From Dust Bowl to Dynasty: Bud Wilkinson's Oklahoma

Andrew Duncan McGregor, Purdue University


During the long-1950s, the University of Oklahoma developed one of the country’s premier college football teams. University and state leaders intentionally sought to cultivate a winning program, hoping to use it as a public relations tool to help the state address its two major problems: image and economics. Led by coach Bud Wilkinson, the Sooners compiled winning streaks of thirty-one and forty-seven games. Their success thrust the state into the national spotlight and revealed that there was more to Oklahoma than John Steinbeck’s “Okies.” Furthermore, during the heart of the Cold War, college football embodied positive qualities, such as bravery, discipline, loyalty, and hard work, demonstrating the industriousness of Oklahomans and impressing businesses looking to relocate. Wilkinson became the overarching symbol of the team’s success and a central component of the new image of Oklahoma. His national profile, boosted by a syndicated series of sports programs and the first televised coach’s show, further promoted a positive image of the state. This dissertation tells that story, exploring the impact of college football success on the cultural, economic, political, and social life of Oklahoma. ^ More than just a case study, this dissertation connects debates over the role and purpose of college football at the University of Oklahoma with the construction of an idealized image of the American way of life that places football as a central component of Cold War culture. It operates as a cultural and political history of college athletics, tying popular culture and public relations to the resurgent field of political history and more deeply interrogating the social utility of sport. Although the sport served as an important unifying force, this research reveals that under the surface lingered contentious negotiations over commercialization, mass media, and race between differing factions vying for control. Legislators, businessman, university officials, students, fans, and the NCAA all had a stake in the fight and played a role in shaping the image projected by sports teams. Relying on a wide range of archival collections and published sources, this project pieces together these perspectives, highlighting the political fight over both the meaning of college football and its potential as a vehicle for social and economic change. Furthermore, it links Wilkinson’s coaching and television experience to political transformations during the 1950s and 1960s as he embarked on a political career. His popularity along with football’s reflection of Cold War values, allowed him to politicize the sport.^




Randy W. Roberts, Purdue University.

Subject Area

American studies|American history|History

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