Who killed Bedlam football? Here are 10 suspects

Who killed Bedlam football? Here are 10 suspects

Berry Tramel: The blood of Bedlam is on many hands. Who is responsible for its demise of Bedlam? Here are 10 excellent suspects, and just like in “Murder on the Orient Express,” they all are guilty.

Berry Tramel

By Berry Tramel

| Oct 30, 2023, 6:00am CDT

Berry Tramel

By Berry Tramel

Oct 30, 2023, 6:00am CDT

The great questions of my lifetime:

Whatever happened to Baby Jane? Will you love me tomorrow? Who framed Roger Rabbit? Who put the Bomp (in the Bomp, Bomp, Bomp). Who shot J.R.? Do you know the way to San Jose? Where’s the beef? What becomes of the broken-hearted?

Let’s add to the list: Who killed Bedlam?

Bedlam football is about to die. Oh, maybe not die. But at least go to sleep.

The Sooners and Cowboys play at 2:30 p.m. Saturday in Stillwater in what is the last scheduled Bedlam football game for the foreseeable future. OU is headed to the Southeastern Conference next summer, and both Cowboys and Sooners alike say there’s no room on upcoming schedules for Bedlam.

Which is silly, of course. Lop off a South Dakota State here, a Texas-El Paso there, and you can schedule Bedlams for decades to come. There’s always room on the schedule. The problem is, there’s no room in the hearts.

There appears no desire on either side to seriously discuss keeping alive the series, which has been played continuously since 1910.

When news broke in July 2021 that OU and Texas were SEC-bound, OU athletic director Joe Castiglione and OU president Joe Harroz, both unprompted, declared they want to keep playing Bedlam in every sport.

That was a public relations move, of course, but anyone with a thirst to preserve Bedlam had to cling to those words. OSU could hold the Sooners to that pledge, and the OU Joes would look downright flimsy if they suddenly backtracked.

They never had to. OSU’s lack of interest in preserving Bedlam is apparent, from the administration to Mike Gundy to the fans. They have their reasons. All legitimate. But not legit enough to squash a series that has become the best annual sporting event in Oklahoma.

Bedlam was born in wrestling and remained the series’ marquee event for decades. 1950s. 1960s. 1970s. Even the 1980s.

Baseball was glorious beginning in the ‘80s, with huge crowds filling a variety of venues, in-season and postseason.

Then basketball took its turn. Billy Tubbs/Kelvin Sampson vs. Eddie Sutton. Be still my heart, at the memory of those scintillating winter nights.

And here comes softball, threatening to produce the best rivalry yet.

But OU-OSU football, which in the 20th century rarely had much Bedlam to it, has become the series showcase. The Sooners still dominate, but the games often are classics. Overtimes. Fantastic finishes. Thrill-of-victory, agony-of-defeat stuff. 

America has noticed. ESPN’s College GameDay seven times has come to Bedlam. That’s one fewer than Ohio State-Michigan and OU-Texas. Fox and ESPN have placed Bedlam in their showcase timeslots.

National pundits routinely talk of Bedlam in excited tones. Bedlam has become a national brand because of football.

And yet it’s going away, either into hibernation or into the dusty pages of history.

Someone needs to do something. Someone needs to climb the Devon Tower or the Capitol Dome or the Skydance Bridge, armed with a megaphone, and scream for Bedlam football to be preserved.

Or scream for the head of those responsible for letting such a vibrant part of the Oklahoma sports scene be gone with the wind.

Someone must pay! But truth is, the blood of Bedlam is on many hands. Who is responsible for the demise of Bedlam? Here are 10 excellent suspects. 

And just like in “Murder on the Orient Express,” they all are guilty.

Big 12 commissioner Brett Yormark speaks during the Red Raider Club kickoff luncheon, Wednesday, Aug. 23, 2023, at the Lubbock Memorial Civic Center.

Big 12 commissioner Brett Yormark. (Annie Rice/Avalanche-Journal / USA TODAY Network)

10. Brett Yormark

The Big 12 commissioner is the pied piper among the legacy Big 12 schools. Yormark got OSU, the Kansas schools, Texas Tech, Texas Christian, Baylor, West Virginia and Iowa State a television contract that will pay the members slightly more than they were getting in the previous OU/Texas-dominated television contract, plus he enticed four Pac-12 schools to join up, solidifying the Big 12’s future, at least for awhile.

In Brett We Trust is the Big 12 anthem these days. Go all-in on basketball? Bring the hip to conference championships? Take conference games to Mexico? Aye, aye, sir.

