In the desolate country of West Texas, other than oil, there’s not a lot more important to the residents than football. In the largest classification of Texas football, the oil cities of Midland, Odessa and San Angelo, plus the more diverse city of Abilene were 7 high schools that were called back in those years the ‘Little Southwest Conference’. It was called that because they were probably the toughest high school district in the state. Odessa Permian High School won numerous state titles with Midland Lee also being very competitive. San Angelo Central High was really tough and especially back in that era with Emory Ballard as coach. Abilene Cooper was a newer school and they had some good seasons. Football was king in West Texas.
Odessa Permian won the Texas state championship in 1965, and San Angelo Central won it in 1966. Texas Longhorns head coach Darrel Royal hired Emory Bellard to be his Offensive Coordinator quickly after that. Today, nearly every team in a district makes the playoffs just like every kid that
participates in little league baseball, or soccer, gets a trophy. But, back in those years only the district champion made the playoffs and the winner of this district usually had a good chance at winning state.
The Abilene Cooper Cougars won the district title in 1967 behind the outstanding play of Quarterback Jack Mildren. Cooper had other talent, but Mildren was the man. Considered by most as the best Quarterback in the nation and to prove it, he was recruited by just about everyone in the nation. Schools like Notre Dame and Alabama came calling and that was flattering, but Jack Mildren wanted to play within a few hours of his home in Abilene.
He was a gifted athlete with a father who had been a coach. He knew the game mentally, and he had the physical skills and talent to be the best. To demonstrate what kind of an athlete he was, he was the Texas state record holder in the 300 hurdles back when that event was still run in track and field.
Mildren led his Cooper Cougars to the state championship game against Austin Reagan, but they lost by one point. With time running out, Mildren ran a Quarterback sneak which is still a controversial play to this day with most thinking that he had scored. Reagan won 20-19 and then repeated the following year and again in 1970 in what was something of a mini dynasty in the state of Texas.
Mildren and his team may have lost, but the recruiting battles had just begun.
In spite of other schools rolling out the red carpet for Jack Mildren, in the end he decided on signing with the Oklahoma Sooners.
At Oklahoma, he had to sit out his freshman season as all freshmen were ineligible back in the 1960’s.
As a sophomore in 1969, Jack Mildren moved into the starting lineup. But, even with senior Running Back Steve Owens winning the Heisman Trophy that season while running for 1,523 yards and 23 Touchdowns, all the Sooners could muster was a 6-4 record.
Mildren had rejected Texas, but down south the Longhorns won the national title that season with their new fangled Wishbone Offense. It didn’t take long for Oklahoma head football coach Chuck Fairbanks to send his Offensive Coordinator down to Austin to try and learn all he could about the new Wishbone offense.
During Mildren’s junior season of 1970, the Sooners got off to a rough start even losing to a mediocre Oregon State at home. They were 2-1 going into their annual game against their most bitter rivals, Texas. With an open date before the Dallas shootout, the Sooners worked on executing the Wishbone.
The Longhorns beat them easily, 41-9.
The Sooners finished their 1970 season with a less than impressive 7-4-1 record.
1971 was a different story altogether with Jack Mildren going into his senior season. Mildren ran for 1,289 yards and 20 Touchdowns while Halfback Greg Pruitt ran for 1,760 yards and 18 Touchdowns.
The Sooners ran roughshod over everyone in their path with their new Wishbone attack.
In game 3, the Sooners beat 17th ranked USC, 33-20, but USC was a year away from one of their great teams. Not a believer? The following week, they turned the tables on rival 3rd rankedTexas, beating them 47-28.
6th ranked Colorado was their next victim and the Buffaloes would end the season ranked 3rd. Big *
Oklahoma downed Colorado, 45-17.
The Sooners really got it going against a pre-Bill Snyder Kansas State, 75-28. After thumping Iowa State, the Sooners took on a tough Missouri squad in Columbia, Missouri which was a tough place to play and they came away with a hard fought 20-3 win.
Kansas was no problem with Oklahoma winning big, 56-3.
They had an open date to think about one of the greatest college football games of all time. It was the classic #1 versus #2 with the Sooners visiting the top ranked Nebraska Cornhuskers. I was just a child at the time, but I will never forget that game. Talk about classics, only a few other college football games in my mind can measure up to that one. Texas versus USC in the Rose Bowl, another top ranked team against a 2nd ranked contender which went down to the wire. Or, last year’s national championship game with Clemson coming back to beat Alabama.
The hype for this game was unreal, everybody was tuned in to this game and it did not disappoint even for a minute.
Both teams really did their part to make this maybe the greatest game of all time. Jack Mildren and his Sooners came in as the top rushing team in the country and they were breaking records left and right. The Cornhuskers had the top defense in the country and a strong rushing attack of their own led by I-back Jeff Kinney.
This battle was insanely exciting with the top ranked Cornhuskers prevailing, 35-31. Even with Nebraska’s extremely talented defensive line which featured All American Nose Guard Rich Glover, Willie Harper, and future All Pro John Dutton, the Sooners did get their yards. Glover, in particular, was impressive that day when he recorded 22 Tackles which is incredible as a Nose Guard and
playing against Oklahoma’s All American Center Tom Brahaney.
Read more about that game of the century here: 1971
It was a heartbreaking loss for Jack Mildren and his Oklahoma Sooners, probably much like his last game at Abilene Cooper where his Cougars lost on the last play to Austin Reagan which some people still question.
It’s been 50 years and people still will talk about the game in Abilene, Texas.
Abilene Cooper made it to the Texas high school football state finals one other time and they also lost to an Austin team. This time, it was Austin Westlake and their Quarterback Drew Brees.
The Sooners closed their regular season with a thrashing of in-state rival Oklahoma State, 58-14, to finish their regular season with a 10-1 record.
Oklahoma beat 5th ranked Auburn convincingly and Nebraska crushed 2nd ranked Alabama, 38-6. It truly was the year of the Big 8 Conference as Nebraska finished as national champions with a super impressive 13-0 record. Oklahoma was ranked 2nd with the Colorado Buffaloes finishing with a 10-2 record and 3rd in the final Polls. Outside the conference, the Buffaloes had beaten 9th ranked LSU, 6th ranked Ohio State and 15th ranked Houston, so their lofty ranking was deserved.
It was a great season for Jack Mildren, other than that loss to Nebraska. He not only ran for that previously mentioned 1,000 yards, but he also threw for right at 900 yards with 10 Touchdowns. His top receiver was his old high school teammate from Abilene, Jon Harrison.
NFL teams were not all that excited about option Quarterbacks. The Baltimore Colts liked Mildren’s athleticism and took him in the 2nd round as a Defensive Back. He played for the Colts for a couple of seasons before moving on to the New England Patriots for a year. But, after the 1974 season, he was done with football.
Mildren got into the oil business and banking back in Oklahoma and eventually ran for the office of
Lieutenant Governor for the state of Oklahoma. He was Jack Mildren, he was a hero in the state of Oklahoma and he won the election.
Mildren passed away from stomach cancer in 2008, but his legacy lives on and not just in the state of Oklahoma, but also in his home town of Abilene.
I always say that Texas invented the Wishbone, but it was Oklahoma that perfected it. Jack Mildren was the first Wishbone Quarterback for Oklahoma and he was greatness.
His memory lives on.