Jack Mildren: The Quintessential Student Athlete

Friday, May 23rd 2008, 6:07 pm
By: News 9

By Dean Blevins, NEWS 9 Sports Director

Jack Mildren will be buried Tuesday following services in Norman. The former lieutenant governor of the state of Oklahoma and All-America football player at the University of Oklahoma died Thursday following a two-year battle with stomach cancer.

I grew up in Norman and closely watched the Mildren Era from start to finish, and from Day 1, it was "game on."

I was an energetic Norman High sophomore and one of the cold fans at Owen Field the afternoon Jack and his record-setting and undefeated team lost to Nebraska on that cold Thanksgiving Game of the Century in 1971.

A lot of athletes who can't even compare to Mildren, get ten times more exposure because of today's plethora of media. But Jack got national attention from the time he was a senior at Abilene High School until the day he left Norman for the pros.

Then OU's offensive coordinator, Barry Switzer recruited Jack to OU. The Hall of Fame coach knew Jack very well and told us that Jack was "the total package....4.5 speed, could break tackles, extremely intelligent."

Jack arrived from Abilene on campus in a pickup truck. One teammate joked, "I thought he'd show up in a jet." Teammates understood they were part of a class that included the most "ballyhooed player of his era...the Adrian Peterson, Eric Dickerson, Earl Campbell of his time," Switzer said.

I remember so many people on the street and on the OU campus saying, "Mildren's coming, Mildren's coming." There was a great deal of hype and expectation. He didn't disappoint. 

I vividly remember sitting in the stands on a weeknight when Mildren's freshman team-the Boomers-played OSU. On television! Mildren was the reason. Over 30,000 showed up. Some teams today don't have that many season ticket holders.

Freshmen were not eligible when Mildren arrived. But he started the next three years for Head Coach Chuck Fairbanks and his energetic young offensive coordinator Barry Switzer.

Coach Switzer told me something people don't know. He said he and defensive coordinator Larry Lacewell had watched a lot of film from the 1969 national champion Texas Longhorns.  Each of them said it was next to impossible to stop.

Coach told me that in the off-season he went to Fairbanks and unsuccessfully tried to convince him to switch from the veer-an offense Fairbanks had learned under Houston's Bill Yeoman-to the wishbone.

Switzer felt he had the QB in Mildren, who was better than the undefeated Texas QB James Street, to run his wishbone. The offensive coordinator felt if they'd installed the offense that spring, that come the 1970 season they'd be hard to stop.

But Switzer didn't get his way until the week before meeting the talented Horns on October 10, 1970. Texas won, 41-9. OU looked sloppy as Mildren's offense committed five turnovers. But the transition would come.

After routing OSU 66-6, Mildren and the wishbone looked good, as they tied the Tide in the December 31 Bluebonnet Bowl. Bear Bryant and Alabama played the up and coming Sooners to a 24-24 draw.

The midseason switch in 1970 had improved things. But Fairbanks, Barry and Jack didn't hit the lottery until 1971.

Mildren and his ‘bone set the table ending the '71 season with an 11-1 record.  In 1972, California native Dave Robertson, who couldn't compare to Mildren in most ways, did his part. Back to back 11-1 seasons.

So when you look back at what transpired in Sooner football, it was General Jack Mildren and the wishbone that really got things going. The cumulative record from 1971-1975 was an astonishing 54-3-1 and consecutively national championships in '74 and '75.

Jack Mildren was built for the bone-a sturdy 200 pounder with sprinter's speed, tough, savvy. A natural-born leader, the red-head gained the respect of his teammates early in his career.

The QBs who followed Jack and his magic would watch a lot of film and marvel at his uncanny timing of some of downfield pitches to Greg Pruitt.

Coach Switzer told me he was happy for Mildren when as a senior he "finally got his Texas win...almost hung half a hundred" on the two-time defending champions.

Jack had help.  Hello-Goodbye Greg Pruitt averaged over 9 yards a carry (every time I see highlights of Pruitt I am convinced he's the best runner OU's ever had). The 1971 offense ran for a ridiculous 470 yards a game-a record that won't ever be sniffed.

The record-setting run game of the Sooners opened up the passing attack. Safeties were often lost in the "alley," confused or a step slow. And while Jack was no Johnny Unitas, he threw it well enough to keep defenses honest. He and his close friend and high school teammate Jon Harrison hooked up and several critical completions.

OU may have lost the Game of the Century. But Jack's Attack did its part. 31 points was not enough for the Huskers. But it should have been enough to run the table.

Jack's resume' is awesome: "First true superstar we ever got out of Texas," says Switzer; lived up to the hype; most of us who should know consider him the greatest QB in OU history; Academic All American; Sixth in the '71 Heisman even though he and left halfback Pruitt, who finished third, split quite a few votes; second round NFL pick as the 46th overall chosen; three-year  starter at safety; forced to quit because of seizures/concussions; easily transitioned using his petroleum land management degree to later make a lot of money in the oil business; lieutenant governor;  lost his run as governor--I always joked with him that he was not political enough to be a politician; and OH, did he speak his mind. I liked that.

Jack was a consummate no-excuses guy. He was what is right in college athletics. Jack should be the poster child for the term that makes the majority of people snicker. He was the truest of true student athletes.

He loved his family and was so close to his wonderful wife Janis, a committed father and brother. The hardest part Tuesday might be the fact that his precious mother Mary Glenn Mildren-who lost her dear husband two years ago--will have to bury a son. No mother should ever have to go through that.

I still don't believe it. Jack's gone. Quite a legacy of accomplishment in 58 short seasons of life.

God Bless Mary Glenn, Janis and the entire family.