So the Big 12 is predisposed to follow its new-age commissioner.

Which is why Yormark should have sold his constituents on improved non-conference scheduling. Offer the networks a league full of teams that will play two quality non-conference games, instead of one.

West Virginia already is doing it, and soon-to-be-members Colorado and Utah did it this year, but the rest of the Big 12 was content with the tired model of one power-conference opponent, one mid-major and one NCAA Division I-AA foe.

I don’t know how much the networks would have paid for an extra eight or nine quality games a year, which is what a change in the model would have produced. 

Promise the networks Bedlam every year to go with those upcoming OSU series against the likes of Arkansas, Oregon and Nebraska, and TV would have been glad to up the ante.

Fox would have had a shot at OU every other year. ESPN would have had a shot at Iowa every other year. Whoever K-State or Baylor or Arizona State or Central Florida added would have increased the value of the television contract.

Yormark had the power to persuade his schools to go along and make the Big 12 the conference of robust scheduling. Make the Big 12 the hot market in September. 

It didn’t happen.

Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt gives the State of the State address to a joint session of the Legislature on Monday, Feb. 7, 2022.Stitt 02

Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt gives the State of the State address to a joint session of the Legislature on Monday, Feb. 7, 2022. (Doug Hoke/The Oklahoman/USA TODAY Network)

9. State legislature

Three decades ago, far more than 50 percent of higher education budgets came from state funds. Today, far less than 20 percent comes from state funds.

Forget, for a moment, the effect on higher education. Focus on the legislature’s influence on college administrators.

Time was, the legislature swung a big stick. College presidents famously would lobby the statehouse for funding; that’s how legendary OU president George Lynn Cross came to be at the capitol that famous day in the 1940s when out of frustration he declared to a stingy legislature that he was “just trying to build a university the football team can be proud of.”

But the legislature’s power over higher education has dwindled. What can the politicians do? They’ve already cut university funding to the bone. The legislature has little left with which to threaten administrators.

If universities were absolutely dependent on state money, they would have to listen to the legislators. Maybe OU could have gone to the SEC without political blessing. But absolutely the politicians could mandate that Bedlam continue, while holding a financial anvil over the heads of leaders in Norman and Stillwater.

That anvil is gone.

Oklahoma fans gives the Horns Down gesture before the Red River Showdown college football game between the University of Oklahoma Sooners (OU) and the University of Texas (UT) Longhorns at the Cotton Bowl in Dallas, Saturday, Oct. 9, 2021.Ou Vs Texas

Oklahoma fans gives the Horns Down gesture before the 2021 OU-Texas game in Dallas. (Bryan Terry/The Oklahoman/USA TODAY Network)

8. OU fans

Sooner fans are spoiled in a lot of ways. None moreso than Bedlam.

Michigan State is the little brother to Michigan. And while the Wolverines’ lead in the series is 73-38-5, that’s miniscule compared to OU’s Bedlam domination.

Auburn is the little brother to Alabama. But Bama’s Iron Bowl record is just 49-37-1.

UCLA is the little brother to Southern Cal. But USC’s lead vs. UCLA is just 50-33-7.

Then you get to Bedlam, and the Sooners have a winning percentage of .808.

So you see why OU fans believe Bedlam domination is an entitlement. And that explains the arrogance of those who say Bedlam doesn’t matter. That OU is better off leaving the Cowboys as they sup on the SEC’s milk and honey.

And sure, the SEC will bring spectacular games against Alabama and Georgia and LSU. It also will bring lots of games against Mississippi State and Kentucky, South Carolina and Arkansas.

OU has what Alabama wishes it had. What USC wishes it had. What Michigan wishes it had. Greater domination over its in-state foe.

Why Sooner fans haven’t risen up and demanded that Bedlam remain, is beyond me. Bedlam has been better to OU fans than to any other actor in this script. Overwhelming success, and now it often comes with great drama and entertainment.

Check out some Bedlam scores over the last 20 years: 37-33, 48-47, 62-52, 38-35 in overtime, 51-48 in overtime, 47-41, 61-41, 27-21, 38-35.

But no, say some OU fans with a superiority complex. Let’s get rid of Bedlam so Joe Castiglione can schedule another series with Temple or Tulane.

Maybe when playing Missouri on a Thanksgiving Friday, in front of 34,000 in Columbia, and it’s cold and rainy, and OU leads 27-7 with three minutes left in the third quarter and not even the announcers care, maybe someone in crimson will realize Bedlam had become a special thing.

