Paul Putz on How Oklahoma and Baylor Are Rivals on the Field and Partners in Ministry

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Paul Emory Putz has a Ph.D in history and is Assistant Director of the Sports Ministry Program at Baylor’s Truett Seminary. You can follow him on Twitter @p_emory.

When the tenth-ranked Oklahoma Sooner football team matches up against the twelfth-ranked Baylor Bears on Saturday, the college football world will be watching. The game is slated for a primetime evening slot on ABC, and the premiere college football preview show—ESPN’s College GameDay—will be in Waco, Texas, to heighten the drama.

Despite the attention this year, the matchup is hardly historic. The two teams have only played 28 times—most of them since 1996, when they joined the Big 12 conference—with Oklahoma winning 25. When one thinks of college football’s great historical rivalries, Baylor and Oklahoma are not even on the radar.

Beyond the field, however, Baylor and Oklahoma do have an important shared legacy. While religion has been a part of football since its very origins, one could make a strong case that no two college football programs have played a more important role in bringing evangelical Christianity into modern-day college football than Oklahoma and Baylor. Their ministry partnership has far greater historical significance than their football rivalry.

For both schools, their pioneering roles came through the Fellowship of Christian Athletes (FCA), founded in 1954. Plenty of Christians had participated in athletics before FCA, but there was no organized infrastructure within the sports world providing them with spiritual support. FCA changed all that, sparking a movement of Christian athletes and coaches that by the 1980s had carved out a stable place within the American sports landscape.

College football was not the FCA’s only sport, but it was by far the most important. Its ability to bring local communities together and its association with masculinity and building character fit well with FCA’s ethos. It was fitting, then, that Oklahoma, king of college football in the 1950s, was where it all began.

The FCA idea came from the mind of Don McClanen, a junior college basketball coach in the state. McClanen’s goal, developed in the midst of the Cold War, was simple: mobilize celebrity athletes to sell Christianity to America’s youth before they could be reached by communism. McClanen’s vision was national, but he had inspiration in his own backyard from Bud Wilkinson, standout coach of the Oklahoma Sooner football team. An Episcopalian, Wilkinson was open to McClanen’s religious vision; he and assistant coach Port Robertson helped organize FCA’s official public launch, which took place in Oklahoma in January 1955.

The launch included visits to numerous high schools and colleges in the state. But it was the visit to the University of Oklahoma that proved most fruitful. “All the players and coaches were in the meeting room and soon the back door opened and in walks Coach Wilkinson and three other men,” former Sooner player Chuck Bowman recalled. The three other men were current or former professional athletes: Doak Walker (football), Otto Graham (football), and Pepper Martin (baseball).

The celebrity athletes sensed the potential usefulness of Oklahoma Sooner football. “I would hit that school again and again,” Graham wrote to McClanen, “because they are the big name out there and a big name in the country.” Sooner football players like Bowman, Clendon Thomas, and Bill Krisher all became FCA spokesmen, helping to legitimize the organization within big-time college football.

Oklahoma football players also helped expand FCA’s goals, adding to its public-facing evangelistic mission a more private discipleship and relationship-building program. This occurred after the very first FCA meeting. Ten Sooner athletes stuck around, asking FCA leaders if they could continue meeting together on a regular basis. Put simply, they instigated the pilot program for the small-group structure that FCA would later call “huddle” groups—one of FCA’s most important and lasting innovations.

While Oklahoma served as ground zero for FCA’s move into college football, we could call Baylor an early adopter.

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Source: Christianity Today