Jack Mitchell: Oklahoma’s All-American QB in 1948

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.

PLAYING DAYS

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.

COACHING DAYS

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.

NOWADAYS

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 the 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.

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Establishing the Iraqi Softball League

This column appeared in the Arizona Daily Sun on Aug. 1, 2003

Flagstaff soldiers play ball in Iraq

By Ed Odeven

Baseball may be America’s pastime. But for a group of Flagstaff soldiers deployed in Iraq, playing softball is a way to pass time while feeling connected to their hometown.

Arizona Army National Guard soldiers from the 220th Transportation Co., including Staff Sgt. Armando Gonzalez, Spc. Lorenzo Apodaca, Sgt. 1st Class Daniel Casados and Staff Sgt. Rudy Almendarez, play in the Iraqi Softball League, which was formed in May by the Flagstaff residents.

The first game was held May 3 between Team Arizona and Puerto Rico. The Arizonans were victorious, 15-5. The league features six teams: two Arizona teams from the 220th Co. and national guard squads from Puerto Rico, Alabama, Nebraska and Kentucky. According to Gonzalez, who sent a letter to the Daily Sun sports department from the City of Ur, Tallil Airbase in Iraq, the Republic of Korea also planned to field a team.

So, you’re probably wondering how did this league get established?

“It started one afternoon in late April when a solider from the 220th Transportation Co. from Flagstaff went to the 456 Quartermaster Company from Puerto Rico to pick up supplies,” Gonzalez wrote. “While there he noticed that there was some softball equipment lying around. He asked the Puerto Rican solider if they play softball and the Puerto Rican responded: ‘Do you know anybody who thinks that they could play? Let us know.’

“At that point, it was on.”

After all, playing softball is in their blood. It’s what these guys do every year. Or as Gonzalez wrote, “For soldiers like SSG Gonzalez, SSG Almendarez and SFC Casados, it would have been the first season (in the Flagstaff Parks and Rec Softball League) they would have missed in 20 years.”

Here’s where a little ingenuity paid off.

After finding an empty field near their company quarters, Casados, who works for the city of Flagstaff Engineering Department, made contact with the 92nd Engineers Battalion. That battalion cleared the field under the watchful eye of Casados. Almendarez, a city of Flagstaff Environmental Services Department employee, Gonzalez went to an old Iraqi junkyard to locate items to clear and get the ballfield ready.

What followed was a task that required much caution.

“When constructing the field a lot of care had to be taken because it was previously a site that had been bombed by the U.S. bombers,” Gonzalez wrote. “Nearby there was a bunker that had been hit by a Bunker bust bomb. Luckily, there was no ordinance found on the field.

“They then filled sandbags to use for bases. Within days they had a field constructed. After the field was completed, it was named Iraqi One Ballpark.”

Casados is a well-known name in the Flagstaff Softball A-League. His father Danny Casados coaches an American Legion softball team. His brother Joe Casados plays on an American Legion squad.

“Being able to play ball has made time away from home faster,” Daniel Casados said in the letter. “It’s been great to play with friends that I have played with and against.”

Almendarez, meanwhile, regretted that he didn’t bring his glove, bat and other equipment overseas.

“I should have known that going anywhere with Daniel and Armando, that we were going to find a softball game,” Almendarez said. “I just didn’t think that being deployed in Iraq that we would have found a team to play.”

Gonzalez, an Arizona Department of Corrections parole officer who plans to devote more time to his grandchildren after returning to Flagstaff, said the 220th Co. delivers supplies throughout Southern Iraq for 6 1/2 days each week.

Thus, the soldiers truly treasure their leisure time.

“For one-half day a week, all the players make an attempt to make it back to the base camp so they could participate in the softball game,” Gonzalez wrote. “I would rather be playing in the city league where it’s cooler; here sometimes it gets to (be) 120 degrees. But we have to make do with what we got.”

‘We did not have any casualties in our company and completed more than 1 million miles.’

This column on then-Northern Arizona University cheerleader Kristyna Robinson, who served in Iraq, appeared in the Arizona Daily Sun on Nov. 19, 2004.

From the front lines to the spirit line

By Ed Odeven

Today marks the end of a special time in Kristyna Robinson’s life, the last football game she’ll participate in as a Northern Arizona cheerleader.

