Bedlam football, a weird and wild rivalry, is dead at 118 games

Bedlam football, a weird and wild rivalry, is dead at 118 games

For decades, it was mostly irrelevant to the nation, with Sooners enjoying the domination and Cowboys clinging to the human spirit of hope with an occasional upset. But like Sydney Greenstreet and Betty White, Bedlam bloomed late in life.

Berry Tramel

By Berry Tramel

| Nov 4, 2023, 6:00am CDT

Berry Tramel

By Berry Tramel

Nov 4, 2023, 6:00am CDT

STILLWATER — Bedlam football, a rivalry that played out for almost a century with little fanfare beyond state lines before breaking into the national consciousness with wild finishes, crazy scores and huge stakes, died Saturday in Stillwater, one of its two long-time homes. Bedlam football was 118 games old.

Bedlam’s publicists and caretakers had warned of the death, which was witnessed by 53,000 at Boone Pickens Stadium.

Bedlam football’s demise became apparent in July 2021, when OU announced it would leave the Big 12 and join the Southeastern Conference, and OSU officials said they had no immediate room for the Sooners as a non-conference opponent. Bedlam’s final appearance was typical of the 21st-century nature of this rivalry: Both teams were in a five-way tie for the Big 12 lead.

Bedlam football derived its name from the sport of wrestling, which for decades featured the most intense form of the in-state rivalry and adopted the Bedlam name, which eventually spread to other sports. Football was one of the last holdouts.  OU’s football supremacy of the series — Sooner coaches Bennie Owen, Bud Wilkinson and Barry Switzer were a combined 48-3-2 against the Cowboys, with only seven of those OU victories by single digits — kept the gridiron version of Bedlam mostly irrelevant to the nation, with Sooners enjoying the domination and Cowboys clinging to the human spirit of hope with an occasional upset.

But like Sydney Greenstreet and Betty White, Bedlam bloomed late in life. In the late 1990s and into the 2000s, the Cowboys began fielding much more competitive teams. In the last 15 years, the Bedlam combatants became the two most successful programs in the Big 12, with the Cowboys surpassing even Texas.

“Doesn’t matter when this game falls or where it’s at,” said Lincoln Riley, who coached OU from 2017-21. “Always a meaningful football game for this state. It’s been very important for championship races the last several years … one of the best rivalry games without a doubt.”

Still, 20th-century Bedlam was notable for coaches like Bennie Owen, Pappy Waldorf, Jim Lookabaugh, Wilkinson, Switzer, Jimmy Johnson and Pat Jones. The rivalry thrived in the 21st century with coaches Bob Stoops and Mike Gundy.

Heisman Trophy winners Billy Vessels, Steve Owens, Billy Sims, Barry Sanders, Jason White, Sam Bradford, Baker Mayfield and Kyler Murray played in Bedlam. Half of those Heismans were won by homegrown Oklahomans (Cleveland’s Vessels, Miami’s Owens, Tuttle’s White and Oklahoma City’s Bradford), befitting a series that for much of its history seemed more valued by Oklahomans than out-of-state recruits.

Before the explosion of college football television, Bedlam football rarely was selected for a network telecast; instead, the games were broadcast on radio only or occasionally on state-wide TV.

But Bedlam made up for those dusty days. In the 21st century, the networks were clamoring for Bedlam, often bringing their Saturday morning pregame shows to Norman or Stillwater. ESPN’s College GameDay set up in Norman or Stillwater seven times in Bedlam’s final 20 years.

Bedlam became known for shootouts: 38-35 in 2004, 61-41 in 2008, 47-41 in 2010, 51-48 in 2012, 38-35 in 2014, 62-52 in 2017, 48-47 in 2018, 37-33 in 2021.

Most of those games were OU victories. The Sooners’ domination, even into the 21st century, was peculiar in college football. OU took a 91-19-7 series lead into the final game, an oppression usually reserved for non-rivalries or series featuring a woebegone program.

Gundy, who was 3-15 against the Sooners entering the final game, is by far the most successful coach in Cowboy history, yet his Bedlam record was no better than all the OSU coaches combined in the series.

The one-sided nature of the series was a source of superiority and pride to OU fans and constant consternation to OSU fans. 

Even near the end, with the death of Bedlam a possibility, a substantial number of fans on both sides said good riddance.

