The Season-Long Narrative Of The 1986 Oklahoma Sooners

The 1986 Oklahoma Sooners were the defending national champions and with a lineup loaded  on both sides of the ball were in prime position to repeat. That goal got away from them early, but Barry Switzer’s team was still one of the country’s most dynamic and remain memorable thirty years later.

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OU was the last true national power to use the triple option out of the wishbone formation as their basic offense. Quarterback Jamelle Holieway threw only 66 passes the entire season, but he more than made up for it with his amazing speed and his leadership. Holieway ran for over 800 yards, averaging 5.5 per carry and would show his late-game mettle in a very tight spot before the season was over.

Lydell Carr was the fullback, the focal point of the wishbone and he ran for 625 yards at 5.9 per pop. Spencer Tillman and Earl Johnson were each at halfback and averaged over seven yards a carry. The offensive line was anchored by All-American guard Mark Hutson.

And if the Sooners wanted to pass they had a great target in All-American tight end Keith Jackson. He only caught 15 passes, but made them count for 414 yards. Jackson’s talent would get him to the NFL in spite of the offensive system holding down his receiving numbers.

Oklahoma averaged 42.3 points per game, the best in the nation. As if that weren’t enough, they also had the best defense in the land, giving up just 6.8 points per game. And they had one of the most colorful players in all of sports anchoring that defense—linebacker Brian Bosworth. A consensus All-American pick, “The Boz” showcased his off-the-wall haircuts and constant trash talk. He was the lightning rod for an entire program that was seen as out-of-control under Switzer’s leadership.

The belief that the program was out of control would be proven true three years later when Switzer had to be fired. And in the interest of full disclosure, I couldn’t stand The Boz or his coach. Nor has time really softened my opinion. But let it said—The Boz might have been a bust in the pros, but he was a great college football player. And Switzer could recruit like nobody’s business.

Oklahoma was the preseason #1 and they would be tested right out of the chute. Fourth-ranked UCLA was coming to Norman to start the season. It was an ironic matchup—Troy Aikman had transferred out of OU and to UCLA during the offseason. It was Aikman’s ankle injury that forced the change to Holieway and the return of the wishbone. And after a national title, Switzer couldn’t exactly scrap it again.

It would have been fun to watch Aikman against his old team, but he had to sit out a year before playing. That was just as well for him away. The Sooner defense was smothering and the Bruins could only generate 34 rushing yards. UCLA stayed in the game for a quarter, thanks to an interception that stopped a Sooner drive and the subsequent return that set up an easy field goal.

But with the score tied 3-3, Oklahoma took over and dominated the rest of the way. They rolled up 470 yards rushing and won 38-3. UCLA would lose twice more and also have a tie game in a season that did not meet their expectations. That still didn’t take away from how thoroughly the Sooners demolished them.

Minnesota was the next visitor and the Gophers were a decent team. They had reached a bowl game in 1985 under Lou Holtz and would do so again this year, even as Holtz made his debut at Notre Dame. They were still no match for the mighty Sooners, who won 63-0. It set the stage for the final weekend of September and the game all of college football was waiting for.

Miami was #2 in the country and the only team to defeat Oklahoma the year before—the Hurricanes had done so decisively in fact, winning 27-14 in Norman and knocking Aikman all the way to UCLA. If Miami had not suffered a shocking Sugar Bowl defeat, they might have won the national championship vote over OU.

Oklahoma went to Coral Gables and still had a hard time matching up with Miami. The defensive speed of the Hurricanes made finding the edge—the whole key to the wishbone—a challenge. And turnovers, a common flaw in the wishbone, with the frequent fakes and pitches, would do the Sooners in.

OU trailed 7-3 at the half, but consecutive turnovers gave Hurricane quarterback Vinny Testaverde good field position and the future Heisman Trophy winner turned them into easy touchdowns. The game was all but over. Oklahoma rushed for 189 yards, but that’s a low number for a team in this offense. They allowed four touchdown passes to Testaverde and lost 28-16.

The polls dropped the Sooners to #6 and they began the long road back with a series of softer games ahead. They routed lowly Kansas State 56-10. The Red River War with Texas was one-sided—the Longhorns were mediocre and OU won 47-12.

Oklahoma State provided an intriguing test—the Cowboys were a bowl-bound team with Thurman Thomas in the backfield and Barry Sanders as his backup. Not a bad 1-2 punch. But they couldn’t score on The Boz’s defense in a 19-0 final.

