Charley North is pure Oklahoman. Raised in Wagoner. Went to school at Panhandle State. Coached high school football in Wagoner and Tecumseh and McAlester. Spent 16 years on the OU staffs of Barry Switzer and Gary Gibbs.
North figured his home state had offered every football sight imaginable. Then came last spring, and the view of a University of Alabama parking lot: 200 RVs forming a massive, makeshift campsite for Southern folk spending spring break at spring practice, watching the Crimson Tide football team.
"I know a lot of people follow Oklahoma, but I don't ever recall seeing that," said North, now in his second season as Alabama coach Dennis Franchione's director of football operations. "Never slips. The intensity here is 12 months a year."
Jackie Shipp, once an OU linebacker and now the school's defensive tackles coach, spent 1998 as Alabama's defensive line coach. He was with the Crimson Tide only 11 months, and he's not ready to salute Oklahoma or Alabama as the more football-crazed state.
But Shipp did coach in the Alabama-Auburn game that November, and he rates it second to none in football rivalries. Yes, bigger than Bedlam. Much bigger. Even bigger than Oklahoma-Texas.
"I've played in the Super Bowl," Shipp said. "Oklahoma-Texas. Alabama-Auburn is a lot more intense.
"I can remember that week, preparing for the Auburn game. We had 24-hour security at the office, game plans were shred after each practice."
Shipp started, then stopped, to use the word "hate." It's not hate. "But you go in the stadium, I never felt electricity like it. It was really something."
Welcome to the Sept. 7 showdown at Owen Field matching Oklahoma and Alabama, two of college football's grandest programs. This is a holies-of-holy meeting.
Few schools can match the pedigree or the fervor of Oklahoma and Alabama. These are the flagship programs in football-mad states. They are part of the Pigskin Culture of the South and Southwest, which pales the dedication of northern and West powers.
And while the Sooners are favored to beat the Crimson Tide at Owen Field, Alabama might have the upper hand in football madness.
OU and Bama have met only twice in football, both in historic bowl games.
Alabama won the 1963 Orange Bowl, 17-0. Joe Namath was in the house that night, quarterbacking the Crimson Tide. So was President Kennedy, quietly cheering on the Sooners, whose coach, Bud Wilkinson, would a year later become JFK's national director of physical fitness.
This was the second and last duel between Wilkinson and coaching legend Bear Bryant, who had beaten OU in the 1951 Sugar Bowl while coaching at Kentucky.
OU and Alabama tied 24-24 in the 1970 Bluebonnet Bowl, a game that launched a glorious match race between the schools as the most dominant program of the '70s.
Bryant, so impressed with the fledgling Sooner wishbone, switched to the option offense for the 1971 season, and both teams ran the 'bone to unparalleled heights.
OU in the 1970s: 102-13-3, two AP national titles, eight Big Eight titles.
Alabama in the '70s: 103-16-1, two AP national titles, eight Southeastern Conference titles.
Alas, the Sooners and Crimson Tide never played after that landmark Bluebonnet Bowl in Houston.
Bud, Barry & Bear
Just as Oklahoma had great football before Barry Switzer and even before Bud Wilkinson, Alabama played great football before Bear Bryant.
No doubt the Bear is the game's most hallowed coaching legend. In 25 years at his alma mater, 1958-82, Bryant had a record of 232-46-9. Counting his three years as a player (1933-35) and four years as an assistant coach (1936-39), Bryant's record with Alabama was 284-54-14, a winning percentage of .827.
"Coach Bryant was a great motivator," said Dude Hennessey, who joined Bryant's staff in 1960 and remains on staff as a part of Tide Pride, the football program's fund-raising arm. "Always had pride in people who didn't have the ability but didn't know it. He could get them to play."
Bryant's legacy in Alabama surpasses that of Wilkinson and Switzer in Oklahoma. Wilkinson was revered by Sooner fans; Switzer is loved. In Alabama, Bryant was both.
"It's almost like Elvis," said Charley North. "Lots of kids, the first thing they're taught is something about Bear Bryant. I know Bud Wilkinson and Barry Switzer are names in Oklahoma that are very well known. But gosh, this is something that goes beyond even that."
"You think about football, you think about Bear Bryant."
