Ledes from the Land of Enchantment

Ralph Neely was an underrated Sooner & Dallas Cowboy

Ralph Neely achieved the rarest of combinations. He was an underrated OU football player. He was an underrated Dallas Cowboy. 

Either is hard to find. Both in the same football life is remarkable. 

But that describes Neely, who died Wednesday in his home outside Dallas. Neely was 78. 

The Friday ScissorTales check in with Georgia offensive coordinator Todd Monken, who directed OSU’s fabulous offense a decade ago, and look at Big 12 basketball’s top transfers. But we start with Ralph Neely’s incredible football career. 

Neely was not underrated by the people he played with or against. Neely was a two-time all-American at OU and a National Football League all-decade offensive tackle with the Cowboys. But Neely didn’t play during any of the Sooners’ great dynastic eras and rarely is remembered as an all-time OU great. Neely did star in the Cowboys’ greatest era but has received little consideration for the Pro Football Hall of Fame and is not even in the Cowboys’ Ring of Honor. 

Neely also was an integral part of football history. He was barred from his final OU game, the 1964 Gator Bowl, after signing a professional contract, and his contract with the Houston Oilers became a huge tug o’ war in the conflict between the NFL and the upstart American Football League. 

More:Ralph Neely, former OU football and Dallas Cowboys great, dies at 78

Neely ended up in Dallas and was a 13-year starter on the Cowboy offensive line, 1965-77, during which Dallas made four Super Bowls, won two and became America’s Team. 

Neely was a lineman from Farmington, New Mexico, and at 6-foot-6, 245 pounds was perhaps the largest Sooner recruited by Bud Wilkinson. 

OU historian Harold Keith wrote in his book Forty-Seven Straight that Neely’s “sweatshirt would have almost fit around the Marland mansion … (he) had intelligence, desire and superior size and speed.” 

Rick McCurdy, who was an OU teammate of Neely’s, said “I’d never seen anyone as big as Ralph Neely. When he got mad in the Oklahoma Drill, there was no stopping him.” 

Neely’s nickname was Mr. Tree. McCurdy said Neely had no belly and could dunk a basketball. Neely won the standing broad jump competition as an OU freshman.  

One of the most memorable OU plays of the 1960s was Neely’s crushing tackle of Syracuse speedster Bill Hunter on the kickoff after OU’s late touchdown in 1962, to take a 7-3 lead. 

“He really leveled this guy,” McCurdy said. “Not sure how the guy ever got up.” 

Neely made all-American in 1963 and 1964. 

Bobby Warmack, OU’s quarterback from 1966-68, was an Ada High School senior during Neely’s senior Sooner season. Warmack watched Neely play and was duly impressed. 

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The ball squirts out of the hands of Dallas Cowboys Dan Reeves, right, as he is brought down by a Green Bay tackler during the second quarter of the game, Nov. 26, 1970, Dallas, Tex. On the play are Fred Carr (53) linebacker and Bob Jeter (21) cornerback of the Packers. Ralph Neely races in to try to get the ball, recovered by another Cowboy player. The Cowboys got a first down on the miscue. (AP Photo/Ferd Kaufman)

“I remember how big Ralph Neely was,” Warmack told The Oklahoman a few years ago. “When everybody got down in a stance, you could always tell who Ralph Neely was because his butt was about two feet taller than everybody else’s.” 

Neely played on OU’s 1962 Orange Bowl team and 1964 Gator Bowl team, but just hours before kickoff of the latter, the story broke that Neely, Jim Grisham, Lance Rentzel and Wes Skidgel had signed pro contracts. Jones, naturally, banned them from the game, won 36-19 by Florida State. 

Neely’s contract was with the AFL’s Houston Oilers. In the 1965 NFL Draft, the Baltimore Colts selected Neely. But the Colts traded Neely’s contractual rights to the Cowboys, for punter Billy Lothridge and a future fourth-round draft pick. 

When Dallas got Neely’s rights, he returned his check to the Oilers and signed with Dallas. Neely played for Dallas in 1965 and made the NFL’s all-rookie team, but the Oilers sued, citing breach of contract. 

