The Keystone of the Sooner Dynasty

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John Rohde
By John Rohde
SoonerSports.com Contributor
APRIL 28, 2017

The first college football coach Steve Owens ever met was Arkansas assistant head coach/defensive coordinator Jim Mackenzie in the summer of 1964. At the time, Owens was a junior running back/roving linebacker for the Miami (Okla.) High School Wardogs. Mackenzie was friends with Wardogs head coach Bill Watkins, who hoped to implement the same "Monster" defense that had helped the Razorbacks become a national power.

"I'll never forget it," Owens recalled of Mackenzie. "He pulled up in a car and had his suit on. Of course, it was hot. He took his jacket off, took his tie off and walked onto the practice field. He spent two hours with us, going over this new defense, man. He was sweating like you wouldn't believe. And just like a coach, he installed the Monster defense for our team."

That same year, Arkansas finished as the nation's only unbeaten team, defeated Nebraska in the Cotton Bowl and was ranked No. 1 by the Football Writers Association of America (FWAA).

Miami's Monster defense made a defensive monster out of Owens, who also happened to be a pretty decent running back, averaging 7.2 yards-per-carry and rushing for more than 4,000 career yards for the Wardogs. Owens also found time to become a high school state champion hurdler, long and high jumper.

The recruiting process began for Owens during his senior year in 1965 and Mackenzie had both eyes riveted on a kid born in Gore, who grew up in awe of his beloved Sooners, particularly during their 47-game winning streak from 1953-57 under coach Bud Wilkinson.

"I kept telling him (Mackenzie), ‘Hey, I'm an Oklahoma kid. My dream is to go to OU,'" Owens recalled. "Trouble was, OU went 3-7 in 1965, the year after Arkansas had won the national championship. Coach Mackenzie told me it was going to take three or four years to build the (OU) program back up. Well, guess what happened."

Sooners' coach Gomer Jones resigned after going 9-11-1 in two seasons and, at the suggestion of legendary head coach Paul "Bear" Bryant, Mackenzie was selected as OU's next head coach after former Sooners standout (1946-49) and Texas coach Darrell Royal turned down an offer to coach his alma mater.

Upon getting the OU job, Mackenzie promptly reversed field on his recruiting approach with Owens.

"He called me and said, 'Forget all that stuff I've been telling you about Arkansas. You need to follow your dreams, son, and come to Oklahoma,'" Owens said, unable to suppress his laughter. "True story."

Mackenzie & Owens
With Jim Mackenzie by his side, Steve Owens signs his letter of intent with Oklahoma in 1966.

Four years later, Owens would become the second of four in-state products to win the Heisman Trophy, joining running back Billy Vessels (Cleveland) in 1952 and followed by quarterback Jason White (Tuttle) in 2003 and quarterback Sam Bradford (Putnam City North) in 2008.

Sadly, Mackenzie would not see his prize recruit go on to be selected as the Most Outstanding Player of college football in 1969. On the night of April 28, 1967, after a recruiting trip to Amarillo, Texas, Mackenzie died suddenly of a heart attack after returning to his Norman home. He was just 37 years old.

No one in Mackenzie's initial recruiting class at OU had known him longer than Owens. Though it was a span of just 32 months dating back to his junior year in high school, Owens said he still felt a strong bond with Mackenzie.

When SoonerVision released a documentary on coach Barry Switzer in the Fall of 2012, Owens offered his services and encouraged that a documentary someday also be done to honor Mackenzie.

On Friday, 50 years after Mackenzie's death, "Sooner Sports TV Featured: Jim Mackenzie" will reveal a 30-minute documentary on a coach who left an indelible mark on a storied program even though he served just 15 months.

Owens said he is "extremely grateful" Mackenzie is being properly recognized. Mackenzie's grandchildren, who also appear in the documentary, made the statement:

"We're just thrilled to hear he hasn't been forgotten about."


