Behind-the-scenes stories of Oklahoma, Nebraska and college football’s greatest game

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  • Jake Trotter

    CloseESPN Staff Writer

    • Covers the Big 12
    • Joined in 2011
    • Graduate of Washington & Lee University
  • Dave Wilson

    CloseESPN Staff Writer

      Dave Wilson is an editor for since 2010. He previously worked at The Dallas Morning News, San Diego Union-Tribune and Las Vegas Sun.

“Holy moly! Man, woman and child, did that put ’em in the aisles! Johnny ‘The Jet’ Rodgers just tore ’em loose from their shoes!”

“I still get chills listening to that,” Rodgers said.

On Thanksgiving Day 1971, Nebraska and Oklahoma achieved “perfection,” as reporter Dave Kindred described it in the Louisville Times.

“Sometimes it don’t live up to the billing,” said Oklahoma halfback Greg Pruitt. “That one did.”

Billed as “The Game of the Century,” Rodgers’ epic punt return for a touchdown — and Lyell Bremser’s indelible radio call — helped top-ranked Nebraska defeat No. 2 Oklahoma, 35-31, in a classic whose mystique has carried over, well past the life of the rivalry itself. To commemorate the 50th anniversary of the game, the Sooners and Cornhuskers will meet again Saturday for the first time since 2010. Their rivalry might effectively be dead. But that game still lives.

“It had everything,” said Bill Hancock, who then worked in Oklahoma’s communications department before overseeing the Final Four for 13 seasons and becoming the executive director of the BCS and the College Football Playoff since 2009. “A perfect combination of things that made it the biggest game I’ve ever been associated with, and ever will be associated with.”

The showdown featured 17 of the 22 first-team All-Big Eight selections that season and 27 starters who would get drafted into the NFL. The two staffs combined would produce 12 future FBS head coaches, including Barry Switzer, Tom Osborne and Jimmy Johnson.

Oklahoma’s wishbone offense averaged 472 rushing yards, an NCAA record that still stands; Nebraska’s Blackshirts defense was giving up only six points a game.

That day, 55 million people tuned in to ABC to see what would happen, then a record television audience for a college football game.

The Huskers went on to win a second consecutive national championship that year, crushing Alabama by 32 points in the Orange Bowl. Oklahoma, meanwhile, would go 43-2-1 over the following four seasons, with two national titles.

Nebraska coach Bob Devaney is carried off the field after the Cornhuskers outlasted Oklahoma, 35-31, in an instant classic. AP Photo

To commemorate the 150th anniversary of college football two years ago, a panel of 150 media members, athletic administrators and former players and coaches voted on the greatest games in college football history. The Game of the Century took the No. 1 spot.

The same panel voted the 1971 Huskers as the greatest team in college football history, and the 1971 Sooners as the greatest team with a loss.

Through more than two dozen interviews, ESPN went behind the scenes of the Game of the Century to uncover the untold stories, which included the clandestine friendship of Rodgers and Pruitt, Nebraska’s food-poisoning paranoia, Oklahoma’s sign-stealing attempt, an unintended movie theater rendezvous and a Selmon Brothers Thanksgiving dinner caper.

‘Oh my god, he’s gonna go!’

In the 1960s, following the retirement of legendary coach Bud Wilkinson, the Sooners had fallen on hard times. But Switzer, then a budding assistant, saw Texas prep phenom quarterback Jack Mildren as a potential ticket out of the doldrums. The Southwest Conference had limits on how often a coach could visit a recruit. The Big Eight, and thus Oklahoma, had no such rule.

“I was out there every week,” Switzer said. “I’d eat supper with the family, Jack and Richard [Mildren’s brother] would go back to study in their room, Mary Glynne [Mildren’s mom] and I would wash the dishes, then I would sit down with Larry [Mildren’s father] and watch ‘Fireside Studio’ with Porter Wagoner and Dolly Parton.”

Even with Mildren on board, the Sooners continued to struggle until they turned to the wishbone in 1970. With Mildren and Pruitt leading the way, Oklahoma quickly turned into a juggernaut.

The arrival of highly touted prep superstar Jack Mildren — and the move to the Wishbone offense — helped revitalize struggling Oklahoma. Malcolm Emmons/US PRESSWIRE

“Jack Mildren was such a magician,” said Jim Walden, a Nebraska assistant then who would later become the head coach at Washington State and Iowa State. “He ran that wishbone like he’d been running it his entire life.”

