By John Rohde // SoonerSports.com
The sight of the Sooner Schooner rolling across Owen Field has become one of college football’s most recognizable traditions. This is partly due to its uniqueness, but primarily due to its frequency. The schooner emerges from the northeast tunnel of Memorial Stadium every time the Oklahoma Sooners score, which has happened plenty these past 50 years.
The process began slowly, however. In the schooner’s first-ever appearance, the OU football team was unable to circle its wagon nearly enough as Southern California posted a convincing 40-14 victory on Sept. 26, 1964.
A sellout crowd of 61,700 watched the debut of two white Shetland ponies pulling a small red and white covered wagon. Back then, the Sooner Schooner didn’t make a sweeping arc 30 yards onto the field because school officials feared what damage it might cause to the field. Instead, the pint-sized ponies and wagon roamed harmlessly behind the end zone.
The Sooner Schooner’s initial ride came during the first home game under new OU Football coach Gomer Jones, who was attempting to replace the legendary Bud Wilkinson after he had amassed three national titles (1950, 1955, 1956), a 47-game winning streak and a winning percentage of .826 (145-29-4) in his 17 seasons at the school. The Trojans’ 26-point victory that day was the Sooners’ worst defeat in five years and Jones probably felt like he had been run over by the wagon himself.
The Sooner Schooner in the 1970s
The schooner is approximately half the size of a Conestoga wagon, which was used by pioneers while crossing the North American prairies and plains. In both name and appearance, this scaled-down version of a horse-drawn prairie wagon perfectly encapsulates the Oklahoma Land Rush of 1889 and essentially serves as a quick state history lesson every time OU scores.
Ridden and handled by the RUF/NEKS, an all-male student spirit squad, the ponies are aptly named Boomer and Sooner in recognition the territory’s settlers. The entire ensemble of the ponies and wagon together officially is the Sooner Schooner, which in 1980 was proclaimed a school mascot.
Mick Cottom, a freshman RUF/NEKS member from Liberty Mounds, Okla., had the distinction of being the first person to drive the Sooner Schooner that day 50 years ago.
Why was Cottom chosen? “I guess I was the only one who knew how to harness the ponies,” he told the Tulsa World in a 2004 interview. “It was a big deal, but it wasn't a big deal. I got to be at the games and get my picture taken with people. When you're in the midst of things you don't realize what's going on.”
Cottom said the Sooner Schooner immediately turned heads. “It was a novelty, and the pageantry added another element of spirit,” Cottom said. “Lots of kids, maybe more so than the college students, wanted to come by and know what it was.”
The ponies and wagon were a gift of brothers Dr. M.S. Bartlett, administrator of Bartlett Memorial Hospital, and Charley F. “Buzz” Bartlett, vice president of Bartlett-Collins Glass Co., of Sapulpa. Both brothers attended OU. Charley played football in 1917-18 and M.S. attended the OU School of Medicine from 1940-42.
In both name and appearance, this scaled-down version of a horse-drawn prairie wagon perfectly encapsulates the Oklahoma Land Rush of 1889 and essentially serves as a quick state history lesson every time OU scores.
The original pair of three-year-old Shetland ponies stood 41 inches high and weighed roughly 300 pounds each. The wagon and harness rigging were designed especially for the Bartlett’s gift and purchased from the Van Luyck Pony Farm near Frontenac, Kan. The first Sooner Schooner was valued at approximately $1,100.
Dr. Bartlett said he had the wagon designed after the prairie schooner his parents used when they settled in northeastern Oklahoma in 1898 and that he and his brother wanted to provide OU with a mascot that symbolized the settling of Oklahoma Territory and the pioneering spirit of the 89ers.
Bartlett also was careful not to impede on the school’s existing traditions.
“We want everyone interested in OU football, particularly the students, to take hold of this as a symbol of Oklahoma and OU teams,” he said at the time.
The venture was several years in the making.
In 1952, Dr. Bartlett first contacted the OU marching band about adding a mascot that would symbolize the 1889 Land Rush Sooners. “I received no encouragement from the marching band at that time,” Bartlett recalled.
In 1980, the university’s Board of Regents adopted the Sooner Schooner as an official mascot.
In 1981, Dr. Bartlett signed over trademark rights to the university at a cost of $1.00. In letter to Dr. Bartlett on Dec. 7 of that year, OU President William Banowsky in part wrote: “This is a deeply meaningful gesture on your part which will benefit the University for years to come. You are a loyal and faithful Sooner who will always be remembered for your contributions to the Oklahoma tradition.”
The wagon and ponies were housed at the Bartlett Ranch outside Sapulpa until 2011 and are now cared for by the university. Boomer and Sooners are now Welsh ponies and kept at an undisclosed location. (Welsh ponies are slightly taller and heavier than Shetlands.)
When Barry Switzer was coaching the Sooners to three national titles (1974, 1975, 1985) and an .837 winning percentage, his teams frequently hung “half-a-hundred” on opponents and plum wore out two little ponies who celebrated every point. Now the Sooner Schooner is celebrating its half-a-hundred birthday!
The 94-year-old Dwight Maulding, who was an original board member on the Bartlett Foundation that started the Sooner Schooner tradition.
The Sooner Schooner still makes the annual trip to the OU-Texas game staged at the Cotton Bowl every October. It also ventures to postseason bowl games, but due to turf concerns, the schooner no longer is allowed on the playing surface anywhere other than at home games.