Here are a few tidbits on the man OU football fans barely got to know:

  • Mackenzie played college ball at Kentucky (1949-51). He had to choose between playing basketball for coach Adolph Rupp or football for Bryant. Mackenzie chose to play football and beat Oklahoma's 1950 national championship team 13-7 in the Sugar Bowl.
  • In 1957, new Missouri coach Frank Broyles hired Mackenzie away from Bryant's staff at Texas A&M. Broyles and Mackenzie remained together for one season at Missouri (1957) and for eight seasons at Arkansas (1958-65).
  • Mackenzie coached future longtime OU assistant Merv Johnson at Missouri (1957), Switzer at Arkansas (1958-59) and both Jimmy Johnson and Jerry Jones at Arkansas (1962-64).
  • It was Mackenzie who talked Jimmy Johnson into becoming a coach. A nose guard on the 1964 national championship team at Arkansas, Johnson was one semester short of his degree in psychology and planned to return home to Port Arthur, Texas, to work as an industrial psychologist. Mackenzie instead convinced Johnson to serve as a replacement defensive assistant for one semester at Louisiana Tech while that team's defensive coordinator recovered from a heart attack. Johnson, who coached the defensive line at OU from 1970-72, wound up coaching 33 seasons for 11 different teams, ranging from high school to college to the NFL. Johnson became the first coach ever to win a college national championship and a Super Bowl. Three years later, Switzer became the second coach to do the same. Johnson and Switzer both coached for Jones, who became owner of the Dallas Cowboys.
  • Upon his arrival at OU prior to the 1966 season, Mackenzie changed the team's helmets by replacing numbers on the side with an interlocking "OU," which has since been tweaked in design to become one of college football's most recognizable emblems.
  • Mackenzie's coaching staff at OU is considered one of the finest ever assembled with Switzer, Houston assistant Chuck Fairbanks, Kentucky offensive coordinator Homer Rice, West Virginia assistant Galen Hall and Kilgore (Texas) national junior college champion assistant coach Larry Lacewell. "When I look back at that staff, uh, it was a good group of talent," Switzer said.
  • Offensively, Mackenzie installed the "I" formation at OU. "We didn't fumble. We didn't have penalties. We scored in the red zone. We did all the right stuff," Owens said. "The ‘I' formation, I think for the talent we had at that time, was perfect."
  • In his lone season, Mackenzie achieved his primary goal and beat Texas (18-9), which had won eight straight against the Sooners. "When we first got here, Jim says to me, ‘You know why we're here, don't you?' " Switzer recalled. "I said, ‘Well, they haven't won. Their record hasn't been very good.' He said, ‘That's not the reason we're here. The reason we're here is to beat Texas.' "
1966 OU Coaching Staff
Mackenzie's coaching staff at OU in 1966 is considered one of the greatest ever assembled.

Mackenzie inherited a hapless team at OU. "My junior year (1965) was what got Gomer fired, unfortunately," standout lineman Jim Riley said. "When you go 3-7 at the University of Oklahoma, you get hate mail from your mother. That's just how bad it was. It was absolutely a nightmare. That year was a nightmare."

Tireless and tough-minded, Mackenzie immediately let his presence be known. "The first team meeting we had, he just tried to be more of a hard ass," Riley said of Mackenzie. "He was just kind of telling us we weren't very good. Well, he was right, but we didn't want to hear that."

"He knew what it took to be successful. He was a different coach, and that tells me he was a smart coach."
— Merv Johnson

Merv Johnson had experienced Mackenzie as a player himself for his final season at Missouri. "Jim had a great background as far back as Bear Bryant and those things," Johnson said. "He knew what it took to be successful – how to recruit and train the players. When he came to Missouri my senior year, he was a young guy not long out of college, and he killed us. He really did. I didn't dislike him, but I disliked the way he pushed us... He was a different coach, and that tells me he was a smart coach."