In some ways, the nation seemed to appreciate Bedlam more than did Oklahomans. National pundits routinely held Bedlam in high regard, as a game worthy to put on a bucket list.

It became the greatest show in Oklahoma. Often the single best sporting event played within state lines, considering the stakes and the drama and the excitement.

Bedlam craziness began with the very first game, on November 5, 1904, in the neutral site of Guthrie. In a nod to the future, when neutral-site games at magnificent stadiums in Atlanta and Arlington became routine, Guthrie’s commercial club enticed OU and Oklahoma A&M (as OSU then was named) to bring their teams to Island Park, hard by Cottonwood Creek. 

On the game’s fourth play, an A&M punt into a vicious north wind soared back over the kicker’s head and out of the field of play. Under the rules of the day, the ball was live until recovered. It would be either a touchdown or a touchback. The combatants went scrambling for the ball, which squirted into Cottonwood Creek and started floating down the stream. A&M’s R.C. Baird grabbed a stick and tried to fish the ball out of the creek. OU’s T. Becker Matthews came barrelling into Baird, knocking him into the waters. Matthews jumped in, too, and corralled the ball. Touchdown, Sooners. OU won 75-0, setting the stage for much of the series narrative.

Owen arrived as the OU coach in 1905, the series resumed in 1906 and the Sooners won 23-0 in Stillwater, with Owen’s team deploying the new-fangled forward pass, which had just been adopted into the rulebook. The first Bedlam in Norman came in 1907, won 67-0 by the Sooners, with Owen’s team completing a remarkable-for-the-day seven forward passes.

The series began its annual run in 1910. Oklahoma City secured the game for five straight years starting in 1915, and 5,000 watched that 1915 game in OKC’s Fair Park. By 1917, the Sooners were 11-0 in what would become the Bedlam Series, foreshadowing OU’s century-plus domination.

But on November 29, 1917, at Fair Park, eight months after the U.S. entry into World War I, Oklahoma A&M stunned the heavily favored Sooners 9-0. “The subsequent celebration at Stillwater surpassed even the later jubilation over the signing of the Armistice,” wrote OU historian Harold Keith. 

According to Keith, A&M president J.W. Cantwell exclaimed, “Spread the glad tidings! Tell the folks at home!” as he walked from the field. Telegraphs were dispatched to Stillwater and Norman, and fans in both locales were hard-pressed to believe the score.

“Everybody thought the operator had erred,” Keith wrote. “But when a telephone call was placed and the Aggie victory verified, the horde of Aggie students who, lacking confidence in their oft-whipped teams, had stayed home to avoid seeing it spanked by the university (OU), nearly tore up the town.”

The Sooners’ domination resumed, but Owen left coaching after the 1926 season, and A&M rose up. In 1929, the Cowboys hired Waldorf, who would go on to become a College Football Hall of Famer for his exploits at Northwestern and Cal-Berkeley. 

Waldorf’s five Cowboy teams went 34-10-7, including 3-0-2 vs. OU.

Waldorf’s final Bedlam, on Thanksgiving Day 1933, included a visit by the National Guard. Oklahoma governor Alfalfa Bill Murray, perhaps the state’s most colorful politician ever, was a conspiracy theorist who didn’t trust Bennie Owen, then OU’s athletic director. Gov. Murray called out the Guard to take over ticket-sale and ticket-taking duties for Bedlam in Norman, to audit the proceeds. The result was long lines and delays for fans, many of whom missed the first quarter of A&M’s 13-0 victory. No financial irregularities were found.

Albert Exendine, an all-American end at Carlisle, where he and Jim Thorpe were 1907 teammates, coached the Cowboys in 1934-35. OU beat A&M 25-0 in the latter year and began a seven-game series winning streak.

But during World War II, A&M’s Lookabaugh produced two of the greatest teams in school history, 1944 and 1945, years in which the Cowboys reached the Cotton Bowl and Sugar Bowl, respectively. A&M beat OU in back-to-back Bedlams, 28-6 and 47-0.

The latter result prompted OU regents to get more serious about their football program. They hired Jim Tatum as head coach in 1946, with the stipulation that he bring along an assistant coach, Wilkinson, with whom they were impressed.

Tatum’s only OU team won Bedlam 73-12. He soon thereafter departed for Maryland, Wilkinson was promoted, and the Sooners’ domination of the series was galvanized. Between 1945 and 1995, the Cowboys won just three Bedlams.

