Oklahoma football: Not the first time OU football has been altered by a pandemic

We wouldn’t have thought much about this a month ago, but if the Oklahoma football season is delayed or even cancelled because of the nationwide coronavirus crisis, it won’t be the first time.

The 1918 season was one of 14 undefeated seasons in the 125-year history of Sooner football, but the season consisted of just six games. That season, the 14th under head coach Bennie Owen, was the shortest in his 22 seasons coaching Oklahoma football.

That was the year in which the last pandemic event, the Spanish flu, hit the United States, but it wasn’t the only major event impacting the college football season and altering American lives. The U.S. involvement in World War I had begun the year before.

Only three letterman from the 1917 Oklahoma team, which finished with a 6-4-1 record, returned in 1918 because of the war, and two of the three left for military service during the 1918 season.

The opening of the 1918 season was delayed

There was a question as late as mid-September that year whether there would be a football season at all. As the war continued in Europe, many colleges were converted into military training grounds. Just 24 hours after an initial decision by the Army to cancel the 2018 season, however, the decision was reversed to allow college football as long as it did not interfere with military training.

Oklahoma was originally scheduled to kick off the season in late September, hosting Central Oklahoma (now known as the University of Central Oklahoma), but that game was postponed for a later date and the Sooner opened the 1918 season on Sept. 28 against Post Field, a team made up of military personnel from Fort Sill. That wasn’t much of a contest, however, as even with a depleted roster the Sooners prevailed, 58-0.

The Spanish flu started slow then spread like wildfire across the county

Just a few days after the win over the Fort Sill team, the first confirmed case of the Spanish Flu was diagnosed in Oklahoma City.

Cases of the Spanish flu were first reported in the United States in March of 2018. While the number of cases dropped off in the summer months, it proved to be just the calm before the storm as the deadly virus returned with a vengeance in the fall.

The flu spread so rapidly across the continental United States, eventually leaving a U.S. death toll numbering 675,000, that the college football season was temporarily put on hold. Not only were the college rosters heavily affected by the World War, but now the flu virus was taking its paralyzing hold on many of the remaining available players.

October 1918 games with Missouri and Texas were pushed back into November because of the flu crisis but, in actuality, were never played.

Oklahoma did not play its second game that season until Oct. 26. It was the game originally scheduled for a month earlier against Central Oklahoma. Even that date was problematic because earlier in the week Central Oklahoma was reported to have just 14 available players because the rest of the roster was fighting the flu bug.

The game with Central Oklahoma did in fact take place, but because of quarantine conditions that were in effect, the general public was prohibited from attending. The only people allowed in the stands at Boyd Field (where the Sooners played until Oklahoma Memorial Stadium was opened in 1923) were military training personnel and they sat in different sections, spaced well apart and practicing social distancing — as we are doing today with the coronavirus pandemic.

Social gathering restrictions in the state of Oklahoma and the Oklahoma City area were relaxed beginning in early November 1918, but it was not until a week or so later that fans were allowed back in the stands.

Oklahoma hosted Arkansas on Nov. 16 and unloaded on the visiting Razorbacks, winning by a video-game-like margin of 103-0. The following week, against Phillips University, a private school that was located in Enid, Oklahoma, the Sooners found themselves trailing 7-0 after giving up their first points of the season, but managed to come from behind for a 13-7 victory.

The atypical 1918 season came to a spirited close with a 27-0 shutout victory over in-state rival, then known as Oklahoma A&M (Agricultural and Mining).

The seven points the Sooners’ yielded to Phillips were the only points OU gave up in its six games that season. The Sooners were members of the Southwest Conference at that time and won their second of what today numbers 49 conference championships, outscoring their six 1918 opponents 278-7.

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