In 1948, legendary Oklahoma Sports Information Director Harold Keith published the first of his two books on the history of Sooner football, Oklahoma Kickoff
Of all the books written on OU football, Oklahoma Kickoff
is perhaps the most important. Every subsequent history of the program has relied heavily on the wonderful source Keith created on the program's formative years.
The book chronicles the first 25 years of football on the Norman campus against the backdrop of rugged life on the Oklahoma prairie and the infancy of the university and its community.
Keith's tapestry of personalities, hardships and humor result in a fascinating and lucid explanation that rivals historical accounts in any genre. And that's not hollow praise. Keith penned 15 books, most of which were fictional works, and won literary awards.
Keith's success with Oklahoma Kickoff
resulted from his amazing acumen and meticulous research. Today, the process in gathering that research is nearly as interesting as the book itself.
Fortunately, Keith was organized. He kept good files and notes. Among the items he kept in researching Oklahoma Kickoff
is a series of letters received from John A. Harts, the coach of OU's first team, the 1895 squad.
It occurred to us that the great Sooner fans might enjoy reading the words of that first coach so we have scanned the letters, which were written between March 27, 1931, and Oct. 6, 1942, and will present them here at SoonerSports.com.
BIRTH OF OU FOOTBALL
As legend has it, football at the University of Oklahoma began in 1895 when student and faculty member John A. Harts, standing in the middle of Bud Risinger's Norman barber shop said, "Let's get up a football team."
That team, comprised of students, faculty and townies, including Risinger, was defeated soundly (more on the score later) by a more experienced squad from Oklahoma City. Still, it was Harts' collection of players who gave rise to the sport at the university.
Harts was a transplant from Kansas. A native of Sunnydale, which is located just north of Wichita, he attended college and learned football at Southwestern, a small Methodist school, in Winfield, Kan.
After his one season as OU's coach, Harts left for the Arctic, reportedly to prospect for gold, and was lost in Sooner lore until Keith began searching for him in the early 1930's.
He began by contacting Homer Myers, the registrar at Southwestern, but Myers had little to offer. He directed Keith to Dr. R.L. George, the pastor at Grace Methodist Episcopal Church in Winfield, the acting president of the college and a former classmate with Harts.
George, who was under the impression that Harts had died, responded on Feb. 25, 1931. His recall was clear except for Harts' last name.
"As I recall John Hart (sic), he was about five feet eight or nine," wrote George," light complexion, weighing perhaps 160 or 165 pounds and athletic in build. He was very fond of sports. So far as his record in athletics is concerned, I am not in a position to state. Neither am I able to state definitely with reference as a student.
"He was a very likeable chap, sociable and active in school life with, of course, a particular leaning in the direction of athletics."
George then pointed Keith to H.L. Williams, a pastor in Kechi, Kan. Williams took some time to respond, but finally gathered the information Keith needed and provided Harts' personal address along with a clarification that the last name did, in fact, end with an 's.'
On March 27, 1931, Harts wrote his response to Keith's first inquiry.
"Imagine my surprise on the receipt of your letter," Harts began. "I am the John or Jack Harts you are looking for and I hasten to answer."
He continued to answer to the tune of nine more letters, some in a difficult-to-decipher long hand, over the next 11 years.
Keith occasionally scribbled notes to himself on the letters and underlined passages that were appropriate for his book. A questionnaire provided by Keith is often referenced in the letters, but it is nowhere to be found in the OU archives.
Like any exchange, some of the letters provide interesting tidbits, others are more mundane. Despite that, it's interesting to read from the man who actually started football at OU. And, yes, Harts did take credit for that fact.
"I am the daddy of football at the University of Oklahoma," he confirmed to Keith. "For years I have watched your record with no little sense of pride and am indeed glad to hear that I had not been forgotten."
LETTERS THROUGH 1933
Keith and Harts continued correspondence with letters dated from April 9, 1931 to March 17, 1933.
includes acknowledgement by Harts that he has received a questionnaire from Keith. In subsequent correspondence we learn that the inquiry included at least 135 questions. Follow-up letters reveal that the document proved to be somewhat elusive.
Keith's notation in the margin of page two cites the "priceless" nature of the stories Harts wove into his text, including detail of the period uniforms and one episode in which the coach blatantly cheated.
The next three letters all arrived in Harts' long-hand. The first
promised some articles that he had written, the second
, which made mention of an impending vacation to the northwest, was the first to be signed as "Jack" rather than "John" or "Jno" and the third
confessed that Harts lost the questionnaire during his trip.
The third letter also offered an interesting correction that Keith, possibly because he had refuting data, did not use in his book. Harts stated that OU's first game ended with a 64-0 loss to the visiting Oklahoma City team. Prior to that time, and still today, that score is reported as 34-0.
Harts also noted that he did not start in the game due to a torn ligament suffered one day earlier.
The final letter of 1931 was written on Dec. 23
and simply indicates that the first 35 questions on Keith's inquiry had been answered. Unfortunately, that questionnaire does not exist in the OU archives. Harts wrote, "you will need a whole book to write all my experiences."
The next letter, written March 17, 1933
, in pencil and not on company letterhead, promised more information to come, and featured a list of the jobs Harts held during his lifetime... school teacher, farmer, coal miner, sailor, gold prospector, survey work, railroading, cow puncher in the Black Hills, city commissioner in Wichita, Kan., a lecturer for the American Green Cross and finally a manager at the Aggeler & Musser Seed Co.
The P.S., in that letter also referenced Harts living through the March 10 Long Beach earthquake, which registered a magnitude-6.3. The old coach said a "I dodged a cyclone out near Shawnee years ago that made much more fuss."
Nearly eight years would pass before the next letter.
The last two letters received from John Harts to Harold Keith, at least in the Oklahoma Athletics Department archive, were written on Sept. 9, 1941, and Oct. 6, 1942.
Both waxed a bit more melancholy than Harts' previous correspondence.
The first letter informed that Harts and one of his Oklahoma classmates, Ross Hume of Anadarko, Okla., had just attended an OU Alumni function in Hollywood.
He also talked of how he still longed to write a book about being on an Arctic Whaler in 1897 and a general history of whaling and whaling vessels.
Harts too gave mention of another famous Oklahoman.
"As I drove by Forrest Lawn Cemetery and saw the casket of Will Rogers placed beneath the sheltering arm of an (sic) Eucalyptus Tree, my mind drifted back to the day thirty-nine years before to the exact day when I was in the Harbor 'Barrow' in Alaska where his body was brought after his accident," Harts wrote.
The final letter revealed again the pride Harts felt in starting football at OU. He recalled fondly "old places and friends," including Dr. David Ross Boyd, the university's first president, who resided in nearby Glendale, Calif., until his death in 1936.
Despite intentions he had announced in previous letters it appears that the only OU game Harts ever witnessed was the one he helped organize. The tone of his Oct. 6, 1942, implies that he had not yet made the trip.
There is no record of Harts' death on readily available web searches or in the OU archives.
Harts, after saying, "I am very proud of the fact I did my humble part in starting the great Oklahoma football team," and "I shall cherish the memory of those days as long as life lasts," signed off with a message that endures ...
"To all the Team and Coach, as well as yourself, I send my very best wishes for a successful, and happy year."
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