The bandana. That little piece of cotton. Oh, did it ever create a furor. The year was 1976. The University of Oklahoma was coming off two consecutive national championships. The Sooners were the talk of college football. Barry Switzer had things going in an incredible direction. Under his direction, OU had lost only one game in his three-year tenure.
Things were about to change. The offense was struggling early in that '76 campaign. Still, the Sooners were off to a 4-0 start heading into the Texas game. Several days prior to the Red River shootout, there was a surprising announcement. Starting quarterback Dean Blevins would not play. He was out with a mysterious ailment.
Enter into the picture Thomas Lott. He would be the man. With him came a lot of talent. There was a certain swagger. You could tell how confident he was. And, yes, let's not forget about "The Bandana."
When he took the field on Oct. 9, under his red helmet he wore a red bandana. That would be a topic that fans would talk about until he graduated in 1978.
This San Antonio native smiles now when he talks about the bandana. But there were times when he was in college that it wasn't a laughing matter. It did bring a little pain. He looks back 31 years now when the story began.
"I just started wearing it my freshman year. We wanted our hair as tall as you could get it. And I just wasn't comfortable the way my helmet fit. So I tried stocking caps. I tried braiding my hair. But neither of those gave me the results that I wanted. I had a friend, Doug Morgan. He was from Louisiana. He wore one and I asked him to show me how to tie it.
"So I wore it the spring of my freshman year with the tail of it hanging from my helmet. And I wore it in my sophomore year in the fall of 1976. And no one was saying anything about it. It wasn't a big deal at all. I wore it the first four games of the year. Then I started against Texas and all of a sudden people thought I just began wearing it that week."
Lott was the first African-American quarterback to start at OU. He had an outstanding prep career at San Antonio Jay High School. He had over 30 scholarship offers. But he selected OU. One of the reasons was because Switzer had the reputation of letting his players do their thing.
"There's no doubt about it. There was Joe Washington with his silver shoes. Coach Switzer gave his players freedom. He didn't treat them as little kids. I respected that."
What about this criticism regarding the bandana? This former wishbone whiz chose his words carefully when talking about it.
"What's surprising was that it was black people who were criticizing me," Lott said. "There were people who were saying I was trying to be cocky and that I wasn't a team player. Back then you have to remember that when you talked about a team you were talking about how everyone did everything the same way.
"I got a lot of hate mail. Like I said, I knew it was from black people. They were saying things like I was setting black people back 50 years for wearing a bandana. Never would anybody ever sign their letters. I learned to take that stuff with a grain of salt. I figured if you have something to say, at least be man or woman enough about it and sign your name. If you don't have guts to put your name on it, why should I even listen?"
Everywhere Lott would go, there was talk of the bandana. By the end of his junior year it had become a big thing. He was being sent bandanas from all over the world.
"I was getting them from everywhere. I remember getting a box of six silk scarves from Japan. I guess they didn't know what I was wearing was made out of cotton," he laughed. "All of a sudden I have 300 or 400 different bandanas. There were different colors and different patterns. People would write me and ask me to wear a certain color. I then decided I would wear the color of whatever team we would be playing that week."
Things were about to change. In his junior year, the Sooners ventured to Miami to play Arkansas in the Orange Bowl. The Razorbacks were talented, but three of their top players were suspended from the game because of off-the-field problems.
OU entered the game as a 17-point favorite. However, things never went their way. The Hogs dominated with a 31-6 victory.
That was a painful experience.
"After the game I got so much hate mail. It was just amazing," the soft-spoken Lott said. "People were saying things like, ‘You didn't wear the right color bandana' or ‘You're just trying to show off.' They thought I was a rebel. This time it really bothered me. After that, coach Switzer asked me not to wear it anymore because we got so much heat because of that game. And during that spring my grades were not very good. I decided I had to bust my butt and take care of my grades and not worry about the bandana. So that spring in practice, I didn't wear it."
Goodbye, bandana? Hardly. It just became a short retirement story.
"Heading into my senior year we were still being ripped because of that Arkansas loss," said Lott. "I didn't know if I was going to wear the bandana anymore because coach Switzer asked me not to wear it. It was crazy at the time.
"But I continued to think about it. I wasn't going to let people dictate what I was going to do. I didn't say anything to coach Switzer or anyone else. As we were having picture day (in August of 1978) I got dressed and just about everyone else was gone from the locker room. I put it on and walked onto the field. Coach Switzer came up to me and said, ‘I thought we agreed that you weren't going to wear that bandana.' I told him, ‘We didn't agree. You said you'd rather me not wear it. But I never said I would or I wouldn't.' The press came out and started taking pictures with me and the bandana, so I just kept wearing it."
That's all in the past. What is Lott doing in the present?
He has just been elevated as the offensive coordinator at Molina High School in Dallas. He has been there coaching the past two years. He looks at this as a tremendous challenge.
"We've been in existence eight years now," said Lott. "Our offense wasn't very good last year, but we've made progress. We won three games a year ago and that's the most this school has ever won."
And recently he was inducted into the San Antonio High School Hall of Fame. He proudly spoke of that achievement.
"You can't believe how great that made me feel," Lott said. "Coach Switzer and Billy Sims (former OU Heisman Trophy winner) surprised me and came down there. I felt so good about that. It was a tremendous honor."
Things seem to be going well for Thomas Lott these days. But a lot of fans will think of what he did in the past. And there are many who will never forget "The Bandana."
*The above article appeared in the May issue of Sooners Illustrated.
Where Are They Now...Thomas Lott
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