Bud Wilkinson: To a Very Rare Man

Topeka Capital-Journal
February 14, 1994

Last Wednesday night Jay Wilkinson called to say his dad, Bud, who made history as football coach at Oklahoma, was dying and probably wouldn’t make it through the night. He didn’t. Next morning we heard on the radio he had died.

Later in the morning I tried to call Charlie Hoag to tell him about Bud, but I couldn’t reach him. It wasn’t until the five o’clock TV news that we heard there had been a wreck on the Turnpike and that Charlie’s wife, Salli, was killed and he was seriously injured. The day had provided a double dose of bad news.

Wilkinson and Hoag had closer ties than you might think. In the early 1950s, Bud was one of the best coaches in the country and Charlie was a superb running back at KU , as well as being a key member of a national championship basketball squad.

They came close to being on the same side. Charlie told me the story of a few years ago when we went with the Hoag’s to the International golf tournament in Castle Pine, Colo. We met in Boulder and stayed at the home of Eddie Crowder, former OU All-American.

When Charlie was finishing high school in Chicago, it was assumed that, because of family ties to KU, he would go to school there. It was such a cinch that J.V. Sykes, KU’s head coach, didn’t bother to personally recruit Hoag.

But Wilkinson did, and he made a lasting impression, so solid that Charlie decided to ignore family ties and play at Oklahoma. He announced his decision one morning at breakfast, and to say the least, it wasn’t well received.

It caused a panic, and when his mother wept over the thought of losing her son to the Sooners, Charlie knew it would never work . He relented, gave his nod to KU, and went on to make history of his own. But he still wonders what would have happened to him in Norman.

Wilkinson had a way with recruits. I know, because in a sense I was one of them. One February evening in 1961 the phone rang in the kitchen of our house here on Cornwall St, and it was Bud. He said he had just been named consultant to President Kennedy’s Council on Physical Fitness and Sports and asked if I would move to Washington to work for him.

Specifically, he asked if I would meet him in New York the next day. From there, he said, we would fly down to Washington, where I would sign up for the job. And he said that evening, by the way, we would have dinner at Bobby Kennedy’s home.

This was heady stuff for an ‘ol boy from Britton, Okla., who had more kids than he had suits of clothes. But I wanted to be cool, so I said I’d have to digest that and call him back. I told my wife about it, and she said, “Go for it.” When I called Bud back, he wasn’t surprised.

I was working for Oscar Stauffer at the time, and I asked him for a year’s leave of absence, fully intending to return. He granted it, but told me later he knew I wouldn’t be back.

So the Sniders followed Bud to Washington, then to Oklahoma for an ill-fated run for the U.S. Senate, then back to Washington, where we set up the Lifetime Sports Foundation. It was a long haul, and if you asked me today what I remember about Bud, I’d say he enjoyed to the fullest and contrary to his public image, had a great sense of humor.

During the Oklahoma campaign, a reporter asked him to pinpoint the worst thing about being a candidate. Bud replied, “For openers, how about having Snider for a campaign manager?”

Bud loved two stories involving that campaign and often asked me to repeat them. One is about the drunk at a cocktail party after the election who asked me, “Are you the stupid (bleepity-bleep) who couldn’t get Bud Wilkinson elected in Oklahoma?”

When I said I was guilty , he said, “You could make people forget Santa Claus.”

The other is about the minister who wrote me after the election: “Now that you have been successful in keeping this great man out of the U.S. Senate, I pray that you never attempt to do anything on behalf of Christianity.”

One day during the campaign, a minister was interviewing Bud and me, seeing if we were worthy of his flock’s support. He asked Bud if he drank, and with a straight face he replied, “On very rare occasions, perhaps a touch of medicinal wine.”

From then on, our toast was, “To a very rare occasion.” if I could toast him this morning at his funeral, I’d say, “To a very rare man.”

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