Oklahoma football: Eight days until season kickoff — No. 8 Sonny Brown

Jan 1, 1986; Miami, FL; USA; FILE PHOTO; Oklahoma Sooners head coach Barry Switzer and his team celebrate a win over the Penn State Nittany Lions at 1986 National Championship at the Orange Bowl. The Sooners won the game 25-10. Mandatory Credit: RVR Photos-USA TODAY Sports
Jan 1, 1986; Miami, FL; USA; FILE PHOTO; Oklahoma Sooners head coach Barry Switzer and his team celebrate a win over the Penn State Nittany Lions at 1986 National Championship at the Orange Bowl. The Sooners won the game 25-10. Mandatory Credit: RVR Photos-USA TODAY Sports /

It’s now eight days before the start of another Oklahoma football season, and we continue our countdown to the season opener next Saturday.

The Orange Bowl has been played every year since 1935. The second-oldest college football bowl game – only the Rose Bowl, which dates back to 1902, has a longer-running tradition – has long been a showcase for some of the best players and coaches in the history of the game.

Each year, the Orange Bowl Committee welcomes a new class into the Orange Bowl Hall of Fame, which began in 1969 with an inaugural trio of Ole Miss offensive lineman Bruiser Kinard, Tennessee Coach Robert Neyland and Georgia halfback Frank Sinkwich. It has since ballooned to 130 inductees.

For longtime Oklahoma fans, however, a glaring omission remains – 1980s defensive back Sonny Brown.

“The main thing is getting there,” Brown told Stormin’ In Norman. “To get there at that particular time, you were the Big 8 champs. So you had to win your conference championship to get to that particular bowl game, so accomplishing that obviously was the highlight of the year up until that game. … It was an exciting time. Loved the atmosphere. I don’t know what it is, for some reason I tended to have my best games in that place.”

No school has more Orange Bowl appearances than the Sooners (21), so it is no surprise that they are well-represented in the Orange Bowl Hall of Fame in both players (Steve Davis, Prentice Gautt, Keith Jackson, Reggie Kinlaw, Torrance Marshall, Tommy McDonald, Steve Owens, Lee Roy Selmon, Billy Sims, Spencer Tillman and J.C. Watts) and coaches (Bob Stoops, Barry Switzer and Bud Wilkinson).

But the exclusion of Brown, now 58, leaves out a player who appeared in the game three times, totaled a whopping five interceptions and was named – along with Oklahoma kicker Tim Lashar – Most Outstanding Player of the 1986 contest, which earned his team a national championship.

“I would welcome it if it happened,” Brown said. “I am not pressing it, but most of the time I understand most of those things go to offensive players. If it happened to be to where I was nominated for that, I would fully cherish it. It would be a great honor.”

From 1984-86, Brown – born on Tinker Air Force base in Oklahoma before starring as a high school option quarterback in Alice, Texas – helped Oklahoma win three-consecutive championships in the Big 8 Conference, which at the time sent its champion to the Orange Bowl each year via an automatic berth.

The 1984 Sooners entered the game with a 9-1-1 record and ranked No. 2 in the country behind undefeated Brigham Young. With a win in the Orange Bowl over No. 4 Washington, Oklahoma felt it had a legitimate claim at the national title since BYU’s schedule – with 11 of 13 opponents winning less than seven games and the lone ranked foe (Pittsburgh) finishing the season at 3-7-1 – was deemed inferior.

Just a sophomore, Brown’s impact was obvious. He was credited with a batted pass in the end zone and his third quarter interception on 3rd and goal inside his team’s five-yard line helped keep the game tied at 14-14. The Sooners led, 17-14, with less than six minutes to go but were ultimately undone by a pair of late Washington touchdowns and lost, 28-17.

“I have thought about that off and on,” Brown said. “I don’t know. I honestly don’t know what happened. We had not been to the Orange Bowl in a few years prior to that. We get there, I don’t know if we were just happy-go-lucky that we finally got back to the Orange Bowl, which meant we won the conference championship. Living high on ourselves and just weren’t really mentally ready to play. I don’t know if that is the case or not, but for whatever reason we just did not play very well that game as a unit. There is no explanation.”