When Bryant died in 1983, the funeral procession from Tuscaloosa to Birmingham was three miles long. Alabamans on the highways and overpasses pulled over and saluted with waves as the procession passed, much like Americans did for the train in 1945 that carried Franklin Roosevelt's body to its resting place.
But Alabama's grand tradition didn't begin with Bryant's return after head-coaching stops at Maryland, Kentucky and Texas A&M.
Bryant was merely the third Crimson Tide coach inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame. Frank Thomas and Wallace Wade preceded him.
Wade coached Bama from 1923-30 and went 61-13-3. Thomas replaced him, coached through 1946, and went 115-24-7.
Alabama claims national titles in 1925, 1926, 1930, 1934 and 1941, although none were through the AP poll, which started in 1939 and brought legitimacy to the process. Bama claims seven more since, six under Bryant and the 1992 title coached by Bryant protégé Gene Stallings.
The Sooners, of course, counter with three Hall of Fame coaches of their own — Wilkinson, Switzer and Bennie Owen, who coached from 1905-26 and went 122-54-16 — and seven AP national titles, three each from Wilkinson and Switzer and the 2000 title coached by Bob Stoops.
"Both programs have a lot in common," said Shipp. "The only difference is one's a little further south."
Oklahoma-Alabama: Which school has the grander tradition?
Victories: Advantage Alabama. The Tide is 744-281-43 since it began playing in 1892, a winning percentage of .7176. OU began in 1895 and is 713-280-53, a winning percentage of .7069.
National championships: Advantage Oklahoma. Bama counts 12, but only half are legit; just six come from the AP poll, the established standard. OU counts seven national championships, all since 1950 and all confirmed by the AP poll.
Greatest coach: Advantage Alabama. Not even the lofty achievements of Switzer and Wilkinson can match Bear Bryant, generally considered the greatest college coach of all time.
Greatest era: Advantage Oklahoma. The Sooners' 47-game winning streak from 1953-57 has never been approached. Alabama's grandest stretch was its remarkable run in the ‘70s, but OU, not the Tide, might have been the program of that decade.
Bowls: Advantage Alabama. No school matches Bama's bowl record: 51 trips, 29-19-3 record. OU is 22-12-1 in bowls.
Rivalries: Advantage Oklahoma. Alabama-Tennessee is a long-time southern showdown, and it rivals OU-Nebraska, if not in stature at least in stamina, since OU-NU takes every two years off. And Shipp's electricity not withstanding, Alabama-Auburn can't stand up to both OU-OSU and OU-Texas. The Sooners have an in-state grudge match, plus a border war that is second to none.
Pro pipeline: Advantage Alabama. Two Sooners have gone on to make the Pro Football Hall of Fame — Lee Roy Selmon and Tommy McDonald. Six Bama players have been enshrined in Canton, Ohio — Dwight Stephenson, Bart Starr, Joe Namath, John Hannah, Ozzie Newsome and Don Hutson.
Awards: Advantage Oklahoma. The Sooners have three Heisman Trophy winners — Billy Vessels, Steve Owens and Billy Sims. Alabama never has had a Heisman winner. Bama counts 91 All-Americans; OU counts 93.
Passion: Advantage Alabama. We again defer to North and Shipp, Sooners through and through, one gone from Tuscaloosa and one still there.
"The people of Alabama have a tremendous amount of pride," North said. "A lot of ‘em eat, drink and sleep Alabama football. They are dedicated. It's not just in the Tuscaloosa area or the Birmingham area. It's north, east, south and west. It's very intense.
"Coach Fran does not have a spare moment. This job is very demanding for a head football coach. There are more functions you have to attend here. Much more demands, time-wise.
"It's not quite that intense at Oklahoma."
North does not want to disparage old friends in Oklahoma. His daughter, son-in-law and grandson still live in Norman. His old boss, Switzer, essentially is coach emeritus at OU.
"I have a tremendous amount of respect for Oklahoma," North said. "That'll never change. It will be an exciting football game. Hopefully, we can match up with'em."
On the field, the Sooners might have the advantage. In the zealousness of fans, Oklahoma will have to strap it on to keep up with the Crimson Tide.
The Alabama media guide proclaims it best: "At a lot of places, they just play football. At Alabama, we live it."
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