Mildren might have been the magician. But Pruitt made the wishbone magical, and Switzer believed that warranted a nickname. So one day during the 1971 season, he summoned Pruitt to his office.

“He had his T-shirt on his desk with ‘Hello’ on the front and ‘Goodbye’ on the back,” Pruitt recalled. “He told me he wanted me to wear the shirt.

“And that it had better be ‘Hello, Goodbye’ on Saturday.'”

At Nebraska, Rodgers could also make magic with the ball in his hands.

“Johnny on your side was worth 13-14 points,” said Osborne, Nebraska’s offensive coordinator in 1971. “Pound-for-pound, he probably was as good a football player as I was ever around.”

During the postseason awards circuit in 1970, Rodgers and Pruitt became close. The following summer, Pruitt surreptitiously visited Rodgers in Lincoln without any of their teammates knowing; Rodgers returned the trip in Norman. And each week during the 1971 season, the two talked over the phone.

“Just talking trash to each other,” Rodgers said.

That contributed to the buildup to the Nebraska-Oklahoma game. And, ultimately, to Rodgers’ punt return.

“The practices became very intense, especially on special teams, because Johnny was one of the leading returners in the country,” Pruitt said. “So the coaches kept trying to emphasize that to contain Johnny, you keep your lane to keep him corralled. But because Johnny and I had been doing all this trash-talking I wasn’t listening. I was going to get Johnny and dump him on his head on national TV and shut his mouth.”

Just three minutes into the game, Pruitt would get his chance. Joe Wylie punted high to Rodgers, who caught it from his own 28-yard-line. Pruitt was the first Sooner there.

“I got a hand on Johnny,” Pruitt said. “But he made a move and I couldn’t hold him.”

Nobody else could, either, though Johnson still believes Rodgers was aided by three uncalled clips during the return.

“And I think the film agrees,” added Johnson, an Oklahoma defensive assistant then, who would later become the head coach at Oklahoma State, Miami, the Dallas Cowboys and Miami Dolphins.

Johnny Rodgers, who would go on to win the Heisman, scored on this incredible punt return, the signature play from Nebraska’s triumph over Oklahoma. Brian Lanker/Sports Illustrated via Getty Images

Nebraska band member Terry Rush actually agreed with Johnson. But he didn’t care. That day, several members of the band had to camp on the sideline because of limited space in the stands. As Rodgers sailed into the end zone to give Nebraska an early 7-0 lead, Rush couldn’t contain himself and ran onto the field to celebrate the touchdown with him.

“He caught it and started doing his dance and I said, ‘Oh my god, he’s gonna go!'” Rush recalled. “My adrenaline was probably pumping about as hard as his.”

After the breathtaking score, Rodgers immediately went to the bench and threw up, which actually was nothing new. Rodgers was born with asthma and tuberculosis and played football with a bleeding ulcer, often forcing him to eat at the student hospital in Lincoln.

In Nebraska, Bremser’s “Holy moly! Man, woman and child …” call of the Rodgers return became iconic. It’s still replayed on the video board at Husker games and on radio. Families have it memorized. And to this day, fans greet Rodgers with it when they see him. Bremser’s grandson, James Mackiewicz, said his grandfather would use “man, woman and child” in place of uttering expletives.

“It was [his] way to be excited,” Mackiewicz said, “and still avoid being blue or crass in any sort of way.”

For years, Wylie could never figure out why Nebraska reporters would annually call him around the anniversary of the game. Finally, he asked one of them.

“Don’t you know?” one asked him back. “You’re the most famous non-Nebraska football player in Nebraska football history. Everybody in Nebraska knows who Wylie is. He’s the punter who punted to Rodgers in Bremser’s call.”

Rodgers never let Pruitt forget how he got the best of him. In fact, he created a permanent reminder.

Every year, Rodgers hands out the “Jet Award” to the best returner in college football. The trophy is a depiction of that punt return. And Rodgers made sure that Pruitt was part of it, ossifying him in bronze falling down behind him.

“My only complaint about that trophy is I can’t remember when Johnny was ever bigger than me,” said Pruitt, who would finish second in the Heisman voting behind Rodgers the following season. “You look at the trophy and he’s twice as big … just another Johnny Rodgers move.”

