OU’s football team opens conference play against Kansas State Saturday night, and the 2012 Sooners have hopes of regaining championship form after a disappointing 10-3 season the year before. Kind of like 50 years ago.
Bud Wilkinson’s Sooners hoped to return to the limelight after a disappointing season in 1961 in which Oklahoma finished 5-5. Oklahoma opened the season against Syracuse on Sept. 22, 1962, before a crowd of 55,000 on a hot and steamy afternoon. The Orangemen were coming off an 8-3 season in 1961 by winning five of their last six games, including a win in the Liberty Bowl.
OU’s starting quarterback Tommy Pannell broke his ankle in pre-season camp. Monte Deere had edged out two other competitors for the starting job. The rest of the backfield was young and inexperienced, and a third-string fullback would turn out to be the hero against Syracuse.
Joe Don Looney would be the first junior college transfer to play for Wilkinson. Courted heavily by the Sooners, Southern California, Alabama and Kentucky, Looney chose the Sooners since he was a Texas native from Fort Worth and wanted to beat the Texas Longhorns, a school that he had once attended on a track scholarship.
Defiant, sometimes a smart aleck, Looney had difficulty following orders. Those who knew him wondered if he would fit in with Wilkinson’s rigid disciplinary philosophy.
On that day, Oklahoma and Syracuse battled to a scoreless first quarter. The Orangemen marched to the OU 31-yard line in the game’s first possession. A fourth-down gamble failed when quarterback Robert Lelli threw an incomplete pass.
The Sooners marched to the SU 22, but backup quarterback Norman Smith threw an interception in the end zone. Another Syracuse threat ended with a fumble at the OU 30, which was recovered by end Rick McCurdy. With less than a minute until halftime, the Orangemen’s Thomas Mingo kicked a 35-yard field goal, which barely cleared the crossbar.
In the third quarter, a fourth-down gamble paid off for the Sooners at their own 46-yard line. Fullback Jim Grisham gained a first down across midfield. Halfback Paul Lea gained another 12 yards, then quarterback Deere picked up a couple of yards before pitching to Grisham who rambled to the 26. This time the Syracuse defense stiffened and pushed the Sooners back three yards on the next three plays. George Jarman's 46-yard field goal try fell short of the goal posts.
Smith tossed another interception on OU’s next possession, and the Orangemen returned it to the OU 24. Syracuse spilled the pigskin and McCurdy smothered it again.
The Orangemen drove to the OU eight yard-line late in the third period and into the fourth. McCurdy recovered his third fumble of the game on a muffed handoff.
Halfback Jackie Cowan’s 46-yard run on the next series gave the Sooners hope. Wilkinson installed his third unit, which bungled the next few plays with flags flying on nearly every play. The Sooners were flagged 15 yards for clipping and twice for jumping offside, ending up back at the SU 42-yard line. McCurdy punted to the SU 16.
The Orangemen hammered out a ground attack into OU territory, but faced fourth-and-one at the 28. A first down would most likely guarantee a victory for the Orangemen with a chance to run more time off the clock, or even worse, score again. But, center Johnny Tatum and Lea, who also played safety, stopped fullback James Nance one foot short of the mark.
The Sooners took over with four minutes left in the game. Looney, who had been sitting on the bench all afternoon, told Wilkinson to put him in and he would “win the game.” Wilkinson relented and sent Looney in.
Cowan carried around right end for a seven-yard gain on the first play of the drive. Third-string fullback Looney picked up another five yards for a first down at the OU 40. The SU defense then halted Cowan at the line for no gain.
In the huddle, Looney told Deere to give him the ball outside and he would score. On the next play, Deere and Looney swung to the left and Deere pitched the ball to his fullback. Looney then cut inside where he appeared to be stopped for a two-yard gain, swamped by Syracuse defenders.
Suddenly, he sprang free and sprinted down the east sideline into the end zone. Halfback Gary Wylie threw a key block on SU's Don King, the only defender with a chance of catching Looney.
The new star was mobbed by teammates in the end zone. Jarman's kick was successful, and the Sooners took a 7-3 advantage with 2:07 remaining in the game.
“I knew what play I was going to call when I went into the huddle,” Deere said in the locker room afterwards. “But as I was walking up to the huddle, Looney leaned over and told me, ‘Just give me the ball and I'll score a touchdown.’ So I just gave him the ball.”
“Maybe it's better to be lucky than good,” Wilkinson said in the locker room afterwards, his shirt drenched from the stifling heat. “Syracuse moved the ball well, but our defense didn't let them score a touchdown. Those two critical fumbles really hurt them. I think perhaps the key play was when we stopped them on fourth down at the 27 with less than a yard to go. If they had kept the ball with only four minutes to go, it could have been a different story.”
Syracuse lost its first season opener for the first time since 1955. The Sooners extended their winning streak to six games (they had won the final five contests in 1961), but lost their next two to Notre Dame and Texas. OU rebounded against Kansas, then pitched four straight shutouts over Kansas State, Colorado, Iowa State and Missouri. The Sooners ended the season with wins over Nebraska and Oklahoma State, then were defeated in the Orange Bowl by an Alabama team led by quarterback Joe Namath.
Oklahoma finished the year with an 8-3 record and ranked eighth in the nation.
Looney led the team with 852 yards rushing, caught seven passes for 119 yards and scored 10 TDs. He also punted for the team, ending the season with a 43.4 average, best in the nation that year. He was also named an All-American in 1962.
After losing to Texas in 1963, a battle of No. 1 vs. No. 2, which the No. 1 Sooners lost 28-7, Wilkinson dismissed Looney from the squad. The coach said his running back's rebellious attitude interrupted team morale, which Wilkinson told an AP writer “had ceased to exist.”
The New York Giants made Looney the ninth draft pick in 1964, but after a short stint with several National Football League teams, he also experienced trouble in Vietnam and had a failed marriage. Later he claimed he had found inner peace by joining the Hindu religion.
Twenty-six years after that fabled touchdown that defeated Syracuse, Looney died from injuries received in a motorcycle accident in southern Texas.