Wilkinson coached 17 seasons, won Bedlam every year, and only three of those games were close: 21-13 in 1947, 19-15 in 1948 and 7-0 in 1958.

But the 1949 Bedlam in Norman was memorable for its civility. The great Lookabaugh, who as a player in 1924 had scored the game’s only touchdown in a 6-0 Oklahoma A&M victory, had announced his retirement after 11 years as the Cowboy coach.

Near the end of OU’s 41-0 victory, public-address announcer Bruce Drake, the famed Sooner basketball coach, paid tribute to Lookabaugh and announced to the crowd that this would be his final Bedlam. The OU fans stood in unison and gave Lookabaugh a tremendous ovation.

The series was not always so civil. At the end of OU’s 17-6 victory in Stillwater, an on-field brawl ensued involving OSU fans and OU’s Ruf-Neks, a spirit group, and anywhere from six to 15 people were sent to the hospital, depending upon the report. Much of the crowd of 34,000 stood and watched the fracas, which lasted 10 minutes, with a small force of Stillwater and campus police trying to intervene. No arrests were made.

The Cowboy program fell into a funk in the 1960s, a decade in which OSU did not produce a winning season. But the Cowboys won two Bedlams, both in dramatic fashion: 17-16 in 1965, 15-14 in 1966.

Chuck Fairbanks became the Sooners’ head coach in 1967; he and his successor, Switzer, combined to go 21-1 in Bedlams. The only OSU win was 31-24 in 1976, which helped the Cowboys claim a three-way tie for the Big Eight championship.

“My era, my players figured we were better than OSU,” Switzer told Sellout Crowd this week. “So I would always tell them before we went on the field, ‘That team over there is more pissed off and ready to play than you guys are. You might not think much about this game, but I promise you they want to beat your ass. And the reason why is because in most cases those guys didn’t have an opportunity to make a choice. You guys did. You were offered both places. And a lot of those guys over there weren’t offered scholarships to Oklahoma. They want to beat your ass badly.”

Those years of Bedlam domination were marked by memorable individual performances. 

OSU’s Willard Nahrgang tackling tailback Ron Shotts short of the goal line on a late 2-point conversion in 1966, preserving the 15-14 Cowboy victory.

OU’s Steve Owens’ 55-carry game (for 261 yards) in 1969, which the Sooners won 28-27.

OSU’s Terry Miller’s 72-yard touchdown run less than two minutes into the 1976 game.

OU’s Derrick Shepard turning a short pass into a 73-yard touchdown, igniting the Sooners from a 20-3 deficit in the final 10 minutes to a 21-20 victory in the 1983 game.

Tailbacks Barry Sanders of OSU and Mike Gaddis of OU dueling with incredible games. Sanders rushed for 215 yards, Gaddis for 213, and OU won 31-28.

Freshman quarterback Cale Gundy throwing a 52-yard touchdown pass on the final play of the first half, a Cale Mary to Adrian Cooper, that ignited a 31-17 OU win.

And the ultimate heroes were the 20,000 brave fans who stayed to the end of the 1985 Ice Bowl in Stillwater. The Nov. 30 game was played at night; sleet and lightning, with 23-degree temperatures and minus-four-degree wind chill by halftime creating the worst possible conditions. The teams combined for 11 fumbles. OSU quarterback Ronnie Williams completed five of 25 passes. Somehow, Tim Lashar kicked two field goals for OU, and the Sooners won 13-0 en route to the national championship.

Bedlam was becoming known for some fascinating games, but not a change in who dominated.

Jimmy Johnson, OSU’s head coach, from 1979-83 before going on to the University of Miami and the Dallas Cowboys, said the Cowboys always were playing from behind in terms of talent. “Believe it or not, we didn’t go head-to-head with Oklahoma in recruiting very much,” Johnson wrote in his book, “Turning The Thing Around.” “For the simple reason that we knew we were the underdogs. We would take players that Oklahoma wasn’t offering scholarships to, and we knew we weren’t going to get the players Oklahoma wanted.”

But Bedlam was about to undergo a change. In the 1990s, Sooner football fell on hard times, and OSU coach Bob Simmons pounced. He was fired after six seasons with a 30-38 record, but Simmons went 3-3 against the Sooners (1995-2000) and almost won his final game, a 12-7 nailbiter that OU won en route to the national championship. In the final minute, cornerback Derrick Strait knocked down a fourth-down pass in the end zone to save the game.

