Noble changed more than football

In the spring of 1998, the University of Oklahoma was searching for its next athletic director.

Among others, Michael Cawley was appointed to the search committee. He was on his way to a meeting on campus at Evans Hall when a man stopped him on the front steps.

"Billy Vessels," OU's 1952 Heisman winner said, sticking out his hand. "You're with the Noble Foundation, right? Well, you need to know, without Lloyd Noble, none of us would be here today."

Oilman, philanthropist, regent, Lloyd Noble never apologized for being from Oklahoma.

He didn't want Oklahomans apologizing, either.

But in the 1940s, morale in the Sooner State had been shattered. The Dust Bowl had destroyed the land; "The Grapes of Wrath," the pride.

"People here had a pretty negative attitude about where they lived," said OU regent Max Weitzenhoffer, an OU alum and Broadway producer. "They didn't have anything to hang their hat on."

Noble refused to stand for it.

And in a defining regents meeting in 1945, the sandy-haired, tan-jacketed driller from Chickasaw Nation changed state history. He suggested OU build up its football program. Football, he believed, could help restore Oklahoma's spirit.

"Mr. Noble saw football as a means of building morale," OU president David Boren said. "A way of lifting up the state after the terrible period of the Dust Bowl."

Before long, Oklahoma became synonymous with college football. By 1957, the Sooners had won a record 47 consecutive games and three national championships.

Not much has changed since.

In the modern era, no team has been ranked No. 1 more often than the Sooners. This week, OU will open the season ranked atop the polls once again and is one of the favorites to reach the BCS National Championship Game.

"The building of the football program created something that was so much more than a sport," Weitzenhoffer said. "It gave people here something to be proud of."

Lloyd Noble was born in 1896 in the Indian Territory town of Ardmore.

Ironically, a leader in higher education later in life, Noble dropped out of OU in 1921, took out a loan and drilled his first oil well in Healdton, Okla. The Noble Drilling Corporation rapidly developed into an industry powerhouse, and Noble became one of the most respected drillers in the world.

So respected, in fact, Winston Churchill turned to Noble to oversee a covert mission during World War II to drill for oil in England's Sherwood Forest.

The operation, comprising 42 American roughneck volunteers, created 94 working wells, fueling British warplanes while circumventing German submarine attacks on incoming oil tankers.

Noble didn't make a dime from the venture.

While war raged across Europe and the Pacific, Oklahoma was coming out of perhaps the worst environmental disaster in American history.

In the 1930s, topsoil in the southern plains turned to dust after years of drought and unsophisticated farming practices that overused the land. As the winds whipped across the fields, clouds of dust rose and covered the sky. On top of creating almost unbearable living conditions, the dust storms eroded the topsoil and destroyed millions of acres of farmland.

"In real simple terms, even though oil had been discovered, Oklahoma was an agriculture state at the time, and the majority of people were farmers," said Cawley, president of the Noble Foundation, which Noble established after the Dust Bowl to educate and assist the region's farmers.

"The Dust Bowl broke the fabric, the spirit of the people. They didn't have the tools to stay on the land, so many of them left for California."

All told, Oklahoma lost almost a fifth of its population. The state became synonymous with the Dust Bowl.

Furthermore, Oklahomans believed the "Okies" in John Steinbeck's novel were portrayed as being poor, dumb vagabonds. The release of the movie in 1940 only amplified the perception.

Oklahomans were so enraged and humiliated that the book was banned from OU's campus. Boren's father, Congressman Lyle Boren, denounced the book publicly in Washington.

"Mr. Noble believed there had to be something that got us out of this Dust Bowl mentality," Weitzenhoffer said.

That something was football.

After his appointment to the regents in 1934, Noble took special interest in the football program, which was in shambles. There were no trainers or equipment managers, and the locker rooms lacked hot water.

When the Sooners needed a new coach, Noble single-handedly convinced LSU's Biff Jones to take the job. Jones stayed only two years but organized a previously tattered athletic department.

By the 1940s, Noble had become the most charitable and influential regent OU had ever seen.

He facilitated the launch of the school's now vibrant medical research programs. His foundation would become one of the top three donors in university history. And privately, he gave bonuses to professors when he felt they weren't being paid enough.

"When he saw a need, and the resources weren't there, he just gave money out of his pocket to make things happen," Boren said. "As a thinker, as a visionary, he's just unsurpassed by any regent in his contribution to the university."

In 1945, Oklahoma needed vision more than ever, and the football program needed the right coach.

Snorter Luster, Noble's college roommate, had resigned as football coach after a series of mediocre seasons. While discussing possible replacements, the regents began to examine how "The Grapes of Wrath" had demoralized the state, and what could be done about it. According to OU president George Cross, who detailed the conversation in his book, "Presidents Can't Punt," Noble reasoned that the university could help.

By hiring a football coach who could recruit World War II veterans -- many had four years of athletic eligibility remaining -- the Sooners, Noble argued, could field a great football team overnight.

"He saw it as an opportunity to bring some electricity to the state," Cawley said.

The regents flew in Jim Tatum, who brought a prospective assistant coach with him to the interview. The two had coached together on one of the Navy's service teams.

This prospective assistant, however, stole the show. And Noble was so impressed, he prodded the regents to offer Tatum the job -- with the stipulation that he bring Charles "Bud" Wilkinson with him.

After one season, Tatum left for Maryland and Wilkinson was convinced to stay.

"One day in high school, I went home to eat lunch and Daddy said, 'Honey, I want you to meet someone,' " recalled Ann Brown, Noble's daughter. " 'This is Mr. Wilkinson. He's going to be our next football coach.' "

OU's irresistible football dynasty was full steam ahead. The state's image as a destitute wasteland dissipated, and in its place, a reputation of winning college football.

"Anywhere you go, anytime you mention you're from Oklahoma, people immediately think of our football team," Weitzenhoffer said. "That's not a negative. It's what we're known for."

Consequently, football has become part of Oklahoma's fabric. University admissions go up when the Sooners win. Same with fundraising.

Unfortunately, Noble never got to see the culmination of what he helped build. On Valentine's Day 1950 -- three years before the start of OU's 47-game winning streak -- Noble died of a heart attack at age 53.

"I don't think anyone recognized the value of what he helped create until after it was created," Weitzenhoffer said. "But without the pushing of Mr. Noble, it never would have happened. It wouldn't have existed.

"We wouldn't be where we are now."

Jake Trotter covers University of Oklahoma football for SoonerNation.

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