NORMAN, Okla. (AP) — As a child, Steve Davis dreamed of playing for Oklahoma and even tucked away a picture of the Sooners’ quarterback he idolized in his dresser drawer.
Decades later, he is among the standard-bearers for the position at one of college football’s most storied programs. Davis, who started every game during Barry Switzer’s first three seasons as head coach and won national championships in 1974 and 1975, died Sunday in a plane crash in South Bend, Ind. He was 60.
Davis compiled a remarkable 32-1-1 record in three years as the Sooners’ starter. The Sooners went 11-0 in 1974, then won the national title again the following year after going 11-1.
It was a storybook career for Davis, who finished with one of the best records for a starting quarterback in the sport’s history after a humble beginning at Oklahoma. He grew up in Sallisaw in the eastern part of the state and developed a love for the Sooners. In an interview with The Oklahoman newspaper last year, he described how he hid a picture from an Oklahoma football brochure in his top dresser drawer.
“It was a shot into the huddle, and there was Bobby Warmack, who was my idol. He had that eye-black, and the double chin strap and the towel out of the front of his pants,” Davis told the paper. “I took that picture, and I took a big, black magic marker and wrote `WHEN?”‘
The day Davis made his first start in the 1973 season opener, he said, his mother took the picture and wrote on it: “TONIGHT.”
Oklahoma beat Baylor in the opener, then tied powerhouse Southern Cal — with Lynn Swann and Pat Haden — in the second game.
After that, Davis and the Sooners ran off 28 straight victories.
“I will never get away from the fact that I was an Oklahoma quarterback. I will never get away from the fact that I only lost one game,” Davis said in the 2008 book “The Die-Hard Fan’s Guide to Sooner Football.” “All of those things are a part of my legacy and my history. I am very thankful for what happened. I don’t know that I would trade my career for any other quarterback that has ever played at OU.”
Switzer recounted how Davis wasn’t highly regarded as a high school player and was recruited simply as an athlete before he caught the coach’s eye during a freshman game, back when first-year players were ineligible to play. Switzer turned to offensive coordinator Galen Hall and remarked that he might have found a quarterback.
“Steve was surrounded by great talent on those teams, but he was truly an exceptional leader,” Switzer said. “I was proud of him. The entire state of Oklahoma was proud of him. We still are.”
Davis worked as a television sports commentator after his career was over, including game day telecasts for Sooners games last season. During his college career, he spoke at a Billy Graham event.
Davis’ parents, Jim and Patsy Davis of Sallisaw, said their son loved to fly and had earned a pilot’s license but did not own a plane. Davis’ father described him as a booster with enough clout that “he had a lot of input in the athletic department.”
The Davises described 58-year-old Wes Caves of Tulsa, who also died in the crash, as a friend of Davis but they did not know the other two passengers who survived.
“We extend our sympathies to Steve’s family and others whose lives he touched,” Oklahoma athletic director Joe Castiglione said. “He was a great champion and someone who set a wonderful example for others. We will miss him very much.”
A product of a different era, Davis hardly had to throw a pass to be the star quarterback in Oklahoma’s dominant wishbone offense. He completed just 40 percent of his passes during his career for 2,034 yards, but only attempted about six passes per game during Oklahoma’s back-to-back championship seasons.
With silver-shoed All-American Joe Washington carrying the ball, the Sooners rushed 813 times in 1974 — averaging an NCAA record 73.9 attempts per game — and amassing 438.8 yards on the ground. Davis’ school records for consecutive starts (34) and career victories (32) were surpassed only last season by Landry Jones, who started every game the past three seasons plus most of 2009 while replacing injured Heisman Trophy winner Sam Bradford.
In the process, Davis reached out to Jones, who had been criticized after an early season loss to Kansas State by writing him a letter; Davis had been booed during the only loss of his career, a 23-3 setback to Kansas in 1975. Jones would go on to break Davis’ career record for wins by beating Texas, also joining Davis, Jimmy Harris and Jamelle Holieway as the only Sooners’ quarterbacks to go 3-0 in Red River Rivalry starts.
“He just really wanted to encourage me,” Jones said. “Just keep going, keep leading those guys and keep fighting, regardless of what happens in the next game or the last game. Your focus is on this game and always to lead those guys.”
Davis had the unique accomplishment of also going 3-0 against Nebraska and Oklahoma State, two of the Sooners’ other chief rivals.
“Just his execution and his ability. He was an incredible athlete,” said David Humm, Nebraska’s quarterback from 1972-74. “He’s a guy who wore you down. Just an incredible competitor.”
Davis said his parents were from Sallisaw, though he was born at Barksdale Air Force Base in Bossier City, La., where his father was stationed. He received the very last available scholarship to play at Oklahoma — only after another player had decided to play at Colorado instead, according to the 2012 book “I Love Oklahoma/I Hate Texas.”
“They had a lot of scholarships and they recruited eight quarterbacks to try to find somebody that could imitate Jack Mildren, and I was one of those eight,” Davis recalled in the “Fan’s Guide” interview. “I was the bottom of the eight but I was one of those eight, and through early fall drills I started out as number eight quarterback.”
Davis described how he considered leaving Oklahoma before the 1973 season, but instead dedicated himself to competing and ended up landing the starter’s job after Kerry Jackson was suspended and the Sooners were put on probation.
It would end up being among the greatest tenures for a starting quarterback in Oklahoma history, along with Harris’ performance during the NCAA record run of 47 consecutive victories.
“This is a tragic loss,” Switzer said. “Steve was a tremendous role model for student-athletes everywhere. He was a good student and a fantastic person. He was a minister who traveled across the country inspiring thousands with his message, his words and his lifestyle.”
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