the halfback, if he didn’t keep the ball for the run. With OU, having three speed backs with the quarterback and two wishbone half backs, the defense would have to pick their poison. Added that the fullbacks at OU were often speed burners themselves, OU put extreme pressure on the defense on every ruining play they ran the pure option. Added counter plays, sometimes a surprise drop-back pass, the Sooners clicked off historic offensive numbers. Most often when OU got beat running the bone, they beat themselves. Fumbles could beat the best wishbone teams, and that went along with the offense.
A pure wishbone quarterback didn’t have pre-determined run called by the coach, like today. When a Thomas Lott, or Jamelle Holieway, or a Steve Davie started the play, they didn’t know where the ball was going. Once the defense acted on the snap, the quarterback did his mental thing and the play developed. The quarterback could see if the line was susceptible to the fullback handoff, and when that was working at a good pace, no need to go to option two or three unless points were needed quickly. Kenny King could rip off a fifty yard run as fast as a pitch to a Greg Pruitt or Joe Wiley.
Examining the best, I have examined other’s list, and those have included J.C Watts, Charles Thompson, Jack Mildren, Jamelle Holiway, Steve Davis, and Thomas Lott. There were others that were excellent runners of the offense, but those six are my choices. In putting them in order, the two most important items, decision making and physical ability, were considered. As a winner, sure, Steve Davis with two National Championships and Jamelle Holiway would be top choices. But to say Jack Mildren was any less because of the loss to Nebraska would be a disservice. Passing was considered, along with the complementing players for each quarterback. Here is my rank:
- Jack Midren- best all-around athlete, best decision maker, could make the long throw. And his leadership was the best.
- Jamelle Holiway- fast, great decision making, under-rated passer. He was just so good and was a home run threat
- Thomas Lott- best of the running quarterbacks. Strong runner and a good decision maker. A bruising back. Worst passing wishbone quarterback of the group
- Steve Davis- the quarterback that could make the right decision almost everytine. Second greatest winning quarterback in Sooner history-two National Titles
- J.C.Watts- versatile player, could run and pass. Often the best player on the field. Tremendous leadership qualities
Remember, this is just one man’s opinion and many could say my #5 J. C. Watts might be someone else’s best and that would not be wrong.