Reliving the end of the streak

NORMAN, Okla. -- Clendon Thomas swears he has shaken the hand of every man, woman and child who saw Notre Dame end Oklahoma's record 47-game winning streak.

All 63,170 of them. All wanting to tell Thomas they were there when the music died.

"And I've probably talked to more than were actually there," Thomas said. "Our stadium only held so many."

Over a rich history, the Sooners have played in a number of meaningful games. They'll play one Saturday when Notre Dame visits Norman for the first time in 46 years in a clash of Top 10 powers.

But outside the national titles, it's a pair of iconic losses that have truly stood the test of time among those lived it: The "Game of the Century" loss to Nebraska in 1971; and the day the Fighting Irish snapped the streak.

"I'm amazed how many people my age remember it like it happened yesterday," said Jay Wilkinson, son of Bud Wilkinson, who coached the Sooners during the winning streak.

"That was the only game Clendon lost at OU. But it's the game people want to talk to him about."

In 1957, the Sooners were coming off back-to-back national titles and seemed unbeatable. Sports Illustrated agreed, and the week of the Notre Dame game, the magazine put Thomas, the Sooners' All-American halfback, on the cover with the headline "Why Oklahoma Is Unbeatable."

The last time Notre Dame had thundered into Norman was the last time the Sooners had lost, period. In OU's 1953 season opener, the defending national champion Irish staved off a valiant Sooners comeback and prevailed, 28-21. OU tied Pittsburgh the following week. Then kept winning, and winning and winning.

The year before the '57 game, the Sooners had destroyed Notre Dame and Heisman winner Paul Hornung in South Bend, 40-0. Adding insult to the annihilation, Hornung and OU All-American center Jerry Tubbs were selected to play in an all-star game together after the season. During practice, Tubbs struggled snapping the ball when Hornung was punting. Finally, Tubbs turned to Hornung and said, "Sorry about this -- but we never punted at Oklahoma."

The Sooners were almost as dominant in '57. They cruised to wins in their first seven games. Only Colorado kept the margin to single digits. Notre Dame continued to sputter. The Irish flew to Norman coming off consecutive losses to Navy and Michigan State, and were 18-point underdogs.

"When you keep winning and winning," said OU All-American lineman Bill Krisher, "you just think it's going to happen again."

The season before, the Irish had gone 2-8 -- the worst record in the history of the program. But coach Terry Brennan had quietly rebuilt his team around bruising fullback Nick Pietrosante and speedy halfback Dick Lynch.

On Oklahoma's 50-year statehood anniversary, a record crowd crammed into Memorial Stadium to see the Sooners roll to win No. 48.

Instead, they watched OU squander an opportunity to put the game away early. Three times the Sooners had the ball deep in Notre Dame territory. Three times they failed to score.

The rest of the way, the game was a near stalemate.

During the winning streak, Wilkinson had always found the right buttons to push when his team needed it. The year before, the Sooners had fallen behind Colorado 19-6. At halftime, Wilkinson burst into the locker room and fired to players, "It's taken Oklahoma many years to build up its reputation and you are letting that reputation down today. Take those jerseys off. You don't deserve to wear them."

The Sooners roared back in the second half to win 27-19.

But Wilkinson ran out of buttons to push against the Irish.

Late in the fourth quarter, Notre Dame pounded the Sooners between the tackles with Lynch and Pietrosante, stopping to pass on the drive just once. On fourth down from the OU 3, Lynch took a pitch and followed Pietrosante's block into the end zone.

Notre Dame 7, OU 0.

"I never thought we would lose," Thomas said. "Even then, I thought we'd come back and score those last couple of minutes."

Instead, two final last-gasp drives came up short, with the Irish ending the final one on an interception in the end zone. After Notre Dame took the final knee, the OU fans sat there for several seconds.

"Just stunned silence," Jay Wilkinson said.

Public-address announcer Jack Ogle finally broke that silence by telling the crowd to stand up and "give these boys a big hand" for all the memories. In unison, they did. Then they sat back down, some even in tears. Even after Ogle later proclaimed to "come back next Saturday folks -- that's when the new string starts," many simply remained in the stands, their eyes fixated on the field.

In the locker room, a reflective Wilkinson, who had wished he'd opened up the offense more, had little to say. He told his players he was proud of them, and that their streak would never be broken.

Down in Dallas, Arkansas linebacker Barry Switzer boarded a plane to Fayetteville and picked up the Sports Illustrated that week that had featured the Sooners. During the flight, the pilot came on the public address system and said, "Gentlemen, you might be interested in this score: Notre Dame 7, Oklahoma 0."

Wilkinson, meanwhile, left the stadium and began his long walk home from the stadium as it rained.

"I still look back at that game and wonder," Thomas said.

The people that shake his hand do, too.