In 1966, the NFL and AFL were in major merger negotiations, which ultimately resulted in the Super Bowl and the NFL you know today. Among the terms of the merger agreement was that Neely’s contract dispute be resolved. By then, Dallas knew what it had in Neely and finally agreed to send Houston four 1967 draft picks (first-, second- and two fourth-round selections), pay all court costs and to start an annual exhibition game against the Oilers. 

A steep price, but worth it. Neely was a mainstay. He was a four-time All-Pro on those teams of Don Meredith or Roger Staubach, Bob Hayes or Drew Pearson, Bob Lilly or Randy White.  

The NFL selected a 38-man all-decade team of the 1960s. Neely made the squad, even though he only played five years in the ‘60s. Then Neely played eight more seasons in the 1970s. 

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All-decade usually means a ticket to Canton, Ohio. All 22 first-teamers on the all-1970s teams made the Pro Football Hall of Fame, and 19 of the 22 second-teamers did, too. Twenty-eight of the 38 on the all-1960s team were enshrined in Canton. 

But Neely is one of the outsiders, and he hasn’t even made the Cowboys’ Ring of Honor, which includes 22 players, coaches and front-office personnel. 

Profootball-reference.com has a metric called Approximate Value. Of all the former Sooners to ever play in the NFL, only Troy Aikman (if you count Aikman a Sooner) had a higher score than Neely. And it was close. Neely is ahead of Hall of Famers Lee Roy Selmon and Tommy McDonald, plus Bobby Boyd, Greg Pruitt, Keith Jackson, Roy Williams and Tony Casillas. 

Neely was a landmark player. An historically great player. But amid two grand traditions, the Sooners and the silver star, Neely’s status has been a little lost. 

He was a private personality. Teammates remember him as friendly, but aloof. He came back to OU only on rare occasions. Perhaps he also never ingratiated himself as a Cowboy alum, which can make a difference with Jerry Jones’ Ring of Honor. 

No matter. Even if Neely’s status slips into history the way his life has slipped away, those who saw him play at OU and studied his career in the NFL know that Neely was an all-time great. 

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Georgia’s Todd Monken now is on top 

Todd Monken left OSU 18 years ago because he wanted to see what coaching football was like when you had the better players. 

And that’s the same reason Monken will be coordinating the Georgia offense Monday night when the Bulldogs play Alabama for the national championship. 

“You hit it on the head,” Monken said this week during a College Football Playoff teleconference. “You want to be at a place where you have no barriers to success.” 

Don’t be mistaken. Monken has been around plenty of talent in between his days at Louisiana State – where he went with Les Miles in early 2005 after three years coaching at OSU – and Georgia. 

Monken returned to OSU and coordinated the Cowboy offense in 2011 and 2012. The former team had Brandon Weeden quarterback, Justin Blackmon at flanker and Joe Randle at tailback; no one was feeling sorry for those Cowboys. 

And Monken has spent eight years coaching in the NFL, including four seasons as an offensive coordinator. So he’s been around talent. 

But when the Cleveland Browns’ staff was fired after the 2019 season, and Monken needed a new job, Georgia became awfully enticing. 

Georgia is one of those no-barrier places. 

“And that starts with being able to get great football players,” Monken said. “Working with a great staff, an elite academic institution and being right down the road from Atlanta. 

“So when you’re recruiting players and their families, we check all the boxes. You want to be a place where you check all the boxes. And that was the University of Georgia.” 

Monken deserves such a plush gig. He put in his time.  

Monken grew up in Illinois and attended Division III Knox College. He went into coaching and was a graduate assistant at Division II Grand Valley State. Monken spent two years as a grad assistant at Notre Dame, then spent a decade at the lower levels of Division I. Seven years at Eastern Michigan, two at Louisiana Tech. 

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Georgia offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Todd Monken during a press conference via Zoom in Athens, Ga., on Tuesday, Aug. 25, 2020.