Pregame paranoia

Oklahoma safety John Shelley knew the Nebraska game was different when head coach Chuck Fairbanks shut off the phones in the football dormitory.

“That had never been done before,” added Sooners defensive tackle Raymond Hamilton. “He didn’t want any distractions.”

Fairbanks had reason to worry.

Wylie recalled famed Sports Illustrated reporter Dan Jenkins knocking on his dorm room door to conduct an impromptu interview for the legendary cover story, “Irresistible Oklahoma meets immovable Nebraska.” Sooners safety Steve O’Shaughnessy remembered walking outside of the dorm seeing “cameras and microphones everywhere.”

According to newspaper accounts, an estimated 100 sportswriters for at least 65 papers from more than 20 states traveled to Oklahoma that week. Hancock said the university actually built a platform inside the press box to add another row of seating, similar to bleachers.

Oklahoma would come up short against Nebraska but use the game as a springboard to multiple national championships in the following years. Rich Clarkson/Rich Clarkson & Associates

Nebraska head coach Bob Devaney had his share of worries, too. He even made sure the Huskers brought their own food with them to Oklahoma.

“They weren’t taking any chances,” said Nebraska offensive lineman Mike Beran, “of a little extra Sooner Sauce on there.”

Initially, Walden wasn’t too concerned about the Blackshirts slowing down Oklahoma.

“We put on a couple games, and we’re like, ‘We don’t know what all the hubbub is about. They’re not necessarily that great of a team,'” Walden said. “But the closer the game got, the more frightening their offense was. We had one of the best defenses there’s ever been. But the closer the game got, it was more like, ‘Oh my god, we won’t be able to stop this team!'”

The night before the game, Walden was up with Nebraska defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin in the lobby of the hotel until 3 or 4 in the morning, worrying and drinking coffee.

“Nobody could go to bed,” said Kiffin, father of Ole Miss head coach Lane Kiffin. “Because we were all thinking about the game the next day.”

Earlier that evening, the Nebraska players had gone out to see a movie. But as they were arriving at the theater, the Sooners were leaving, creating a few awkward, tense moments.

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“Everyone just stopped,” said Huskers nose guard Rich Glover, comparing the scene to a weigh-in before a championship boxing match. “It was like, ‘Who is [Oklahoma All-American center] Tom Brahaney? Where’s Greg Pruitt? Where’s Jack Mildren?’ That got us fired up for the game, to see them in the face. ‘OK, we’ll see you tomorrow.'”

The nerves carried over to breakfast game-day morning.

“We would always have steak and eggs,” said Oklahoma defensive tackle Lucious Selmon. “I couldn’t eat much at all. Compared to what I ate, the rest barely touched theirs. A whole lot of steak was left on the plates that morning.”

‘I’d heard … somebody was stealing my signals’

On game day, even the weather met the occasion.

“Cold, crisp fall weather — classic football weather,” Hancock recalled. Kindred scribbled into his notebook, “Getting gray, as if a snow storm coming into the prairie.”

Snow never came. But it did get cold enough that Mildren’s fiancée, Janis, never a big football fan — she didn’t even know who Oklahoma’s quarterback was when friends set them up on a blind date earlier that year — bailed to watch the second half somewhere warmer. The couple married two months later, and remained so until he died in 2008.

“He found it ironic that a game his team lost,” she said, “was the one he got asked about the most.”

Despite its near flawlessness — the two teams combined to commit only one penalty, an offside on Nebraska — the game in reality wasn’t quite as perfect as Kindred had suggested.

Both teams fumbled the ball away at key moments. Nebraska quarterback Jerry Tagge’s turnover handed Oklahoma possession in the fourth quarter, allowing the Sooners to take a late 31-28 lead (Tagge would later atone).

Even Switzer and Kiffin later regretted much of their own game plans: Kiffin believes he overcommitted to containing the option pitch to Pruitt; Switzer doesn’t think he gave Pruitt the ball enough.

“I didn’t put the ball in his hands 25-27 times a game like I did with [1978 Heisman winner] Billy Sims,” Switzer said of Pruitt, who finished with just 53 rushing yards on only 10 carries. “A great back, you make sure he touches it that many times. We should’ve had plays designed for him to touch the ball. We didn’t have them.”

