Head Coach Mark McMahon was not the first coach, and certainly not the last, to endure tragic circumstances en route to the beginning of a football season. Most coaches who overcome this type of situation do so because their athletes are eager to hit the field to put things behind them. The Oklahoma campus had undoubtedly put the tragic fire behind them in the nine months between it and the start of football, but the event had changed some things.
Some players had obviously left as they normally do, Frank McCoy went to study law at Kansas and the Burch brothers left for reasons we don’t know today. The team was enjoying the luxury of having a locker room in the new basketball field-house where they could bathe and come together as a team. The 1903 season seemed to start off promising with a 3-0-2 record in the first five games including the tie with Texas and win at Texas A&M.
The Rough Riders followed the dramatic 11-5 win over Fairmont College with a 6-6 tie with Emporia College in Norman. The game, played in a decent amount of mud, dropped the University’s overall record to 3-0-3 on the season before a rough trip to Lawrence, Kansas to play the Jayhawks.
Harold Keith relays the details of this unfortunate trip to Lawrence in Oklahoma Kickoff:
The Rough Riders made the long trip by chair car, leaving Norman in the dark at four o’clock in the morning and arriving at Lawrence that night after a fourteen-hour trip.
It was at Lawrence that the Oklahoma team encountered the first of many vexations traveling football teams were subjected to in those days. McMahon was a stickler for training rules; he even banned cake-eating and coffee-drinking when the season was on. However when the varsity dined at a Lawrence Hotel the night before the game, two of the Oklahoma players who were habitual coffee swigglers begged so hard for coffee that McMahon, hiding a frown, relented. But the coach and the rest of the squad righteously drank sweet milk.
Soon they wished they hadn’t. The milk had been purposely adulterated with a drug that caused diarrhea and all through the game the Oklahoma players, except the two coffee drinkers, were fighting their stomachs as well as the hard charging Jayhawkers. A doctor was called for Bogle the morning of the game but the Sooner captain recovered in time to play…
The trip taught the varsity to use extreme care thereafter in its choice of food and restaurants. In those days unscrupulous gamblers were often watchful for a chance to adulterate the food of invading teams. The incident also seemed to prove the virtue of coffee over milk as a training drink for athletes.
You can probably imagine what happened that day on the field. Though it almost seems like a feat in and of itself that the Rough Riders took the field that day, the fact that they scored was even more impressive. The way they scored wasn’t normal or planned, but the fact is that they did score. Rules about the ball going out of bounds were much more lax in that day and Oklahoma took advantage of a ball going out and recovered it in time to score. It didn’t do much for their cause, final score, Kansas 17- Oklahoma 5. Now 3-1-3, Oklahoma was beginning to feel mediocrity for the first time in a while.
The off-season before Oklahoma’s 1903 season was difficult to say the least, but college football was having a hard time just staying afloat itself at the time. On January 19, 1903, the Missouri legislature passed a bill in which the act of playing football was good enough to charge someone with a misdemeanor. The reason was the increasing violence of the sport that was highlighted by the use of so called “mass momentum” plays. Due to a rule that the ball must pass through the hands of three men before a player could run with it, many teams used trickery and sometimes mass huddles to hide the identity of the player handling the ball.
However, as the Daily Oklahoman, stated on May 6, 1903, a new rule would revolutionize football and ease the scrutiny on the sport. “The rule provides nothing less than that the ball has to pass through the hands of only two men before being regarded as in play…With this regulation in effect the present evils of mass play which have aroused such opposition would, it is believed, largely be done away with and a more open and less dangerous style of play come into effect.”
As David M. Nelson said in his Anatomy of a Game, about the history of college football, another rule made that season regulated when and how the quarterback could run with the ball. The quarterback was only allowed to move laterally for five yards to the left or right of where the ball was snapped, then was allowed to pitch the ball to another runner or run up field himself. This is believed to be the beginning of the “option” play in college football, a play which would later have a special place in Oklahoma Football lore.