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Like every other aspect of its football program, OU's Heisman history is rich
The long list of national award winners from the University of Oklahoma reads like a who's who of college football, dating all the way back to the early 1950s when Bud Wilkinson's Sooners dominated the sport like few other programs in history.
All-America linemen Jim Weatherall and J.D. Roberts sandwiched a pair of Outland Trophy awards around running back Billy Vessels' 1952 Heisman Trophy-winning performance that saw him rush for a school-record 1,072 yards and 17 touchdowns. That celebrated trio helped set the tone for an unprecedented winning tradition.
Over the ensuing 64 years, Oklahoma collected four more Heismans, three Outlands, three Jim Thorpe Awards, four Walter Camp Trophies, three AP Player of the Year awards and dozens of other various national honors that make the trophy cases that adorn the new Barry Switzer Center some of the most impressive in the country.
"If you look at what the Oklahoma football program has accomplished since World War II, there are really no other schools that can claim the same amount of success," said legendary OU coach Barry Switzer. "We have won more games during that time, more conference championships and probably more national championships. That does not include all of the individual awards and accolades so many great Sooner players have won along the way."
Since 1946, Oklahoma has indeed won more games (636) than any other Division-I program and posted the highest overall winning percentage (.770), while capturing a total of seven national titles and 48 conference titles.
OU is the only program in college football history to have four head coaches with at least 100 wins during their time at the helm, including Switzer (157-29-4). Also on that list are Bob Stoops (190-48), Wilkinson (145-29-4) and Bennie Owen (122-54-16).
Vessels played three seasons for Wilkinson -- from 1950-52 -- excelling on both sides of the ball. As a sophomore, he rushed for 938 yards and 13 touchdowns while helping OU win its first-ever national title. Vessels was on his way to a potentially huge season in 1951 before suffering a knee injury against Texas that forced him to miss seven games.
Unsure of how he would respond in '52, the speedy back from Cleveland, Okla., silenced all doubters by becoming the Sooners' main offensive threat once again, rushing for 1,072 yards and 17 touchdowns. He also caught 13 passes for 250 yards and two scores and threw for more than 200 yards and two TDs.
"Billy was probably the best football player I was ever around," said J.D. Roberts, the 1953 Outland Trophy winner, awarded annually to the nation's best lineman. "He was tough and versatile and as fast as they came. There wasn't anything he couldn't do on a football field."
While Vessels got the ball rolling with the program's first Heisman in 1952, Oklahoma fans would have to wait 17 long years before another Sooner hoisted college football's most coveted trophy. In between, OU stars like Tommy McDonald, Kurt Burris and Jerry Tubbs each had top-five finishes in the Heisman voting -- with Burris actually finishing as runner-up to Wisconsin running back Alan Ameche in 1954.
But it wasn't until a bruising workhorse named Steve Owens turned in a memorable 1,523-yard, 23-touchdown season in 1969 that another Heisman came home to Norman. The Sooner senior carried the ball a school-record 358 times that season en route to edging Purdue quarterback Mike Phipps for the famous statue.
"It was certainly special to win such a prestigious award like that, and it's something I'll always cherish," said Owens, reflecting on his '69 performance. “Of course, a lot of the credit belonged to my offensive line and the sacrifices they made for myself and our team that season."
Just under a decade later in 1978, Billy Sims became OU's third Heisman Trophy winner. The junior running back ran for a school-record 1,762 yards and 20 touchdowns, averaging 7.6 yards every time he touched the ball.
Sims narrowly missed earning a second Heisman the following season when he finished second to USC's Charles White. Over his final two regular-season games -- victories against Missouri and Nebraska -- Sims rushed for 527 yards.
"Billy was one of the greatest running backs to ever play the game," said Switzer. "He had it all -- speed, balance, agility, toughness. He could run over you or run by you. He was amazing to watch."
Linebacker Brian Bosworth finished fourth in the 1987 Heisman balloting, but again, OU fans had a lengthy wait until another Sooner managed to win the award. It finally happened again in 2003 when Jason White accomplished the feat thanks to the greatest passing effort in OU history to that point.
The junior quarterback threw for 3,846 yards and 40 touchdowns while leading the Sooners to the national title game (a 17-14 loss to LSU). The following season, White finished third in the voting behind teammate Adrian Peterson and the winner Matt Leinart of USC.
Four seasons later, Sam Bradford shattered every record that White and basically every other OU quarterback had set over the years. The sophomore QB completed 68 percent of his passes for 4,720 yards and 50 TDs (with only 8 interceptions), and edged Texas' Colt McCoy for Heisman.
"Sam Bradford was one of the best college quarterbacks of all time," said former Texas head coach Mack Brown. "He was athletic and mobile, and he could make any throw he needed to make in basically any situation."
Since Bradford’s win in 2008, the Sooners had not really produced a Heisman contender until a walk-on quarterback named Baker Mayfield began turning heads in 2015. That season, the OU signal caller threw for 3,700 yards and 36 scores, and finished fourth in the voting behind an all-star ballot of Derrick Henry (first), Christian McCaffrey and Deshaun Watson.
A year later, Mayfield was even better -- throwing for 3,965 yards and 40 TDs -- and he moved up to third in the voting, one spot ahead of wide receiver teammate Dede Westbrook (80 catches, 17 TDs).
Then in 2017, the kid from Lake Travis, Texas (located near Austin), finally stepped to the podium after earning the third highest percentage of first-place votes in the award's long history. En route to becoming the first-ever walk-on player to win the Heisman, Mayfield threw for 4,340 yards and 41 TDs while leading the Sooners to a third straight Big 12 title and a berth in the College Football Playoff for the second time in three seasons.
Mayfield was OU's sixth Heisman winner.
"This is unbelievable to me -- to be up on this stage with all of these greats," said Mayfield after becoming the 83rd Heisman Trophy winner on Dec. 9, 2017.
"OU has been the biggest difference-maker for me. You talk about OU, you talk about the people who changed my life, the mentors I've been around, the relationships I've built. Those are (going to) be for a lifetime for me. I say it all the time, it's been a dream come true."
One year later, Kyler Murray became OU's seventh Heisman winner, following up Mayfield's memorable senior season with his own remarkable season-long performance. The redshirt-junior quarterback leads the nation with a school-record 4,945 total yards, including 4,053 through the air and another 892 rushing the ball.
Oklahoma becomes only the fourth school to claim back-to-back Heisman winners, and the Sooners have now collected four Heisman Trophies in the last 16 years -- White (2003), Bradford (2008), Mayfield (2017) and Murray (2018).
Oklahoma's seven Heismans are now tied for the most all time with Notre Dame and Ohio State.
Murray, who transferred in from Texas A&M prior to the 2016 season, threw for 40 touchdowns and ran for 11 more. The Allen, Texas, native earned 517 first-place votes and 2,167 points, and was followed by Alabama QB Tua Tagovailoa (1,871 points, 299 first-place votes) and Ohio State's Dwayne Haskins (873 and 46).
"This is crazy," said Murray in the aftermath of winning the award. "This is such an honor -- something I'll never forget, something I'll treasure for the rest of my life."
(Editor's Note: This story appears in Sooner Spectator's 2018 Heisman/Bowl Preview issue. To read more or subscribe, call 405-364-4515)