NORMAN, Okla. — 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 as the Sooners’ starter from 1973 to 1975. 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.”
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 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.
“That’s what you live for,” Davis said in the “Fan’s Guide” interview. “I never felt nervous or anxious. I mean, I just couldn’t wait to get out there and go play, go match up, go see who’s better. I never got tight. I was an excitable player, but I think I played within myself, and just knowing I was going to go compete in front of 70,000 or 80,000 people and go find out who’s best — it was great.”