The relentless Nebraska defense bottled up star Oklahoma running back Greg Pruitt, but Oklahoma assistant Barry Switzer regrets not getting him the ball more. Rich Clarkson/Rich Clarkson & Associates

Kiffin was so concerned about Pruitt that he tinkered with his secondary, swinging corner Joe Blahak, considered the better tackler, to safety while moving safety Bill Kosch to corner.

Kosch was frustrated because Kiffin and Warren Powers, the secondary coach, wanted him to play a different style and farther off the ball than he’d ever played.

Kosch couldn’t understand why. “Mildren can’t throw,” Powers told him. “All you gotta be is in the area.”

Turned out that day, Mildren could throw.

Seconds before halftime, he connected on back-to-back bombs to split end Jon Harrison, Mildren’s high school teammate from Abilene. The second was a 24-yard touchdown strike to Harrison, propelling Oklahoma to a 17-14 halftime lead.

The Sooners needed Mildren’s unexpected passing to hang with Nebraska. Because Glover was wrecking their running game, finishing with a game-high 22 tackles, an unheard-of tally for a nose guard — “more than most of them get in a year,” Rodgers said. Glover also recovered a fumble.

“In the press box, I remember Barry and [Oklahoma assistant] Galen Hall hollering at us, ‘What are they doing defensively?'” Johnson said. “I kept saying, ‘They’re doing the same thing every time. They have Rich Glover over the center and he’s just stuffing us at the line of scrimmage.”

Days before the game, Fairbanks had rehired Jerry Pettibone to be the Sooners’ recruiting coordinator. Pettibone’s season with SMU had already finished, so he was already on the Oklahoma sideline.

Pettibone’s sole responsibility was to study Kiffin to see if he could pick up the signal for a defensive line slant, if only to help negate Glover.

“I figured it out about halfway through the third quarter,” Pettibone said. “Before we ran the play, I would signal to our offensive linemen whether they were gonna play it straight or slant.”

After a couple of series, Kiffin thought something might be up, and waited until the last second to send his signals in, preventing Oklahoma from adjusting accordingly.

“I’d heard a story that somebody was stealing my signals,” Kiffin said, laughing. “Jerry Pettibone — now I know who it was!”

Thanks to Mildren’s heroics — and possibly Pettibone’s subterfuge — Oklahoma roared back from a 28-17 deficit to take the lead off Tagge’s fumble with just 7:10 remaining.

That’s when Rodgers came through with his other game-defining play.

Facing third-and-8, Tagge couldn’t find a receiver open. Instead, he found Hamilton barreling down straight toward him. One of Oklahoma’s top defensive players, Hamilton had suffered a turf toe injury in the first quarter. That slowed him down all game. And on that play, enough to allow Tagge to escape.

“Out of all the plays, that’s the one that sticks out in my mind,” Selmon said. “There’s no doubt in my mind had Raymond not been injured, he would’ve made that sack.”

Instead, Tagge scrambled to his right and tossed a dart to Rodgers, who came through with a diving first-down catch.

“I could catch a BB in the dark at midnight with no moon and my sunglasses on,” Rodgers said. “I wasn’t gonna miss it.”

Jeff Kinney’s tattered jersey ended up back in his hometown after he finished rushing for 174 yards in Nebraska’s win. TK

Nebraska running back Jeff Kinney, who would finish with 174 yards rushing, took over from there. On his 31st carry, he plunged in from 2 yards out for a fourth touchdown, his tearaway jersey a tattered mess from the rushing load.

“That was the first game we had tried them,” Kinney said of the tearaways. “I would’ve liked to have had a real jersey on my back that last quarter instead of my shoulder pads flopping all around.”

Oklahoma had one final desperate chance to win. But fittingly, it ended with Glover knocking Mildren into the turf.

As Nebraska players and fans rushed the field, Kinney’s dad met him and took what was left of his jersey. For years, it hung framed in the McCook, Nebraska, barbershop where Kinney grew up getting his hair cut.

‘It was like we had won the Super Bowl’

When the Huskers’ team plane landed back in Lincoln, an estimated 30,000 fans were there on the tarmac waiting.

“There are not a lot of people in Nebraska,” Kiffin said. “But most of them were there at the airport.”