When the Sooner Schooner is driven onto the field, the RUF/NEKS queen sits next to the driver, and another RUF/NEKS member hangs out of the rear of the wagon, lying on his back and waving the OU or American flag.
There are numerous Sooner Schooner stories through the years. Many of them good, but some not so much. Here are two embarrassing moments:
- In the third quarter of the 1985 Orange Bowl against the Washington Huskies, the Sooners made a 22-yard field goal that was nullified because of an illegal procedure penalty against OU. Unaware the penalty had occurred, the Sooner Schooner crew ventured onto a soggy field to celebrate the score and OU was penalized an additional 15 yards for unsportsmanlike conduct. Following the two penalties, what previously was a 22-yard field goal became a 42-yard attempt, which was blocked by the No. 4-ranked Huskies and the score remained tied at 14. The No. 2-ranked Sooners went on to lose the game 28-17.
- During a 1993 home game against Colorado, the Sooner Schooner took the field after OU scored a field goal. The wagon flipped onto its right ride while making its left turn on what was a horribly weathered artificial turf at that time. The mishap injured driver Scott Gibson, who suffered a broken left arm. Queen Jean Connelly, lunged forward as the wagon capsized, managed to avoid a serious injury and suffered only a bruised head. Flag waver Ryan Wray bruised his shoulder and cut his left eye when he flew out of the rear of the wagon. Neither pony was injured. The carpet was torn during the spill and temporarily bandaged with duct tape. The No. 9-ranked Sooners went on to lose 27-10 against the No. 20-ranked Buffaloes. One week later, a repaired Sooner Schooner rode again, and did so frequently during a 38-23 victory over the Kansas Jayhawks on Owen Field. That tattered turf was replaced the following season with natural grass, a surface that has remained ever since.
Kenneth Forehand (1989-93) is President of RUF/NEKS Alumni Association, works for Fitness and Rec at OU and also is in Coach Development for USA Rugby.
It’s a symbol to a lot of people. It’s iconic. Everywhere you go, they know about the Schooner. It’s something people recognize.
“It’s a symbol to a lot of people. It’s iconic,” Forehand said of the Sooner Schooner. “Everywhere you go, they know about the Schooner. It’s something people recognize.”
Through the years, the RUF/NEKS have been responsible for protecting the Sooner Schooner. “For us, we’ve always taken such ownership of it,” Forehand said. “It was kind of our baby. Lots of good times.”
Forehand said the biggest challenge often comes at the Red River Rivalry dealing with unruly Texas Longhorns fans.
In Forehand’s freshman year of 1989, there was considerably more open space on the south side of the stadium than there is now. “We basically would form a circle around the schooner and get it as close to the OU crowd as we could, and then just get it out of the stadium from there,” Forehand said.
In 1990, RUF/NEKS president Brian Amy of Midwest City was hospitalized after suffering a broken leg and requiring surgery after being hit by the Sooner Schooner during a home loss against Iowa State. Amy said his leg was run over by the right rear wheel after he pushed a fellow RUF/NEK out of the path of the wagon as it was going into the northeast tunnel.
To get to the 1991 Gator Bowl in Jacksonville, Forehand and three other RUF/NEKS threw a mattress in the back of a camper and rode it all the way to Florida. “We’d stop at gas stations and walk the ponies and people would just stop and love on these tiny little horses,” Forehand recalled. “We kept them at a police officer’s stable down there (in Jacksonville). The cops were great to us there. One of the ponies took off on us and they chased him down with a squad car.”
When hostile Virginia fans blocked the Sooner Schooner from entering the stadium (“Those fans were awful,” Forehand said), the police made the crowd disburse.
University of Oklahoma President David L. Boren poses with the Sooner Schooner.
Forehand said the trailer carrying the schooner to the 2001 OU-Texas game was in a traffic accident roughly one mile from the stadium. “They hitched the ponies up and walked them to the Cotton Bowl,” Forehand recalled. “The cops basically cleared a path and people were pretty respectful. Nobody tried to pull out in front of them or anything.”
That same year, a Texas fan poured lighter fluid on the wagon’s canvas, but was arrested before he could light it.
So famous is the Sooner Schooner, it’s even gone Hollywood. Three years ago, ESPN paid expenses for the Sooner Schooner to travel to Los Angeles and appear in a College GameDay commercial.
“The biggest thing for me is the response you get from people around the country,” said Forehand, who has begun organizing the 100th anniversary of the RUF/NEKS next year. “When kids see the ponies, they want to be around them. It’s such a big thing for so many people to have their picture taken on the schooner. I think it’s one of the most successful mascots out there. With all those other live mascots, you can’t get anywhere near them. I think that’s one of the coolest things about it.”
Saturated in state history and representing one of the most successful college football programs ever, the Sooner Schooner frequently is mentioned as one of the sport’s best live mascots – particularly when the numerous dogs, cats and birds are excluded. Several schools have someone riding a horse, but no one else offers two ponies pulling three spirit members riding a prairie wagon.
There’s only one Oklahoma, and there’s only one Sooner Schooner!
|About John Rohde|
|John Rohde is a respected name on the Oklahoma sports scene and will provide regular features for SoonerSports.com. Voted Oklahoma Sportswriter of the Year five times, Rohde has covered OU football and basketball, the Oklahoma City Thunder, OKC/New Orleans Hornets, Dallas Cowboys, Texas Rangers, the Final Four, Masters and PGA Tour. He spent over 26 years for The Oklahoman, serving as a columnist and beat writer. He can be heard on 107.7 The Franchise, the flagship station for OU Athletics weekdays from 5:30-9 a.m.|