Oct 7, 2023; Dallas, Texas, USA; A view of the Texas Longhorns mascot Bevo before the game between the Texas Longhorns and the Oklahoma Sooners at the Cotton Bowl. Mandatory Credit: Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

The Texas Longhorns mascot Bevo (Jerome Miron/USA TODAY Sports)

7. Texas Longhorns

You can understand OU’s motives for going to the SEC. Money. In 2021, the Sooners were worried about the upcoming television landscape and their ability to keep up with the Alabamas and Ohio State. They were worried about the long-range results of the pandemic, which put most athletic departments in debt, including OU’s.

The SEC was a financial life preserver.

But Texas’ motives for dashing to Dixie were not about money. The Longhorns have more money than they know what to do with. Texas’ reasons for leaving the Big 12 were about in-state status. The ‘Horns were worried that Texas A&M was getting the jump on UT.

In 2021, Texas football was in a 12-year slump. After the Longhorns made the 2009 national championship game, they fell into something approaching mediocrity. Since that game, Texas has the sixth-best record in Big 12 play. The Longhorns’ record of 63-55 trails OU (93-26), OSU (79-41), Kansas State (70-50), Baylor (67-53) and TCU 58-46.

That slump closely aligns with Texas A&M’s 2012 move to the SEC. The Aggies haven’t been all that successful in the SEC; they are about what they were in the Big 12. In A&M’s 16 years in the Big 12, they won one conference title and made one major bowl. In A&M’s 12 years in the SEC, they have zero league titles and have made one major bowl game.

But the Aggies’ status has risen with the SEC’s. A&M’s recruiting was soaring even before the name, image, likeness revolution that has allowed the Aggies to offer recruits more than most schools can afford.

A&M’s gridiron glory has not blossomed, and maybe never will. That’s certainly the Aggies’ history. But A&M’s status as the only Texas school in the SEC gave Texas the willies. With the Longhorns failing to reach the upper echelon of college football year after year, it wasn’t hard for orangebloods to fear the rise of A&M while the ‘Horns stagnated.

If Texas had been excelling in the Big 12, its preoccupation with A&M would have been much less intense, and it’s possible the Longhorns never would have considered SEC membership. Which likely would have kept the Sooners in the Big 12, too.

ESPN staff cover a video camera to protect from Hurricane Ian rain, on the ESPN College GameDay Built by The Home Depot at Clemson University on Sept. 30, 2022. (Ken Ruinard /USA TODAY Network)

6. Fox/ESPN execs

Fox & ESPN hold all the cards in scheduling. They are the reason we get OU-Arkansas State and OSU-Central Arkansas. Why Alabama this season has Middle Tennessee, South Florida and Chattanooga on the schedule.

But the networks don’t play hardball. They gladly televise the mismatches and show the silly highlights of a 73-0 game and act like it’s completely normal that these games are being played.

ESPN and Fox could say they will pay for real games, but that if OU wants to play Arkansas State and Alabama wants to play Chattanooga, the Sooners and Crimson Tide are welcome to take those to another marketplace and get what they can.

The networks perhaps are too preoccupied with getting the SEC to play nine league games, a battle television figures to win but not easily. But the horrible rash of non-competitive games lies directly at the feet of television, which pays for games that nobody wants to watch.

IBA, HENRY P. / OSU BASKETBALL COACH: Stillwater: Caption reads, After he returned 65 a few years ago some cruel arm of our modern society walked in and stamped RETIRED on the forehead of Henry Iba. Staff Photo by Roger Artman. Original Photo 08/01/1974. Published on UNKNOWN.

Former Oklahoma State basketball coach and athletic director Henry Iba. (Roger Artman/Oklahoman archives)

5. Henry Iba

From another sport and a bygone era comes a name no one considers in 21st century Bedlam football.

But Hank Iba did Bedlam no favors.

We all know Iba as Oklahoma A&M’s/Oklahoma State’s iconic basketball coach of 36 years, 1935-70. Iba impacted hoops like few others in the 20th century.

But Iba also was OSU’s athletic director for most of his time in Stillwater, and while Iba had his moments as AD — he almost single-handedly got the Cowboys admitted into what became the Big Eight Conference — he was no friend of football.

OSU did not emphasize football much during the Iba administration. Facilities, even in those days of no arms race, were poor. Resources were limited.

I know this list is a bullhorn for better schedules, but Iba put his football team in horrific shape year after year.

Between 1948 and 1970, OSU never played more home games than road games; the Cowboys usually played more road games than home games.

Four times in the 1960s, the Cowboys played zero non-conference home games. They went to Arkansas, Texas and Houston in 1968. Arkansas, Houston and Texas Tech in 1966. Arkansas, Tulsa and Army in 1962. Arkansas, Tulsa and Houston in 1960.