So many that the Huskers couldn’t make it to the gate. Instead, the pilot parked the plane and the players got off on the runway, making their way through the Big Red horde of cheering fans.

“It was like, ‘Oh my gosh, do you see this?'” Glover remembered saying as the plane landed. “It was like we had won the Super Bowl or something.”

In addition to the fans packing the stadium, a then-record 55 million people watched the game on television. Jerry Cooke /Sports Illustrated via Getty Images

The Oklahoma locker room was a far different scene.

“Nobody said a word,” Shelley recalled. “I remember Jimmy Johnson, as exuberant as he is, he had tears in his eyes. He was hugging everybody, hugging me. A lot of guys had tears in their eyes. It almost felt like the world had come to an end briefly.”

Selmon had the same feeling. Until he remembered that his two younger brothers, Dewey and Lee Roy, had driven up from Eufaula, Oklahoma, with a plate of his mom’s home-cooked Thanksgiving dinner just for him.

“That was going to be my saving grace,” Lucious said.

It was not to be. The two younger brothers, and future Oklahoma All-America defensive linemen, were outside the Sooners locker room waiting to confess. They got hungry on the drive – and ate Lucious’ Thanksgiving plate. “That made me cry more,” he said, “than losing the game.”

‘They’ll measure by its standard’

Despite the loss, the Sooners went on to the Sugar Bowl, where they faced fifth-ranked Auburn on New Year’s Day. By the second quarter, Oklahoma was already pulling its starters, holding a 31-0 lead.

“At halftime, I told our offensive team, ‘You know, there’s two teams in Miami, Florida, watching this game,'” Switzer said. “One of them is laughing. The other one is wondering, ‘What the hell is going to happen to us tonight?'”

That other team was Alabama. And the Orange Bowl went as Switzer had predicted.

In the first quarter, Rodgers returned another punt for a touchdown, and the Huskers coasted to capture the national championship. The Sooners finished No. 2 in the polls. Fellow Big Eight foe Colorado ended ranked third.

“If we were No. 1, I can tell you who was No. 1-and-a-half,” Kinney said. “It was Oklahoma.”

Though the Sooners didn’t beat Nebraska or win the national title that year, the Game of the Century helped catapult them into the powerhouse they would soon become.

“I don’t think a losing team has ever gained more from a game than Oklahoma did that day,” Hancock said, “maybe ever in the history of the sport.”

Anchored by its wishbone and Selmon Brothers defensive line, Oklahoma re-emerged as college football’s dominant program. Under Switzer, the Sooners won national titles in 1974, 1975 and another in 1985.

The same month Switzer took over for Fairbanks in 1973, Osborne succeeded Devaney. The Huskers remained elite under him, finally adding three more national championships in the 1990s.

“Over a period of about 30 years there, the Nebraska-Oklahoma game determined the Big Eight championship and had national championship implications,” Osborne said. “Oklahoma was a great teacher for us, because we had trouble beating them. Oklahoma made us better. And maybe in some ways we made them better, too.”

The Huskers took concepts from Oklahoma’s running game to create their unstoppable I-option offense. After the ’71 game, the Sooners would copy Nebraska’s 50 defense to form their own dominant defensive line with the Selmons.

The rivalry games officially ceased in 2010, when the two teams met for a final time as conferencemates in the Big 12 championship game.

“We missed it,” Osborne said, noting how surprised and disappointed he was when the two schools were placed in opposite divisions during the formation of the Big 12, ending the game as an annual tradition. “We assumed that Nebraska and Oklahoma would continue to play. And we wanted to play Oklahoma.”

This weekend, Huskers and Sooners from that era will reunite. Beginning with a 2008 reunion spearheaded by Oklahoma athletic director Joe Castiglione, the losing team has led the charge in remembering the greatness of the game and its players, something that isn’t lost on former Huskers.

“They treated us like royalty,” Beran said. “It knocked our socks off.”

Pruitt and Rodgers will be jawing, someone will play Bremser’s call, and man, woman and child, one of college football’s most storied rivalries will come back to life as the Cornhuskers and Sooners take the field on Saturday.

Fifty years later, the Game of the Century still holds up. No matter which side the players were on, whether they won or lost, they’re proud to still be telling its story, just as Kindred had predicted then.

“What they will do with this Nebraska-Oklahoma game is remember it,” he wrote. “They’ll measure by its standard.”