Having just hit the road for the first ever true road game in school history, Oklahoma was now ready to play a collegiate team in Norman. Thanksgiving afternoon of 1898 welcomed the first ever college opponent to the Norman campus. Fort Worth University rolled in to town to take on Oklahoma with far less horses than OU would field. The outmanned squad from Fort Worth hung tough early in the contest trailing by just one score at halftime, but the second half was all Oklahoma.
A massive, crushing offensive front led the varsity to a dominating performance on both sides of the ball. OU scored just one minute and thirty seconds into the game and then scored on a 70-yard run by Henry McGraw on the first play of the second half. Vernon Parrington’s crew was developing into the monster that he had hoped to create when he stepped foot on the playing field. By rolling to a 24-0 thrashing of Fort Worth University, Vernon Parrington had finished a third straight 2-0 season.
Weather once again wrecked havoc on the Oklahoma schedule, leaving just the two games that had been played as history. His boys were now 6-0 under his guidance and the folks of Norman and surrounding areas were falling in love with this violent sport.
This football season was the same season that Walter Camp would issue his first All-America team in Collier’s magazine. This was one of many marks that Camp would leave on the game. In 1880, Walter Camp put his indelible mark on the college football world by instituting a set of rules that finally began to draw a definitive line between American football and rugby.
Prior to Camp’s rules the possession of the ball was determined by a battle for the ball after every play, much like rugby, but Camp established the rule of one team maintaining possession. While there was still no “neutral zone”, Camp established a “line of scrimmage” where each play was to begin. The positions could then be defined as the quarterback was first after the line (receiving the snap from center by the foot of a center) the halfback lined up next, and then the fullback was the full way back behind the line.
Camp also reduced the size of the field to 110 yards long and 55 ½ yards wide and restricted each side to just 11 players. Walter Camp is still recognized today with an All-America team and a Player of the Year award similar to the Heisman for his innovations leading to the game we know today.
Camp, however, was not done shaping the form of football we see today. In 1882 he devised a “system of downs” to determine possession of the ball as teams previously rotated periods with the ball, one getting for a period, then the other. Camp ruled that teams had three downs to gain five yards or turn over possession. White lines were required every five yards, therefore defining the term “gridiron”.
In 1883, Camp proposed a unified scoring system for games at the annual rules committee meeting. Teams were given 5 points for a goal kicked from the field during play, 4 for a goal on the free kick after a touchdown, 2 for a touchdown, and 1 for a safety. In 1884, the point totals are changed to 4 for a touchdown and 2 for the kick after a touchdown.
In 1888, tackling below the waist is finally allowed and as a result the offensive lines began to bundle together, much like today, rather than spread in various formations along the line.
In 1890, Amos Alonzo Stagg began his trip into the national conscious by introducing the “ends-back” formation where the ends line up a step back of the line of scrimmage to protect the flanks of the backfield. Stagg was an offensive innovator and would later play against the famed University of Oklahoma.
In 1894, a series of rules outlawed the dangerous “flying wedge” play, reduced the two periods of play from 45 to 35 minutes, and linemen have to remain on the line of scrimmage instead of moving around to create the popular “mass momentum plays.”
Beginning in 1894 and moving through 1895 the formation of conferences began in full with the creation of the Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Association which included Alabama, Auburn, Georgia Tech, Sewanee, and Vanderbilt. Later, what eventually became the Big 10 begins with members Chicago, Illinois, Michigan, Minnesota, Northwestern, Purdue, and Wisconsin. It is in this year, 1895, that the University of Oklahoma was to field its first official team in a game against an Oklahoma City Town Team.
Vernon Parrington and his crew of ruffians overcame that embarrassing debut during his tenure and set off a wildfire of passion for football on campus. However, this passion was still second to the Territorial Oratorical Contest. David W. Levy explains this phenomena in his The University of Oklahoma, A History:
‘There is hardly any better way for a young man or young woman in college to develop his or her thinking powers than to put a few weeks hard labor upon writing an oration,’ urged the Umpire in 1897. Other reasons for learning and practicing the art of formal speaking existed: the attainment of poise, the better use of language, cultivation of social skills that that would be useful in business and club life, and, for male students, the preparation for a career in public life, including politics.”
Harold Keith wrote about the oratorical contest and its pageantry in Oklahoma Kickoff. To be specific, Keith wrote about the agony of waiting for the judges’ decision. “This put new life into the enemy and from here on the fight was anybody’s fight…Then came the awful moment of waiting for the announcement of the judges. Of course we knew we had won but we were a little nervous for fear the judges didn’t know it.”
By the way, the University of Oklahoma student did win it. OU would remain in love with this pomp and circumstance for years to come, but football was hot on its heels. As Vernon Parrington’s second season ended his boys were becoming a well oiled machine. Oklahoma football was gaining prominence and respect throughout the Territory and surrounding areas.
1. Oklahoma Kickoff by Harold Keith
2. The Daily Oklahoman Archives
3. Rites of Autumn: The Story of College Football by Richard Whittingham