But at the age of 36, Monken got his big break when Miles hired him to coach OSU receivers in 2002. That was the Josh Fields/Rashaun Woods era, and Cowboy football got better fast. 

That started the stairway to head coach at Southern Mississippi and offensive coordinator at places like Georgia and in the NFL. 

And now Monken will be front and center in the title game. Georgia-Alabama is a rematch; the Crimson Tide whacked the Bulldogs 41-24 five weeks ago. 

Thus the game takes on shades of an NFL divisional game, when familiar opponents play for the second time in a season. Gameplanning includes adjustments from the first meeting. 

“It is a little bit different,” Monken said. “You do get that in the NFL with your division teams … and sometimes you can play them relatively close together like this is. And we played them last year. 

“So we’ve got enough film on what they want to do and they’re not going to change. They’re successful for a reason for what they do and so are we. If you’re constantly changing what you do and your identity, I don’t think you’re going to be very good at anything.  

“So obviously we take from the things that we did well and build on that and the things we didn’t do as well. And obviously there’s calls that we had that in both games or other opportunities that we didn’t get called. So we’re looking forward to the opportunity and the shot at it. And they’re going to get our best, I can promise you that.” 

Georgia is known for defense this year. But Bulldog quarterback Stetson Bennett had a monster game in a 34-11 Orange Bowl rout of Michigan last week. Bennett completed 20 of 30 passes for 313 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions. 

Monken is credited with invigorating the Georgia offense the last two years. 

“What’s different about him?” asked Bulldog tailback James Cook. “He want all the little details right … because he was in the NFL, I guess, probably, and they do things a little different.” 

Monken indeed has been in the NFL. And at LSU. And at OSU. And at Eastern Michigan and Louisiana Tech and Knox College. He’s worked his way up. 

Now Monken is on the biggest stage of his life and Georgia seeks its first national championship in 41 years. 

“I knew the success that they had,” Monken said, “and were awfully close in previous years to that. And that’s what you can ask, is just an opportunity to put yourself in the tournament or in position, I guess. 

“I just knew that the opportunity to get really good players, a leading academic institution, Atlanta being right down the road, unbelievable support, and I think that’s where you want to be.” 

And that’s where Monken is. 

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Brent Clark on the dread of college football 

Fear and dread have settled over many a lover of college football. The coaching carousel. Conference realignment. The transfer portal. Name/Image/Likeness. 

There is a sense that the sport so many loves has crossed a threshold of no return. 

I have begun receiving emails from people with interesting things to say, and rather than cram them into my mailbag, I thought I would fully share some from time to time. 

And I’m starting with J. Brent Clark, a 25-year friend of mine who is a noted author, attorney and former NCAA investigator. Clark grew up in Holdenville and has written three books on college football: 3rd Down & Forever, a biography of former Sooner Joe Don Looney; Sooner Century, a chronicle of OU’s first 100 years on the gridiron; and Texas Caesar, a new look at Texas coaching legend (and former Sooner) Darrell Royal. 

Here is what Clark wrote me: 

“You wrote the other day that the times they are a-changed. Profoundly. A lifetime ago Gomer Jones kept a cigar box in the lower right-hand drawer of his old metal office desk. The box contained cash which he would occasionally pull out to hand a player enough money to fill up with gas. Or buy a hamburger. Or send his mom flowers. Only the players knew about going to Gomer for a quick fix. Certainly John Cronley (of The Oklahoman) never wrote about it. How quaint that seems today. 

“I feel lost in a way. I first started coming to OU games, holding my dad’s hand walking through Campus Corner, in about 1958. Every game, I bought a felt college pennant from among those for sale at a cart near the stadium. They cost a dollar. Over the next 60 years, those days with my dad are still the best. OU won almost all the time, but I have no recollection of that. Holding my dad’s hand, the crowd, the band, those are things I remember. 

“Now upon reflection, I realize that what was growing inside of me was a sense of pride in the Oklahoma Sooners. It has continued all these many years. Until the last month. I wonder if future youngsters will have that sense of pride growing inside of them when they read that a star player at OU has put himself on the auction block, willing to transfer to the highest bidder. I doubt they will. 

