Davis beat odds to lead OU

Editor's note: SoonerNation's Jake Trotter interviewed Steve Davis for his book "I Love Oklahoma/I Hate Texas." Parts of this story were repurposed from interviews from the book.

NORMAN, Okla. -- Steve Davis didn't look the part of a winning quarterback the first time he took the field in the Red River Rivalry game in 1972. As a jittery reserve redshirt freshman warming up before Oklahoma's annual clash with Texas, Davis overthrew a receiver so badly the pass knocked the hat off a woman sitting in the stands. Right then, Sooners assistant coach Barry Switzer walked by and barked, "Davis, you're gonna to have to get a helluva lot better to ever play in this game."

Davis got better. A helluva lot better. As quarterback of the Sooners, Davis won 32 games over three seasons and lost only once. He also won two national championships and never lost to Texas.

"He didn't have the greatest speed and wasn't the greatest thrower," said former Oklahoma assistant Leon Cross, responsible for convincing then-head coach Chuck Fairbanks to offer Davis a scholarship. "But he was just a winner in every way, and he proved it."

Davis, 60, died on Sunday after the private plane he was in crashed into a South Bend, Ind., neighborhood. The Beechcraft Premier I twin jet had departed from Jones Riverside Airport in Tulsa, where Davis lived.

"A very tough day for Oklahoma," Cross said.

As a kid growing up in the eastern Oklahoma town of Sallisaw, Davis had two dreams. He wanted to be a Baptist minister, and he wanted to quarterback the Sooners. Davis once said he knew only two songs when he graduated high school: "Amazing Grace" and "Boomer Sooner."

Davis became an ordained Baptist minister as a teen. He would fulfill his other dream, too.

Growing up, Davis idolized Sooners quarterback Bobby Warmack, and tried to look like him when he started playing football -- down to the towel Warmack wore on the front of his pants.

Yet even though Davis badly wanted to be a Sooner, Fairbanks didn't want him back, initially passing on offering him a scholarship. After all, Davis wasn't as big, as fast or as strong as the other quarterbacks the Sooners had been recruiting.

But Cross, in charge of recruiting eastern Oklahoma, kept pitching Davis to Fairbanks. And finally, after Clyde Crutchmer switched his commitment to Colorado, Fairbanks agreed to give Davis Oklahoma's final scholarship.

"I remember his high school coach told me 'He's not the greatest athlete, but he's a winner,'" Cross said, "'and he'll win games for you.'"

When Davis got to Norman, he was No. 8 out of the eight freshman quarterbacks.

"Nobody thought Steve would ever play quarterback at OU," Tinker Owens, who would become Davis' favorite receiver, once said.

But over the course of two years, Davis quietly ascended to the top of the depth chart. He couldn't throw like Warmack or run like wishbone great Jack Mildren. But Davis had a unique knack for avoiding mistakes. And with All-Americans such as Lee Roy Selmon and Rod Shoate on defense and Joe Washington on offense, that's all the star-studded Sooners needed out of their quarterback.

"He didn't beat us," said Switzer in an interview for a chapter on Davis in my "I Love Oklahoma/I Hate Texas" book. "He was sound. That's why he played."

Many times, though, Davis was more than simply sound. Especially when the pressure was greatest.

In his Cotton Bowl debut in 1973, he passed and ran for four touchdowns as the Sooners destroyed Texas 52-13. The following season against the Longhorns, he rushed for Oklahoma's only offensive touchdown to lead the Sooners to a come-from-behind 16-13 win.

Then in 1975, Davis called a brilliant late-game audible against Texas that propelled Horace Ivory's go-ahead 33-yard touchdown run in another Sooners victory.

Davis' only defeat came later in that season, a 23-3 loss at home to four-touchdown underdog Kansas. Despite winning 28 consecutive games and a national championship, Davis was roundly booed by the Oklahoma fans every time he jogged onto the field. After the loss, one fan even complained to the Daily Oklahoman newspaper that Davis lacked the "spirit" of an Oklahoma quarterback.

Understanding firsthand how fickle fans can be -- especially with quarterbacks -- Davis sent Landry Jones an encouraging two-page letter last fall after Jones was thoroughly criticized following Oklahoma's early-season loss to Kansas State.

The next game, Jones tied Davis' win total with one of the best performances of his career in a smothering victory over Texas Tech.

"That showed great courage," Davis said days later. "All the right things that you want in your quarterback."

Davis himself showed great courage, too. After the Kansas boos, the Sooners rallied around their quarterback and dominated the rest of season.

In the Orange Bowl victory over Michigan, Davis was named most valuable player as the Sooners captured their second straight national title.

"He was a man of character, a great leader," Cross said.

"And all he did was win."