This article on former quarterback and football coach Jack Mitchell appeared in the Arizona Daily Sun on July 13, 2002.
(Reporter’s note: Mitchell died in 2009 at age 85 in Sun City, Arizona.)
Memories of football glory
By Ed Odeven
Old guys love to tell tales of their younger days. Jack Mitchell, a former All-American quarterback for Oklahoma, is no exception.
In a recent interview at his Munds Park home, Mitchell, 79, reminisced about his career — a career that brought him in close contact with exceptional athletes like Gale Sayers and Wilt Chamberlain.
Mitchell grew up in Arkansas City, Kan. and was an all-state basketball and football player and a state tennis champion.
“I played athletics all through school, from first grade and up,” he said. “The Lord was just good to me in that direction.”
Mitchell went to the University of Texas to play for coach D.X. Bible in 1943 after graduating from Arkansas City High School. He spent one semester at the university before he was called to serve in World War II. He was a platoon leader, an Army lieutenant in an infantry division, serving in Germany, France and England.
After the war, Mitchell resumed his football career. It was a time of fierce competition.
“We were all back from the Army,” Mitchell said. “In other words, when we came back in ’46, there were three classes all together in one. The competition coming back was all mature. We were all in the same boat. … The competition was much more severe in ’46, ’47, and ’48.”
Mitchell went to Oklahoma in 1946, and the Sooners won the Big Six Championship, when the conference consisted of Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, Missouri, Iowa and Iowa State. Mitchell earned all-conference accolades at QB in 1946 and 1947.
In 1948, he was named an All-American quarterback, leading Oklahoma to a 14-6 Sugar Bowl victory over North Carolina on New Year’s Day.
Mitchell was named the Outstanding Player Award for the 1949 Sugar Bowl.
“I didn’t play my best game,” he said, “but I’ll tell you why I got the trophy, mainly. It was a defensive game all the way.”
Perhaps his best work, however, was done in the film room during pre-bowl preparations.
After an Oklahoma defender returned an interception back deep into Carolina territory in the first quarter, Mitchell’s smarts were on display as he called running play after running play, plays that kept gaining positive yardage.
“On the film I had noticed that [North Carolina] went into its eight-man front, its goal-line stand, at the 12- or 13-yard line,” Mitchell explained.
“As long as they were going to line up that way, you were going to make two or three yards.”
Mitchell kept running QB sneaks and finally picked up a 2-yard touchdown run, the game’s first score.
“I was basically not a good passer,” he said. “I did; I had to throw some.”
Mitchell also excelled on special teams. He holds the NCAA career record for punt-return average (23.8 yards per return). The record for most punts for touchdowns is shared by three: Mitchell, Nebraska’s Johnny Rodgers and Kansas State’s David Allen.
Looking back, he’s proud of those accomplishments.
“In those three years I can’t remember if I ever made a fair catch,” he recalled. “Today, 90 percent are fair catches, and when you do catch it they are all right on top of you, because they are all rested. They are specialty teams. They are covering like hell. They are all picked for speed. So that’s why it’ll never be broken. … I don’t think the career average will be broken”
Another highlight of Mitchell’s playing day was appearing in the 1949 Chicago College All-Star Game at Soldier Field. That game pitted the defending NFL champion Philadelphia Eagles against college’s best gridiron stars.
“It was a big thrill when you ran out and they had that full house,” Mitchell said. “And they played the Oklahoma ‘Boomer Sooner’ (song). “[The announcer said], ‘Now, at quarterback will be Jack Mitchell, All-American from Oklahoma.”
Mitchell’s counterpart in the game was Tommy Thompson of the Philadelphia Eagles, who was blind in one eye.
The Eagles won the game, 38-0, and Mitchell separated his right shoulder in the game. Although he was signed by the Green Bay Packers, he never played due to his injury.
In 1949, Mitchell started coaching at Blackwell (Okla.) High School. It was a challenge for which he felt prepared.
“By gosh, with my background, with [OU coach] Bud Wilkinson and through my college career and the little time I had with the pros and the All-Star game and all that, I was so far ahead of the old guys that were coaching high school,” Mitchell said. “It wasn’t even funny.”
Mitchell’s college coaching career lasted from 1953 until 1966, with stints at Wichita, now called Wichita State (1953-54), Arkansas (1955-57) and Kansas (1958-66). He was named the Missouri Valley Conference coach of the year in 1954 and the Big Eight coach of the year in ’60.
He coached three times against Alabama’s legendary Paul “Bear” Bryant, when Mitchell was at Arkansas and Bryant was with Texas A&M.
Asked what those experiences were like, Mitchell said, “It was just playing against another team. The guy that’s got the best players is going to win. They are all good coaches when you get in college.
“High school is a different story,” he continued. “You can out-coach a lot of them, because, heck, I played defenses that did stunts, and then I had an option play. They didn’t think you could do that in high school. And I put in the option play and taught the quarterback how to do that. Hell, we ran ’em crazy. We went to the state finals and they’d never been to the finals in the history of Blackwell.”
Mitchell guided the 1961 Kansas team to a 35-7 Bluebonnet Bowl victory over Rice.
Once dubbed “a great motivator,” Mitchell now wonders if that’s an appropriate description of his coaching style.
“You never know if it’s because you’ve got great players or if it’s because you are motivating them,” he said. “But I had to get them. We were fortunate in doing good recruiting. We worked awfully hard on recruiting players.”
Mitchell crossed paths with Chamberlain, when “Wilt the Stilt” was an exceptional all-around athlete at KU. Mitchell tried to persuade Chamberlain to join the football team for a specific purpose — short yardage situations.
“I was going to play him at quarterback, but never put him in the game unless we just needed a yard. … “He could step over them.
“In track, he could out-high jump, out-shot put everyone. He was not only 7-foot-2, but he was built like a guy 6 feet with strength and muscle who could run just as fast. He said he wanted to box. He would’ve been a helluva boxer.”
Mitchell mentioned former KU quarterback Johnny Hadl, who earned All-Pro distinction with the San Diego Chargers and Sayers, the ex-Chicago Bears great, as two of the best players he’s ever coached.
“Sayers might’ve been the finest running backs I saw, and one of the great defensive players,” said Mitchell, an avid golfer.
Of all the college football rivalries Mitchell has been associated with, he said the biggest one involves Ole Miss and Arkansas.
“By God, that’s a war,” he said.
Mitchell retired from coaching in 1966 to pursue a full-time career in business. He’s been involved with running a variety of different businesses ever since, including a bank, an insurance company and Mitchell Publications, Inc., which owns several newspapers in Kansas.
Although he’s no longer coaching, Mitchell, who also maintains residencies in Sun City and Kansas, is still passionate about football. That’s especially true during the autumn.
“I love to go to high school games,” he said, revealing he attends several games in the Phoenix area during the fall.
On Saturdays, Mitchell prefers to remain home rather than go screaming and shouting at a college football venue in the Southwest or Midwest.
“I don’t go to college games, because I want to stay home and be able to watch Oklahoma, Kansas and Texas. I get to see three or four of the games on Saturday,” he said. “If I go to a game, I don’t see anybody else.
“I’ve got two TVs going and a radio on the side. Most of my buddies do the same thing,” he continued, smiling.