In 1954, OSU played six of its first seven games on the road. In 1950, six of its first eight games were away from Stillwater.

How is a coach supposed to build a program with that kind of disadvantage? 

A quarter century after Iba’s departure from the athletic directorship, new OSU AD Terry Don Phillips studied the history of Cowboy scheduling and just shook his head. 

And those lost decades, mostly in the 1950s and 1960s, put OSU football in a hole that made Bedlam virtually non-competitive. The Cowboys beat OU thrice between 1945 and 1995. Thrice!

It’s a wonder the series didn’t die sometime in the 20th century.

Oct 21, 2023; Morgantown, West Virginia, USA; Oklahoma State Cowboys head coach Mike Gundy speaks to the media after defeating the West Virginia Mountaineers at Mountaineer Field at Milan Puskar Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Ben Queen-USA TODAY Sports

Oklahoma State football coach Mike Gundy. (Ben Queen/USA TODAY Sports)

4. Mike Gundy

Gundy’s crimes are twofold.

First, his Cowboys didn’t win enough Bedlams; OSU is 3-15 against OU with Gundy as head coach. Amazing. Gundy is the most successful coach in Cowboy history, and it’s not close.

But OU has a better winning percentage against Gundy (.833) than the Sooners have against every other OSU head coach combined (.803). Basically, before Gundy, the Sooners won four out of every five Bedlams. Against Gundy, the Sooners have won five out of every six Bedlams.

Such futility has jaded OSU fans. Some still enjoy the rivalry and mark it as a game of great possibility. But the majority see it as a game of great heartbreak.

If Gundy had won a little more, Cowboy Nation would have Bedlam a little more circled on the calendar.

And also on Gundy, he has shown no inclination to keep the series alive or revive. He’s simply blamed OU for the end of the series, and there’s a lot of truth to that. But that kind of talk isn’t constructive to resolving the issue of a series that shouldn’t die, being in serious danger.

Just because someone else runs over a dog doesn’t mean you don’t try to help the pup.

Sep 28, 1963; Los Angeles, CA, USA; FILE PHOTO; Oklahoma Sooners head coach Bud Wilkinson action against USC Trojans defensive tackle (78) Mac Byrd. Mandatory Credit: David Boss-USA TODAY Sports © Copyright David Boss

Former Oklahoma Sooners head coach Bud Wilkinson(David Boss/USA TODAY Sports — 1963 file photo)

3. Bud Wilkinson

Bennie Owen coached OU from 1905-26. Bud Wilkinson arrived in Norman in 1946 and became head coach a year later.

Between Bennie and Bud, Bedlam was not one-sided. The Cowboys had coaches like Pappy Waldorf and Jim Lookabaugh. They were quite competitive not just with OU, but with most teams. The Cowboys had 11 winning seasons in those 19 years.

OU won just nine of those 19 Bedlams, though four were ties.

Wilkinson got to Norman, built a dynasty the likes of which college football never has seen and stayed 17 seasons. Wilkinson went 17-0 vs. the Cowboys.

Ten of Wilkinson’s Bedlam victories were by at least 24 points. He built such a gulf between the programs, coaches like Jimmy Johnson, Pat Jones, Les Miles and Gundy have made only incremental advances.

Bedlam football was not a thing in the Wilkinson years and after. Drama has returned to the series the last two decades, but OSU fans’ distaste for the rivalry is completely understandable. 

Without Wilkinson, maybe Bedlam football would have been more competitive, and maybe Cowboy fans today would be demanding that their school keep the series alive.

2. OSU fans

Nobody can blame Cowboy fans. They are tired of Bedlam. Tired of the heartburn. Tired of the heartache.

For every Tyreek Hill punt return, there are five Blake Bells and Derrick Shepards and Sam Bradfords. OSU loyalists are weary. OU has the advantage of resources and tradition, and the cosmos seem to wear crimson, too.

So when the SEC comes calling on OU, and Bedlam is threatened, there’s no groundswell from Cowboy fans to continue the series. Good riddance. Glad it’s gone.

It’s hard to blame the OSU faithful. They live with OU series dominance as they go to church on Sundays and work on Mondays and their kids’ ballgames on Tuesdays.

The victories are sweet but rare. Life without Bedlam doesn’t sound so bad to the orange side of the series.

OSU fans buy the tickets and fill Boone Pickens Stadium and make Stillwater a happening place on game day. They just don’t feel like they need Bedlam, not knowing the national spotlight it has placed on the Cowboys the past couple of decades and how the nation really doesn’t know or care about OU’s domination.

