- The Washington Times - Monday, November 16, 2009

On Nov. 16, 1907, a very good day, Oklahoma became the nation’s 46th state.

On Nov. 16, 1957, a very bad day, the University of Oklahoma’s football team lost to Notre Dame 7-0, ending a 47-game winning streak that still stands as the longest in Division I college football.

On fourth-and-goal from the Oklahoma 3-yard line, Fighting Irish halfback Dick Lynch took a handoff from Bob Williams and rolled around right end to score standing up with 3:50 left to play as stunned spectators and a national TV audience watched.

Said Notre Dame guard Jim Schaaf a half-century later of the look on Oklahoma coach Bud Wilkinson’s face: “His mouth opened, and it was a look of shock, a look of ‘what happened?’ ”

Wilkinson wasn’t the only one shocked. Thousands of Sooners fans in the sellout crowd in Norman, Okla., politely applauded the Notre Dame players as they left the field. Then many remained in their seats.

“After we dressed and came out to leave, half the stadium was full,” Schaaf told the Associated Press in 2007. “I guess they couldn’t believe it happened.”

If ever a sports event deserved purple prose in the local press, this was it. Sports writer John Conley responded thusly in the Daily Oklahoman: “Russia’s two Sputniks collided in mid-air. The sun set in the East. Hitler was discovered alive in Washington, D.C. And almost equally incredible, Oklahoma University lost a football game.”

The Sooners won their last nine in 1953 after losing to (who else?) Notre Dame 28-21 in the opener. Then they went 10-0, 11-0, and 10-0 before winning the first seven in 1957. Along the way, Oklahoma collected two national championships and defeated Maryland in the Orange Bowl in 1954 and 1956. But for some reason, Oklahoma was ranked second behind Bear Bryant’s Texas A&M; team heading into the Notre Dame game.

An innovative coach who popularized the split-T and no-huddle offenses, Wilkinson had an overall record of 108-3-3 when he brought his team out as an 18-point favorite against Notre Dame that day. And in defeat, he was gracious if not quite comprehending.

“We played a fine game, but they played a better one,” Wilkinson said. “They were just better than we were today. They deserved to win.”

Notre Dame coach Terry Brennan replied in kind, saying: “We just played 60 minutes of good football against a great team. We just happened to have one of our best days, and I don’t believe anyone could have beaten us.”

Both teams missed earlier scoring opportunities before Williams handed the ball to Lynch for the decisive touchdown. With bruising Irish fullback Nick Pietrosante moving the ball steadily on the ground, Oklahoma had to make two goal-line stands before the final one failed.

“That’s the shortest but best touchdown I’ve had this season,” Lynch said afterward. “[Tight end] Monty Stickles blocked out their end, and Pietrosante took care of the outside defensive back. I believe we could have gone 95 yards on the play if we had been at the other end of the field.”

When Notre Dame returned to South Bend, Ind., that evening, 3,000 fans greeted the Irish so enthusiastically that the players were unable to deplane for 20 minutes. The school’s president, the Rev. Theodore Hesburgh, suspended all classes for Monday. Probably few would have attended anyway.

The euphoria was short-lived; Notre Dame lost to Iowa 21-13 the following week and finished the season 7-3. When the team slipped to 6-4 in 1958, Brennan was fired, memorably and cold-heartedly on Christmas Eve.

Wilkinson’s Sooners rebounded to thump Nebraska 32-7 a week later and finished 10-1 in both 1957 and 1958. Wilkinson retired after the 1963 season with a career record of 145-29-4, lost a race for the U.S. Senate in 1964, then was a longtime TV analyst for ABC. He coached the St. Louis Cardinals for two seasons in the late 1970s and died in 1994 at 77.

The 1957 loss to Notre Dame also was a source of embarrassment to Sports Illustrated, which on that very day was explaining from newsstands across America “Why Oklahoma Is Unbeatable.”

You win some and you lose some, very few of the latter in Oklahoma’s case.

“I’m proud of you guys,” Wilkinson told his tattered troops on the sad afternoon of Nov. 16, 1957. “You won 47 straight games, and that’s something nobody will ever do again.”

Right on.

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