Half a century ago in US college football, the rivalry games between the Nebraska Cornhuskers team of the University of Nebraska and the Oklahoma Sooners team of the University of Oklahoma offered a grand stage for the best black players, while southern states dragged their feet on integration.
The programs dominated with stars that most schools in the south would not even recruit, with Nebraska’s Johnny Rodgers, Rich Glover and Willie Harper, as well as Oklahoma’s Greg Pruitt, Joe Washington, Rod Shoate and brothers Lee Roy, Lucious and Dewey Selmon, leading the way.
After Texas became the last all-white team to win a national title in 1969, Nebraska and Oklahoma won two Associated Press (AP) national titles each between 1970 and 1975, with black athletes playing critical roles. Each won their annual November showdown against each other on the way to those championships.
Rodgers, Pruitt and Glover were among the biggest stars in the “Game of the Century” — No. 1 Nebraska’s 35-31 win over No. 2 Oklahoma in 1971.
Rodgers, Pruitt and Glover placed No. 1, No. 2 and No. 3 in the 1972 Heisman race — the first time that happened for black players.
“I think that our play and our success on those football teams opened the door for a lot of black kids that followed us,” Pruitt said, amid preparations for Nebraska’s game at Oklahoma this weekend, 50 years after their famous showdown.
The honors and recognition streamed in for black athletes at Nebraska and Oklahoma in those days. Glover won the Outland and Lombardi Trophies in 1972, and Lee Roy Selmon won both in 1975. Washington, an electrifying running back known for his silver shoes, finished third in the Heisman voting in 1974.
It goes back to the coaches who decided to prioritize recruiting black athletes — Chuck Fairbanks and Barry Switzer at Oklahoma, and Bob Devaney and Tom Osborne at Nebraska.
“Before it happened, if I was to pick the schools most likely to break the barriers, Oklahoma and Nebraska probably would not have made the list,” said Richard Lapchick, head of the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport at the University of Central Florida. “But coaches like Barry Switzer, Tom Osborne, Chuck Fairbanks and Bob Devaney were bold enough to see the future and courageous enough to bury the previous era of segregated teams. The results were evident in their records and the records of some of their great black players.”
Switzer grew up in the 1940s and 1950s near tiny Crossett, Arkansas, and said that his father, Frank, was a bootlegger.
Frank had black bootleggers working for him, and his son often tagged along when it was time to collect. Switzer saw the kids on the other side of the tracks and learned they had much in common.
He said that his father often helped black people, and he committed to do the same through recruiting when he became Oklahoma’s head coach in 1973.
“It was the right thing to do,” Switzer said. “So when I became head coach, I said: ‘You need to understand that this is the way it’s going to be.’”
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