Nov 23, 2012; Fayetteville, AR, USA; Arkansas Razorbacks former head football coach and former athletic director Frank Broyles speaks during a dedication ceremony before the start of a game against the Louisiana State Tigers at Donald W. Reynolds Stadium. A seven and a half foot statue weighing more than 700 pounds was dedicated to Broyles who served the University of Arkansas for more than 50 years in his career. Mandatory Credit: Beth Hall-USA TODAY Sports

Arkansas Razorbacks former head football coach and former athletic director Frank Broyles (Beth Hall/USA TODAY Sports)

1. Frank Broyles

The go-to reason for the end of Bedlam is scheduling. No room on the future schedules of OU or OSU. That’s absurd, of course, there’s plenty of room. There’s a shortage of room only if you limit yourself to one quality non-conference game a year. Which both OU and OSU do, along with most power-conference programs across the country.

Athletic directors act as if the current scheduling model was signed by John Hancock and Benjamin Franklin. As if it’s as much a part of the game as shoulder pads and first downs.

But no. Dumbed-down scheduling is a relatively recent addition to the college game. Coaches and players from generations past would be aghast at the exhibition games that now are marketed as true competition.

OU in the 1970s played four games against teams that were outside what we now call the power-conference structure: Utah State in 1972 and 1974, Utah in 1977 and Tulsa in 1979. In the 1980s, that number rose to five – Wyoming 1981, Tulsa 1983, North Texas 1987, Tulsa 1987, New Mexico State 1989.
OSU in the 1970s was a little more loose with its scheduling. The Cowboys played 14 lower-level games (out of 40 total in the non-conferencer) in the ‘70s, then went all in on dumbed-down scheduling, with 29 games in the ‘80s against mid-majors or lower.

The Sooners stayed with great scheduling into the 1990s, then gradually reduced the heat after joining the Big 12. The mid-’90s is when Ohio State, Michigan, Nebraska and Texas began the move as well.

So where did it start? Who had the idea that college football’s non-conference games should be mostly about automatic victories and extra home games?

I say Frank Broyles. The Arkansas icon was the Razorback football coach from 1958-76 and its athletic director from 1974-2007. And Broyles began playing a meager schedule in the 1960s.

Part of Broyles’ motivation was necessity. The Razorbacks split their home games between Little Rock and Fayetteville, and Broyles had to deal with Arkansas politicians. If he wanted an extra game for Fayetteville, it was a four-hour drive from Little Rock to Fayetteville, in those days, before Interstate 49 and a regional airport in Bentonville.

The Razorbacks settled into a rotation of four games a year in Little Rock, three in Fayetteville. Broyles’ long-term plan was to get all the games in the Ozarks, and that eventually happened, over the course of decades.

But in the meantime, Broyles cajoled OSU into playing in Little Rock every year and Tulsa into playing in Fayetteville every year. Add in Wichita State and North Texas on a regular basis, and the Razorbacks had a very 21st-century schedule, long before the advent of the spread offense.

Other programs eventually took notice. SEC schools in the 1970s began tipping their toe into weaker schedules, and by the 1980s, a slate with three or four mid-majors was common. All with 11-game schedules.

Tennessee in 1986 played Texas-El Paso, Memphis, Army and New Mexico. Alabama in 1987 played Southwestern Louisiana (Louisiana-Lafayette), Southern Mississippi and Memphis. Florida in 1988 played Montana State, Indiana State and Memphis. Ole Miss in 1989 played Memphis, Arkansas State and Tulane.

The floodgates were open. Eventually, most schools cottoned to the idea of easy victories and extra revenue from home games. Honor was sacrificed in the name of money and a faux won-loss record.

And 3½ decades later, Bedlam goes on hiatus. Or into a coffin, murdered by many, who didn’t realize what they had.

 

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Berry Tramel is a 45-year veteran of Oklahoma journalism, having spent 13 years at the Norman Transcript and 32 years at The Oklahoman. He has been named Oklahoma Sportswriter of the Year by the National Sports Media Association. Born and raised in Norman, Tramel grew up reading four newspapers a day and began his career at age 17. His first assignment was the Lexington-Elmore City high school football game, and he’s enjoyed the journey ever since, having covered NBA Finals and Rose Bowls and everything in between. Tramel and his wife, Tricia, were married in 1980 and live in Norman near their daughter, son-in-law and three granddaughters. Tramel can be reached at 405-760-8080 or at [email protected].

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