If all had gone as originally planned, this day would’ve taken place last fall. But her life took a different path the day she joined the Army National Guard in 2002.

Robinson, a 1999 graduate of Paradise Valley High School, joined the Army as a college underclassman. She had planned to attend officer candidate school upon completion of her psychology degree, become a military intelligence officer and then join the FBI.

But those plans changed when Robinson and four of her NAU cheerleading mates — National Guard members Joe Wren, a Purple Heart recipient; Brett Jacobson; Glenn Whitting; and Matt Mahaffey — got “the call” in January 2003.

It was then, when the team was training for a national competition, that the five cheerleaders were informed they’d be going to Iraq.

“We were actually at cheer practice when we got called,” Robinson says. “Joe got a voice mail on his phone and (it) said we needed to leave.”

As members of the 1404th Transportation Company, based in Bellemont, the five NAU students were sent to Fort Bliss in Texas for three months before they were ordered to go overseas.

The 1404th served in northern Iraq and in Bilad, which is about one hour north of Baghdad, delivering equipment for helicopters and vehicles, food, supplies — whatever was needed.

Robinson, who went to basic training at Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri, served as an 88M, a truck driver/heavy motor vehicle transport operator, and also helped out with communications and administrative support.

During a recent interview, she spoke gratefully about how fortunate her unit was.

“We did not have any casualties in our company and completed more than 1 million miles,” Robinson says.

Like in any war, there were, of course, several life-or-death incidents for Robinson and members of the 1404th.

“We had just pulled out of our compound and we were fired at,” she says, recalling one of those incidents.

“It was probably the scariest because we were in a convoy with fuel trucks. They were aiming for the fuel trucks and it went right in between them. We were three trucks behind them. If it had hit the fuel truck, it would’ve been really bad.”

Mahaffey, who worked as a recoveries specialist, has similar memories.

“The scariest moments for me was when I knew either Kristyna or Joe or somebody that I was very close to was on a convoy there and something happened there,” Mahaffey recalls. “And I didn’t have any information except for ‘the convey got hit’ or … ‘something happened’ … ’til I got back and I was able to see that everybody was OK.”

It was during times like these that Robinson and Mahaffey weren’t nearly as chummy as they’d be on the sideline during a football game or as carefree as they might be during a laid-back afternoon practice at the Skydome.

“While we were over there … you do get in a military mindset,” says Mahaffey, a five-year member of the team who’s now an assistant coach.

What was Robinson’s personality like in Iraq? Mahaffey was asked.

“I hesitate to say less personal, but I think we were all focused on what were doing,” he says. “But it certainly was nice to hang out with each other, having somebody (around) that you’ve known for a while.”

It was, however, difficult to stay in tip-top physical shape in the military.

“It was a struggle,” Robinson says, reminding me she worked 16-18 hours a day. “Being in Iraq, we didn’t really have time to exercise too much. Everyone has the misconception that we went over there and ran five miles a day and were in really good shape. I was probably in the worst shape I’ve been in college while I was over there.”

And, to say the least, it was challenging for Robinson to keep up with what was happening at NAU and the world around her while she was stationed in Iraq. (She did manage to find time to practice her cheers and routines “two or three times while we were in Iraq.”)

“We didn’t really get (steady) Internet access until six months in,” she says. “It would be really sporadic and the Internet would be down a lot. Towards the end, they started to have, like, cafes just full of computers.”

The 1404th returned to the U.S. in April, first to Fort Bliss and then to Show Low.

Robinson is a full-time student again and will graduate in May. She then plans to go to graduate school to study forensics psychology, possibly to John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City.

In the meantime, she’s still serving one weekend a month in the National Guard and enjoying her time as a cheerleader, doing the drills with an almost completely new squad than the one she was a part of at NAU two years ago.

Robinson’s story wasn’t common knowledge to many of them.

“Some people didn’t know,” she says, referring to her time in Iraq. “When I would tell them, they would be like, ‘You were really over there?’ They were kind of surprised at first that a cheerleader would go to Iraq.”

Robinson did, serving her country courageously.

Now she’s back. And the former dancer/gymnast/prep track athlete is doing what she loves on Saturdays — for one more week. And she’ll never forget that.

“I appreciate the little stuff a lot more,” she says. “I don’t take as much for granted.”