Simmons set the stage for Les Miles (2-2 in Bedlams) and Gundy to turn the series into something nationally relevant.

In 2001, Miles’ team pulled an upset as epic as that 1917 stunner. Against the fourth-ranked Sooners, the 3-7 Cowboys beat OU 16-13 in Norman on Josh Fields’ late touchdown pass to Rashaun Woods, ruining the Sooners’ national championship hopes. And a year later, the Cowboys stunned OU 38-28 with Fields and Woods combining for three touchdowns.

The modern Bedlam was born. College GameDay was in Norman for Bedlam in 2003 and would return often as Bedlam became known for big-time heroes and memorable plays.

Last-minute games in 2004 (OSU’s Jason Ricks missed a 48-yard field goal on the final play, preserving OU’s 38-35 win); 2007 (the potential game-winning pass was deflected by Lendy Holmes on the final play, preserving a 27-21 OU win); 2012 and 2013, with Blake Bell the OU hero in both, as a short-yardage battering ram in the former, producing a 51-48 overtime win, and a backup quarterback in the latter, taking the Sooners on a game-winning drive in the final two minutes to produce a 33-24 victory; 2014, when Tyreek Hill’s 92-yard punt return with 46 seconds left in set up overtime and eventually OSU’s 38-35 victory; 2018, when Taylor Cornelius’ 2-point conversion pass sailed wide and was knocked down by OU’s Tre Brown, preserving a 48-47 Sooner victory; and 2021, when OSU’s Collin Oliver sacked Caleb Williams with four seconds left, preserving the Cowboys’ 37-33 win.

Two years later, Bedlam is gone. From Cottonwood Creek to College GameDay, rest in peace.

Share with your crowd
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].

The latest from Sellout Crowd

  • Jan 4, 2023; Orlando, Florida, USA; Oklahoma City Thunder center Mike Muscala (33) shoots a three point basket against Orlando Magic center Wendell Carter Jr. (34) during the second quarter at Amway Center. Mandatory Credit: Mike Watters-USA TODAY Sports

    Why the Thunder is bringing back sharp-shooting center Mike Muscala

  • What the woman behind the big donation to Love’s Field believes makes it special

  • Oklahoma State guard Javon Small (12) shoots a 3-pointer over Oklahoma forward Sam Godwin (10) in the second half during an NCAA basketball game between Oklahoma and Oklahoma State in Stillwater, Okla., on Saturday, Feb. 24, 2024.

    How Bedlam football’s demise can be Bedlam basketball’s gain

  • Oklahoma State Cowboys tight end Josiah Johnson (16) is brought down by Oklahoma Sooners linebacker Kip Lewis (10) during a Bedlam college football game between the Oklahoma State University Cowboys (OSU) and the University of Oklahoma Sooners (OU) at Boone Pickens Stadium in Stillwater, Okla., Saturday, Nov. 4, 2023. Oklahoma State won 27-24.

    What 2024 college football betting odds say about OU and OSU prospects

  • Empire state: Some girls from south Oklahoma gave their community a thrill

The latest from Sellout Crowd

  • Jan 4, 2023; Orlando, Florida, USA; Oklahoma City Thunder center Mike Muscala (33) shoots a three point basket against Orlando Magic center Wendell Carter Jr. (34) during the second quarter at Amway Center. Mandatory Credit: Mike Watters-USA TODAY Sports

    Why the Thunder is bringing back sharp-shooting center Mike Muscala

  • What the woman behind the big donation to Love’s Field believes makes it special

  • Oklahoma State guard Javon Small (12) shoots a 3-pointer over Oklahoma forward Sam Godwin (10) in the second half during an NCAA basketball game between Oklahoma and Oklahoma State in Stillwater, Okla., on Saturday, Feb. 24, 2024.

    How Bedlam football’s demise can be Bedlam basketball’s gain

  • Oklahoma State Cowboys tight end Josiah Johnson (16) is brought down by Oklahoma Sooners linebacker Kip Lewis (10) during a Bedlam college football game between the Oklahoma State University Cowboys (OSU) and the University of Oklahoma Sooners (OU) at Boone Pickens Stadium in Stillwater, Okla., Saturday, Nov. 4, 2023. Oklahoma State won 27-24.

    What 2024 college football betting odds say about OU and OSU prospects

  • Empire state: Some girls from south Oklahoma gave their community a thrill