For years even those who thought the Cherokee Strip was a burlesque routine and the Six Civilized Nations was a De Gaulle description of the European Common Market knew what a Sooner was. A Sooner was something lean and fast that ran over you on its way to a solar-system record for consecutive victories, leaving painful cleat marks in the process. But eventually the surrey lost its fringes, the Ado Annies started saying "No" and Oklahoma began losing; six games, five games, a horrendous seven games.
Then, abruptly last year, Oklahoma was O.K. again—more than O.K. The Sooners won nine games, lost only to Texas (by two points) and picked flowery Tennessee's blossoms in the Orange Bowl. This is the season Oklahoma shows its revival was no one-time flirt with success.
One reason is that Wonder Worm has turned. What Wonder Worm has turned into is a fine quarterback. Small (6', 174) and filled with flummery, Bob (Worm) Warmack taunts opponents with long, lingering multiple fakes. He's slow and his passes flutter, but he led Oklahoma on touchdown drives of 68, 87 and 74 yards in the Orange Bowl and to more than one mile of gains on touchdown marches alone in the regular season. And, as sure as there is oil under the statehouse lawn, Warmack—who now varies his option plays with an occasional drop-back pass—will exceed last year's 1,136 yards passing.
One reason for this is the Sooners' most explosive weapon, Eddie Hinton, who escorted 28 passes 427 yards last year and led the nation in punt returns the season before. The quick Negro wingback, a special-education major who teaches retarded children, likes to tell the story that he developed his speed during visits with relatives in the South by "running through the white section. Just the sound of your shoes hitting the pavement stimulates you."
With Hinton, Oklahoma has Tailback Steve Owens, a hard runner who as a sophomore and a substitute last year led the Big Eight in rushing with 808 yards and in scoring with 72 points. Tight End Steve Zabel, an excellent receiver (333 yards) and good blocker, looks even better as a junior, too. Another of last year's precocious sophomores, Ken Mendenhall, the guard responsible for the touchdown that beat Missouri 7-0, cannot be hurt by his return to center, where he was Oklahoma Lineman of the Year in high school.
In effect, the offense has nine of 11 starters back. Chuck Fairbanks will have his samurai operating from the same I formation as before but presumably doing it better. The line will be dependable, and Tackle Byron Bigby something more than that. At fullback, Mike Harper, good as he is, may be beaten out by a much-improved junior, Rick Baldridge.
The defense has seven of its 11 starters back. However, none of them is named Granville Liggins, which means the Sooners may have a slightly less inspired defense.
As Fairbanks says, "The key to our being a good team is our play at middle guard. If we get exceptional play there, our small linebackers can be more effective." In the spring Fairbanks shifted Dick Paaso from defensive tackle into that gaping gap left by Liggins. So far the reviews for Paaso are not exactly rave. "He can play it quite well," says Fairbanks—and that isn't what they used to say about Granville. Indeed, Fairbanks is still hoping that Ken Davis, a junior-college transfer, will somehow transform himself into enough of a Liggins so that Paaso can return to tackle.
Light though Oklahoma's linebackers are—Don Pfrimmer is 6', 185 and sophomore Steve Casteel, 6'3", 202—they are strong and quick enough to compensate for most weaknesses in the line. The rest of the linemen—Tackle John Titsworth, End Jim Files and End Randy Meacham—are adequate. In addition, help may come from the monster man, Gary Harper, who could go to a line position if sophomore Gary Chrisman shows he can handle Harper's spot.
In the secondary, cool Steve Barrett runs on liquid oxygen instead of adrenalin, as befits a safety. "He stays in the buggy when the hoss rears up," says one Oklahoman. A favorite campus tale tells of how Steve sat in the delivery room holding his wife's hand while their baby was born. She had to wake him up to go get something to eat. That, says Fairbanks, is the only mistake Barrett made all last year.
Beyond the specifics, Oklahoma has two general problems that could undermine its national standing. First, the Sooners are rather thin below their top 25, and the law of averages suggests they cannot repeat last year's season in which they suffered almost no injuries. The talent is not as skimpy as Chuck Fairbanks likes to make out, but Oklahoma is no Purdue in depth this year. Second, there is the sudden resurrection of the Big Eight as a powerful, well-balanced conference. For years it had the worst record against outside competition of any major conference in the country, but it is now one of the toughest. Except for Oklahoma State and Kansas State—and both of them are improving—the rest of the Big Eight is almost dead-even. Times have changed since the mid-'50s when the Sooners were helped by breathers against some of the Big Eight's cream puffs while en route to their spectacular victory streak.
As far as Fairbanks is concerned, these factors will merely make it a little harder for him to implement his philosophy of life this year. "Winning," he said recently in his office, as he unwrapped a stick of grape gum with extreme deliberation and then chomped down on it hard, "is what life is about." There is a flatness to his eye and a bite to his tone that discourages any rebuttal. So does a fuzzy football lettered "Big 8 Champions" and an orange-filled trophy captured at the you-know-which bowl last New Year's Day.
Things have been going so well for the Sooners recently that even the luck of mascot Kirke Kickingbird, the Kiowa law student who does war dances, is improving. It was about time. Before 1967 Kickingbird, whose great-great grandfather signed a controversial treaty with the U.S. that gave most of Oklahoma to the white man, had lucked the Sooners into their worst seasons in years. He once did a rain dance at the Oklahoma pavilion at the World's Fair. It was followed by a six-month drought. The Oklahoma drought is over now.