A year later, Brown and the Sooners returned to Miami intent on avoiding another Orange Bowl letdown. Oklahoma was 10-1 and ranked third behind undefeated Penn State and one-loss Miami, which had its own claim to the national title by virtue of a head-to-head win over the Sooners in Norman earlier in the season. The Hurricanes were slated to face Tennessee in the Sugar Bowl at nearly the same time as the Oklahoma-Penn State Orange Bowl. It took three quarters for the eighth-ranked Volunteers to push their lead over Miami to 28-7, which freed up the NBC telecast of the Orange Bowl to change its on-screen graphic in the second half from “Orange Bowl” to “National Championship.”

“There was a certain point in the game, and I can’t remember when it was, that the buzz started going around that Miami was getting beat,” Brown said. “At that point, it became like, ‘We finish this thing off and we’re national champions.’ … But it did. Word got around.”

Brown put up a performance befitting a national champion. Typically a strong safety, Brown played cornerback and, facing a Penn State quarterback in John Shaffer who had not lost a start since the seventh grade, corralled two crucial interceptions. The first set up an Oklahoma field goal, while the second turned the Nittany Lions away at the goal line. For his efforts, Brown was named Orange Bowl Most Outstanding Player as the Sooners’ defense smothered the Nittany Lions, 25-10, and earned Switzer his third national championship and sixth overall for the program.

“It was extremely satisfying knowing that the effort came against an undefeated team to win a national championship,” Brown said. “It was very exciting and humbling at the same time that they picked me to be the MVP along with Tim. It was pretty cool.”

Brown was a senior and team captain in 1986 as Oklahoma prepared to defend its national championship, but the Sooners were dropped early by Miami again. This time, one-loss Oklahoma was left out of a national championship bowl matchup as Miami and Penn State – both unbeaten – squared off in the Fiesta Bowl. As a consolation, the third-ranked Sooners (10-1) were paired with No. 9 Arkansas in the Orange Bowl. Just nine years removed from a shocking Orange Bowl loss to the Razorbacks that cost the Sooners the 1978 national championship, Switzer – who spent 10 years at Arkansas as a player, then an assistant coach – stated in his autobiography that the 1987 Orange Bowl was the only time he asked his team to win a game specifically for him.

“We heard about that game the whole time leading up to the Orange Bowl game,” Brown said. “The whole time. I can still remember the (1978 Arkansas) running back’s name, Roland Sales. That was embedded in our brain for a month going into the bowl game. It was absolutely portrayed and used as motivation.”

The Sooners scored the first 42 points of the game, Brown intercepted two more passes and tipped away another as Oklahoma routed Arkansas, 42-8, and finished the 1986 season 11-1.

Five total interceptions across three Orange Bowls pushed Brown’s career total to 16, which still ranks third behind in program history behind Darrell Royal (18) and Brown’s teammate, Rickey Dixon (17). Surprisingly, Brown was never named to the all-conference team, which was likely more about the inability to pigeonhole him into a single position as his versatility allowed him to play strong safety, free safety, nickelback and both cornerback positions at various times.

“There was one Texas game that I played all five positions,” Brown said. “I have always wondered that. Although it was fun and I felt like it was best for the team and all that kind of stuff, by not being specified in one position I think that did kind of limit my possibility from making some of those honor lists.”

After his college eligibility was exhausted, Brown played two National Football League games for the Houston Oilers in 1987.

Today, Brown resides in Edmond and has worked in the medical device industry for the past 30 years. He regularly attends Oklahoma football games and much like the rest of the Sooners’ fan base, he is excited about the start of the 2022 season and what first-year Coach Brent Venables has in store.

“I have been pretty vocal about it,” Brown said. “I love this coaching staff. I love what they are doing. From my understanding and talking to some of the players and being around a little bit, the players love this coaching staff and love what they are doing. The fan base is unbelievably excited. They love it. I honestly can’t wait until next Saturday because I think this first game, the atmosphere of this first game is just going to be something we haven’t seen there in a while.”