The tenure of Vernon Parrington was off to a smashing start and he scheduled something major for the University in the second game of the 1897 season, their first game against another university. Parrington was 1-0 with the victory over Oklahoma City, but a rematch with OKC and a game with Fort Reno were both called off because of extreme weather conditions. Therefore, OU would play just one more game in 1897, in Oklahoma City against Kingfisher College.
For a detailed description of the University’s first battle with another collegiate team I’ll turn to an excerpt from Bruce Brown’s article on Astonisher.com about Vernon Parrington entitled, “Vernon Louis Parrington: Was America’s Greatest Literary Historian Also the Greatest Football Coach in Oklahoma Sooner History?”
“THE FIELD AT THE FAIRGROUNDS in Guthrie, the capitol of the Oklahoma Territory, was frozen but free of snow for the kickoff of the big college football game on New Year’s Eve 1897. The contest, which was actually the prelude to the day’s main event, the Territorial Intercollegiate Oratorical Contest, pitted the University of Oklahoma against another Oklahoma school, Kingfisher College.
It was the fledgling University of Oklahoma football team’s first game that far from home and during the early part of the contest they had some tough sledding. Oklahoma end Bill McCutcheon was being punished particularly hard by a heavy-set Kingfisher tackle. “He hurt me every time he hit me, McCutcheon recalled later. Closer inspection revealed that McCutcheon’s opponent was wearing armor: beneath his jersey he had concealed an elbow of stovepipe over each shoulder and arm.
Although McCutcheon’s opponent was forced to shed his extra gear, Kingfisher continued to dominate Oklahoma, and carried an 8-6 lead to the bench at halftime. There is no record of what the Oklahoma coach told his beleaguered team as they warmed themselves during the break, but its results were evident during the second half in classic college football fashion. The Oklahoma offense came alive, eating up the field with plays that called for the tackles and ends to cross-block their opposite numbers while the ball carrier swung through the gap boosted by supporting backs, for in those days football offenses relied as much on pushing from behind as blocking in front.
Midway through the second half, the game was interrupted by the Logan County sheriff, who had never seen a football game before, and supposed the action on the gridiron to be a brawl in progress. It took the appeals of several notables present, including University of Oklahoma President David Ross Boyd (Oklahoma was by then leading), before the sheriff would let the game be completed. Finally relenting, he gave the affair a Wild West touch by firing his gun over his head to restart the contest, prompting the spectators to respond with the appropriate rodeo cries: “Hold that steer!” “Ride him boy!” “E-yip-eeeeeeee.”
Out on the playing field, the flavor was not so much Red River as Crimson Wave. Although Oklahoma’s young Harvard-educated football coach had chosen not to play himself in this game, the Sooners still bore the strong mark of Harvard football, that rough rugby/soccer amalgam which won first the Ivy League colleges and ultimately all of America away from traditional soccer. Striding the sidelines in a tweed suit and tie, the Oklahoma coach exhorted his men. They were an odd crew, composed of a professional baseball player, a Chickasaw Indian, some local farmers and a smattering of University of Oklahoma students, but now the drilling he had put them through paid off and they won handily by the score of 17 to 8.
This was the first of many hurrahs for both University of Oklahoma football and its tweedy coach and English professor, Vernon Louis Parrington. During the four years he coached the Sooners, Parrington, then a darkly handsome young man in the Robert Louis Stevenson mold, only lost twice, and one of those games turned on what was later revealed to be an illegal drop kick by the University of Arkansas Razorbacks, according to Harold Keith’s Oklahoma Kickoff. After shutting out the last four opponents Oklahoma faced at the close of the 1900 season, Parrington retired forever from football coaching with what is still the second highest winning percentage in the history of Sooner football after Bud Wilkinson.”
While Brown’s description of Parrington as the coach with the second highest winning percentage in OU history to Bud Wilkinson isn’t entirely accurate, his description of this game is integral to the lore of Oklahoma Football. The officer interrupting this game and then firing his pistol to restart it is the perfect symbol of football’s importance to Oklahoma.
The inhabitants of this Wild West frontier were just as leery of what was around the corner as the officer, but just as excited about the possibilities of the situation as he was when he fired his pistol into the air. Nobody would have understood this quite as well as the literature buff that David Ross Boyd had hired to run his first English Department at the University of Oklahoma.