Because freshmen were not eligible in those days, Owens was relegated to the freshmen team in 1966 and did not play a down of varsity ball for Mackenzie. Owens did, however, get to experience Mackenzie's brutal conditioning regimen referred to as "Fourth Quarter Class."

Owens owns the school record for the most single-game rushing attempts with 55 carries against Oklahoma State in his final career game at OU. For that matter, Owens owns the top seven spots for single-game rushing attempts with 55, 53, 47, 46, 44, 41 and 40.

"People have asked, ‘How can you carry the ball 55 times in one game?' " Owens said. "My answer to that is, ‘I survived Fourth Quarter Class under coach Mackenzie.' It was a true test of seriously how bad you wanted to be a Sooner.

"Each day, I thought about quitting. Seriously, it was that tough."


The benefits were immediate, however. "When the next season came up, we were in the best shape that I've ever been in," said Riley, a second-round pick in the 1967 NFL Draft who played for the unbeaten (17-0) Miami Dolphins in 1972.

The first season after Mackenzie's death, the 1967 Sooners were one game away from winning the school's fourth national championship since 1950. This sudden competitiveness was due in large part to Mackenzie's demanding regimen that included members of the 1966 team losing a combined 1,400 pounds from the previous season. "We weren't very big, but we were quick," Owens said.

The Sooners finished 10-1 that initial season under Mackenzie successor Fairbanks. The lone loss was a 9-7 setback to Texas, during which OU dominated play until committing one fumble, two interceptions, a missed 27-yard field goal in the second quarter, plus a 28-yard field goal attempt that was blocked with 4:02 left in the game.

The Sooners ended that season ranked No. 3 despite closing with a 26-24 victory over No. 2-ranked Tennessee in the Orange Bowl. Thanks in large part to this awkward set of circumstances, 1967 officially marked the last season the national champion was selected before bowl games were played.

In just 15 months at Oklahoma, Jim Mackenzie turned the Sooners around from a 3-7 campaign and set the tone for success for decades to come.

Oklahoma is the only college football program in history to have four coaches with 100-plus career victories – Bennie Owen (122-54-16), Wilkinson (145-29-4), Switzer (157-29-4) and Bob Stoops (190-48).

There's no way to know how the OU program would have fared had Mackenzie not passed away after just one season. Fairbanks (52-15-1) and Switzer followed Mackenzie with immediate success, and Stoops has lifted the Sooners from their lowest point in history since his arrival in 1999.

"I just feel sorry for him and his family because he had worked hard as an assistant, worked his way up and then he got a great head coaching opportunity at Oklahoma," Merv Johnson said of Mackenzie. "He had tremendous success and had a tremendous future and he wasn't here to appreciate it. I think he might have had a 15-year run. It would have been terrific. Instead, he's gone."

"The success that I enjoyed as a head coach, Jim would have enjoyed because we did the same."
— Barry Switzer

Riley wondered of Mackenzie, "Do you think he would have been as good, or better, than Barry Switzer? I don't know. I just don't know. Because he didn't get that chance unfortunately."

A magnanimous Switzer said, "The success that I enjoyed as a head coach, Jim would have enjoyed because we did the same. We would have been a great program. He was a great recruiter. He got kids to play for him. (He was) smart, both sides of the ball. Very demanding. A helluva lot tougher than me and the coaches I've been around. I miss him tremendously. He was a great impact on me. I'd say he had more influence on me than any coach. He would have enjoyed the success I and Bob Stoops had."

Switzer shared one more tribute to Mackenzie. "I wouldn't have hitched my wagon to his star if I hadn't known what he was when I came to Oklahoma," Switzer said. "I had opportunities to go with other people. He separated (himself). There was something special about Jim."


A half-hour documentary chronicling Mackenzie's one season with the Sooners and his lasting legacy at Oklahoma and beyond debuts Friday, April 28 at 10:30 p.m. CT on FOX Sports Oklahoma.


Photos courtesy of the Mackenzie family.