Another shutout of a mediocre team followed, 38-0 over Iowa State. Oklahoma then completely unleashed against bad teams in Kansas and Missouri, winning the two games by a combined score of 141-3. The Sooners were #3 in the polls as the two key games of the conference schedule awaited.

The November 15 trip to Colorado wasn’t supposed to be noteworthy and when the Buffaloes went 0-4 in non-conference play it looked like nothing had changed. But Colorado hadn’t lost a conference game and that included a big upset of Nebraska. This game in Boulder was for the inside track to the Big Eight title and the automatic Orange Bowl bid that went with it.

Colorado was out of its element and that was apparent from the start, with OU winning 28-0. They turned their attention to Nebraska. In spite of being upset by the Buffaloes, the Cornhuskers were still ranked #5 in the country. And if the Big Eight ended up in a three-way circular tie—the outcome if Nebraska beat Oklahoma—then the Orange Bowl would take the Cornhuskers.

So the signature game of the Big Eight in this era had its usual stakes of the trip to Miami, even though there was no hope for a national title. Miami and Penn State were undefeated and on a collision course to meet in the Fiesta Bowl. This OU-Nebraska game lacked those stakes, but it would be one of the most memorable endings in the long history of this great series.

After spotting the Cornhuskers a touchdown, Holieway answered with a four-yard TD run. In the second quarter, Nebraska scraped out a field goal and the Oklahoma defense showed a rare crack in the third quarter—allowing a 25-yard TD pass that put them in a 17-7 hole.

The Sooners got into field goal range early in the fourth quarter and kicker Tim Lasher hit from 41 to cut the lead to 17-10. OU got the ball back with 4:10 to go on their own 6-yard line.

When Holieway fumbled and it was recovered by Nebraska the game appeared over. The Sooners were saved by a facemask penalty nullifying the play—replays showed it was the correct call.  The drive went into the red zone. It’s here that the quarterback who was never asked to pass, showed his moxie in a late-game crunch.

Holieway hit Jackson with a 17-yard touchdown pass with 1:22 left. Oklahoma opted to kick the extra point—because of Nebraska’s loss to Colorado, a tie still gave the Sooners the outright conference championship. Although standing across the field from Tom Osborne, the man who eschewed a tie and a sure national title in an epic Orange Bowl battle with Miami three years earlier, Switzer didn’t exactly look noble.

But then again maybe Switzer knew something. His defense stuffed Nebraska three straight times and got the ball back. Holieway dropped back to pass. Jackson bolted down the right sideline, covered by another great player and future pro, linebacker Broderick Thomas. It was good coverage, a great throw and an even better catch. Jackson hauled it in for 41 yards. Lasher drilled a field goal with six seconds left and Oklahoma had the win.

Oklahoma was paired up with Arkansas in the Orange Bowl. Eight years earlier, the Sooners were a 24-point favorite over the Razorbacks in this same venue with a national title at stake. They were slaughtered 31-6 in one of the most stunning bowl results in history. This game was seen as another mismatch. And this time the general perception would be right.

The only intrigue was in the run-up to the game. Bosworth was busted for using steroids and suspended. He was supported by Switzer and allowed to accompany his teammates to midfield for the coin flip. Bosworth wore a shirt declaring the NCAA to be “National Communists Against Athletes”, with the little addition “Welcome To Russia.” Yup, everything was kept in proper perspective.

After a scoreless first quarter, Tillman broke the ice with a 77-yard touchdown run. After an interception, Tillman scored again, this time on a 21-yard TD run. It was 14-0 at the half and the Arkansas offense was going nowhere. The Razorbacks were also built on the wishbone, but they didn’t have the explosion OU did. The Sooners got two touchdowns in the third quarter, two more in the fourth and didn’t allow any points until the waning moments. The final was 42-8.

There was a belief that Oklahoma would end up the season #2 in the polls, expressed by NBC’s Don Criqui in the broadcast. That presumed Miami would beat Penn State in the Fiesta Bowl the next night. That didn’t happen and OU would settle for being #3.

Switzer kept the program near the top for a couple more years. Oklahoma had an undefeated regular season in 1987, but again lost to Miami, this time in the Orange Bowl for the national championship. In 1988, OU had a solid 9-2 season, but relinquished the Big Eight to Nebraska. That offseason, the chickens came home to roost as players ended up on the police blotter and Switzer was fired.

The 1986 Oklahoma football team was still an electric offense using a system that was fun to watch. Nobody ran it like they did.