Following the retirement of all-time college football legend and three-time national champion head coach Bud Wilkinson in 1963, the proud Oklahoma Sooners program took a few bumps over the next few seasons. Under Wilkinson’s successor Gomer Jones, OU went a combined 9-11-1 through the 1964 and ’65 seasons before Jones was replaced by former Arkansas assistant Jim Mackenzie who led the Sooners to a respectable 6-4 finish in 1966.
Then something unthinkable happened, as Mackenzie tragically passed away at the age of 37 from a heart attack suffered on the way back from a recruiting trip the following spring. In the wake of such unexpected tragedy, the Sooners program promoted assistant and defensive backs coach Chuck Fairbanks a few days later to take over the suddenly reeling program.
Fairbanks, albeit under vastly different circumstances, ironically also assumed head coaching duties for the Sooners at the ripe young age of 33, a la current head man Lincoln Riley. Following a whirlwind of a few days for the program, the Oklahoma Sooners headed into the 1967 season unranked and with no idea what to expect with their new, young head coach leading the way.
They would get those answers from the innovative and prepared Fairbanks along with a few special players ready to step up for their young coach — quarterback Bobby Warmack, running back Steve Owens, offensive tackle Bob Kalsu and dominant defensive lineman Granville Liggins, who earned consensus All-America honors along with the UPI Lineman of the Year that season.
The Sooners’ only loss in ’67 was in the Red River Rivalry in a grind out, 9-7, defensive battle, and the season included shutout wins over Missouri and Colorado en route to the program’s first Big Eight title in four seasons. OU led the nation in scoring defense, allowing only 6.8 points per game and surrendering more than 14 points just once all season.
It would come in the last game of the season against the second-ranked team in the land, the SEC champions Tennessee Volunteers in the 1968 Orange Bowl.
Flying out of the gates early in Miami, OU scored three touchdowns but missed all three extra points and held a 19-0 advantage heading into halftime. Then came a fierce Volunteer comeback, which after a fourth-quarter field goal, brought Tennessee to within two at 19-17. The Sooners’ DB Bob Stephenson then came up huge with a 25-yard pick six to push the Sooners’ lead to 26-17.
After the Vols responded with a 77-yard touchdown drive of their own to again make it a two-point game at 26-24, the Sooners were unable to move the ball late and faced one last Tennessee drive — culminating in a 43-yard field-goal attempt — to keep from choking away a 19-point lead in a bowl game against one of the nation’s powerhouses.
Sooner Magic then prevailed, as the Volunteers saw their kick sail wide right and OU somehow hold on to the hard-fought victory and a return to national prominence. The 1967 season was also the last to feature a national champion being crowned by the polls prior to bowl season. So under the format that began the following season in 1968, OU would’ve likely finished No. 2, just behind the USC Trojans, under their young first-year head coach.
OU-Tennessee 1968 Orange Bowl
1967 was also the first season the Sooners featured a new and now-iconic logo of the interlocking block O and U on their helmets. Note: The 1966 helmets were the first with an interlocking logo, but the O and U were rounded.
Owens finished his sophomore season in 1967 with 869 yards and 13 touchdowns, while the junior Warmack totaled 1,243 and eight touchdowns on just 89 completions and added another four scores on the ground. The All-American Liggins enjoyed the best individual season on the team that along with the aforementioned honors also included a seventh-place finish in the voting for the Heisman Trophy.
Fairbanks enjoyed a more than respectable coaching career despite not winning the national title in his six seasons at OU. His successes included coaching a Heisman-winning Steve Owens in 1969, along with three conference titles and a solid 52-15-1 record from 1967-1972, before moving onto the NFL and allowing the Barry Switzer tenure to begin.
And so, fifty years since that bounce-back 1967 season under Chuck Fairbanks that ended with a thrilling Orange Bowl win over Tennessee and a third-ranked finish in the final AP Poll, the next edition of the Oklahoma Sooners prepare to enter 2017 under a new head coach for the first time in 18 years. Luckily for Lincoln Riley, a highly talented squad with more than a handful of hungry, promising stars are also ready to step up for their young coach, including one of the nation’s very best signal callers leading the charge in quarterback Baker Mayfield.
A top-five finish would be a hell of an inaugural season for OU’s new head coach. And with the current roster in place along with the waves he’s already making on the recruiting trail, the Sooner Nation may be watching another young, 33-year-old head coach ready to make a huge splash in his first season a half-century after Chuck Fairbanks in 1967.