By Steven Buchele
Homecoming 2013 celebrates a momentous, if not exactly catchy anniversary: this year marks the 118th year of University of Tulsa football.
TU, then Kendall College in Muskogee, Oklahoma, had its first game in the fall of 1895 against its then cross-town rivals from Bacone School for Indians. The first years of TU football the team was coached by Norman Leard, a transfer student, and populated with members of the Creek, Choctaw and Cherokee tribes. The first few games of football were brutish and barely organized. Volunteer officials had to break up, or participate in, fistfights and brawls.
Most early games either went unrecorded or the scores have since been lost, but according to Robert Rutland, author of “The Golden Hurricane: Fifty years of football at the University of Tulsa,” Kendall’s record was good. The Kendall football team played on and off until the school moved to Tulsa and the team came under the care of a Tulsa banker Sam McBriney.
With both the school and the game still in a state of transition, the Kendall College had a couple of odd years until Sam McBriney became the school’s permanent coach for the 1914–1916 seasons. The banker-turned-coach lead three highly successful years for the Tulsa team, culminating with the 1916 year where the team went undefeated.
The pure dominating power that the Kendall team commanded during those years is best illustrated by the school’s use of the “tower play” in a game against Missouri School of the Mines. The play, which is said to have never worked in practice, consisted of Virgil Jones and Madison Blevins sprinting down the field where Jones would climb atop Blevins and receive the ball from quarterback Ivan Grove (who, in addition to being a full-time student, was also a math instructor). Even though the play was just icing on the cake for a 117–0 victory, it was certainly a sight to behold, and was quickly banned. Another rousing accomplishment for the 1916 team was beating the University of Oklahoma, breaking a 34-game win streak and becoming the first Oklahoma school to beat the Sooners.
During the 1917 and 1918 seasons Kendall’s team suffered two off years due mostly to the first world war siphoning players from the team and coaches from the staff. However the team returned with a vengeance when Francis Schmidt returned from the war. What followed were another four dominating years for the Kendall team, two of which the team went undefeated.
After the school changed its name to the University of Tulsa on Feb. 8, 1921 and Schmidt left the team for Arkansas in 1922, Howard Archer took the reigns of the TU team.
It was Howard Archer who eventually gave Tulsa it’s name “The Golden Hurricane.” As the team started its 1922 season the team changed its previous orange and black uniforms for black and yellow. The team was called, amongst other things, “The Yellow Jackets” Archer recognized a need to increase the teams publicity. Inspired by the work of a student reporter, he sought to give the team an official name. Originally Archer’s choice had been “The Golden Tornado” however Georgia Tech had already claimed that name. Just before the 1922 game against Texas A&M the team voted to call themselves “The Golden Hurricane” as it seemed the next logical option after “The Golden Tornado.”
After two losing years, Archer stepped down and Elmer Henderson took the reigns of the Golden Hurricane after leaving the University of Souther California. The first coach to receive anything like a lucrative contract, “Gloomy Gus” (as Henderson was known; he gave pessimistic interviews) lead the Hurricane to winning seasons for nearly a decade.
For many years, home football games had been played on McNulty Park, a stadium built for Tulsa’s professional baseball team which meant that the field was uneven and too short, requiring teams to reach the goal line once, and then reset on the 10-yard line to score. These factors came to a head in a game against Detroit University in 1928 which ultimately led to the construction Skelly Stadium, opened in 1930 for the season opener against TU’s long time rival the University of Arkansas.
Eventually in 1941 TU welcomed Henry Frnka as coach who was one of TU’s most successful coaches helping take TU to five consecutive New Year’s Bowl Games, the first school ever to do so. Tulsa finished the second year of the run No. 4 in the nation, losing only to Tennessee in the Sugar Bowl and a chance at the claim of the national title. In a twist of irony the third bowl in the streak was against the school that stole the “Golden Tornado” moniker, Georgia Tech, then called the “Yellow Jackets.” But Tulsa was not able to avenge the theft of its rightful name: the Hurricane lost 20–18. The next year, though, the team returned the favor by beating Georgia Tech 24–17 in the Orange Bowl.
Frnka was replaced by Coach Brothers who, despite being born without a left hand, lead the team for six mostly victorious years including one Bowl Game in 1952, generally considered one of TU’s best teams ever.
TU had in the beginning tended to be an air-minded team, but that went out of fashion until Coach Glen Dobbs, a player during the Frnka years, brought the passing game back to Tulsa when he took the position in 1961. Under Dobbs, TU had two back-to-back Heisman Trophy runner ups: Jerry Rhome and Howard Twilley who together broke the NCAA records for offense, passing, receiving, and scoring. Yet the next year Billy Anderson, Rhomes’ replacement, broke most of Rhomes’ own records and took the team to another bowl game.
In 1982 neither Tulsa’s nor New Mexico’s 10–1 record was enough to draw a bowl game invitation. The teams demanded justice. The justice they received was “The Justice Bowl,” a fictitious “War of the Worlds” style play-by-play broadcast on local radio stations. If you were listening in Tulsa, the home team won, while if you tuned in from New Mexico, the Hurricane lost.
1989 pitted Tulsa against the Oregon Ducks in the Independence Bowl which collapsed into a heartbreaking loss for Tulsa by three points despite an incredibly valiant effort by the Golden Hurricane. However, Tulsa returned to a bowl game in 1991 and pulled off a win against San Diego State, netting a 10-win season for the year.
In 2003, Tulsa’s new coach Steve Kragthorpe produced a winning season and a bowl game appearance for the first time in 11 years. In 2004, Ashlan Davis became the first player to score a touchdown on a kickoff return five times. In 2005 Tulsa became part of the Conference USA, and proceeded to win the C-USA West division and beating UCF in the first C-USA Championship Game to earn a spot in the Liberty Bowl where the Hurricane beat the Fresno State Bulldogs 31–24 on New Years Eve.
The year after Kragthorpe left, TU broke 29 school records, 15 C-USA records and four NCAA records and lead the nation in total offence with 543.9 yards per game. The team produced the largest margin of victory in a NCAA bowl game with a win over Bowling Green.
Bill Blankenship became the head coach in 2011. Last season, TU won 11 games, lost three games, won the Conference USA Championship and beat Iowa State in the Liberty Bowl.