NORMAN — When it comes to Notre Dame, Sooner fans have long memories
Tradition is omnipresent at Oklahoma. Drive past Owen Field and the 85,000-seat stadium doesn’t hide that seven national championship teams called it home.
However, there are other programs that sit on the top shelf of college football’s traditional powers. The Sooners will meet another on Saturday when they face Notre Dame.
It’s hard for those younger than 60 to believe there was a time when the Sooners were still fighting for attention. That’s what first led then-coach Bud Wilkinson to get Notre Dame on the schedule back in 1952.
“There was something about that great Notre Dame tradition during those years. It was pretty much like Oklahoma in the last 50 years. Everybody wants to knock off the big gorilla. That’s the way Notre Dame was viewed,” said Jay Wilkinson, the son of the coach that turned the Sooners into a college football super power in the late 1940s and throughout the 1950s. “The fact you were playing against a school with that kind of reputation, respect and tradition, obviously added a dimension of respect and excitement.”
Understanding how big OU’s initial meetings with the Fighting Irish were is hard to qualify. The world was a lot different place. It was long before the days of college football-saturated Saturday television.
OU’s first nationally televised game was its 27-21 loss at Notre Dame in 1952.
It only appeared on national television twice during its historic 47-game winning streak from 1953-57. Two of those meetings were against the Fighting Irish — OU’s 40-0 romp at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend, Ind., in 1956 and Notre Dame’s 7-0 win at Owen Field that ended the winning streak in 1957.
“It was a young man’s dream to get out of high school and live the dream all the thousands of kids in Oklahoma wanted to live. Everyone wanted to play at this university,” said former OU running back Clendon Thomas who was a star running back from 1955-57. “When you get the chance, it was a very big deal.”
It was playing against the likes of Notre Dame that made that dream seem so large. The fact the Sooners’ winning streak has losses to Notre Dame at both ends is what brings out so much nostalgia.
Jay Wilkinson believes he’s met thousands of people who claim they either watched OU’s loss to Notre Dame in person or on television.
Ask any player who played for the Sooners in 1957, and it is the game that still sticks in the heads. Bud Wilkinson told his team at halftime of that game wins are easy to forget, but losses stick around for a lifetime.
“Fifty years later, he was right about that,” former OU running back Jakie Sandefer said. “I’m semi-famous for being the starting halfback on the day we lost.”
The Sooners and Fighting Irish have met five more times since the 1957 loss. At least one of the programs was influx in every meeting. That includes 1999 when OU lost to the Fighting Irish in Bob Stoops’ first season.
Stoops isn’t building up the history between the schools this week. Why would he? OU’s 1-8 all-time against Notre Dame, and they’ve played just once since Lyndon Johnson was president.
But those who were around for the building of OU’s tradition remember how big it was the first time the Sooners played Notre Dame and what it was like to beat them.
“People have long memories and OU’s fans have great pride in the great tradition that was built not only through my day but Barry Switzer and Coach Stoops and all the great players that have played,” Wilkinson said. “ So, yeah, I’m thrilled they’re coming and I really hope we lay it to them.”