“I’m in favor of college athletes being compensated, but the chaos of the moment fills me with dread. In fact, I don’t believe it’s sustainable. The reason is not the fans, nor the coaches nor the college administrators. It’s the players themselves. 

“I say this because players won’t stand for a quarterback banking a million dollars and two new cars while a guard endorses mouthwash. Some will say this is just capitalism and I should pipe down. I simply refuse to let go of my sense of pride in my team. That means the team rises and falls together. And by association, I’m with the team.” 

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Mailbag: How good is SGA 

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander remains an intriguing NBA player. Is the Thunder point guard a superstar? A budding star? A good player posting big stats because he’s on a bad team? 

Heath: My brother and I were having an argument over SGA. How good is Shai? I believe he is clearly better than Fred VanVleet and Dejounte Murray. He is better than De’Aaron Fox and (Russell) Westbrook. I fear SGA more than I do Westbrook even though Westbrook puts up huge numbers. He (SGA) is not as good as Jrue Holiday, because of Holiday’s playoff pedigree. He is a level or two below CP3, Trae Young, Dame, Luka and Steph. All things considered, he (SGA) is a no doubt about it a star that could exceed Jrue Holiday if he gets stronger and some playoff seasoning. He sort of reminds me of a smaller version Jayson Tatum. Where do you think he ranks?”

Tramel: Well, I think SGA is a borderline all-star type. Wouldn’t make it traditionally in the loaded West, probably would in the not-as-strong East. I say Gilgeous-Alexander is a star, but not yet a superstar. He could be the No. 1 player on a playoff team but probably not the No. 1 player on title contender. The Jrue Holiday comparison is good. And I love Jrue Holiday. 

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The List: Big 12 basketball newcomers 

The transfer revolution has made for an extreme makeover of Big 12 basketball. Some teams have mostly-familiar faces (Kansas, Baylor, Oklahoma State). Some teams are a mix (OU, Texas, West Virginia, Texas Tech). Some teams are virtually brand new (Iowa State). 

As we reach the end of the first full week of conference play, here’s a primer. The top 15 scorers among Big 12 transfers: 

1. Izaiah Brockington, Iowa State, 16.8 ppg, 6-foot-4 transfer from Penn State. 

2. Tanner Groves, OU, 14.2 ppg, 6-9 transfer from Eastern Washington. 

3. James Akinjo, Baylor, 14.0, ppg, 6-1 transfer from Arizona. 

4. Markquis Nowell, Kansas State, 12.8 ppg, 5-7 transfer from Arkansas-Little Rock. 

5. Timmy Allen, Texas, 12.0 ppg, 6-6 transfer from Utah. 

6. Davion Warren, Texas Tech, 11.3 ppg, 6-6 transfer from Hampton. 

7. Emanuel Miller, Texas Christian, 11.3 ppg, 6-7 transfer from Texas A&M. 

8. Bryson Williams, Texas Tech, 11.2 ppg, 6-8 transfer from Texas-El Paso. 

9. Remy Martin, Kansas, 10.4 ppg, 6-0 transfer from Arizona State. 

10. Mark Smith, Kansas State, 10.3 ppg, 6-5 transfer from Missouri. 

11. Gabe Kalscheur, Iowa State, 10.2 ppg, 6-4 transfer from Minnesota. 

12. Marcus Carr, Texas, 10.1 ppg, 6-2 transfer from Minnesota. 

13. Tre Mitchell, Texas, 9.9 ppg, 6-9 transfer from Massachusetts. 

14. Jordan Goldwire, OU, 9.9 ppg, 6-2 transfer from Duke. 

15. Kevin Obanor, Texas Tech, 8.7 ppg, 6-8 transfer from Oral Roberts. 

Berry Tramel: Berry can be reached at 405-760-8080 or at [email protected] He can be heard Monday through Friday from 4:40-5:20 p.m. on The Sports Animal radio network, including FM-98.1. Support his work and that of other Oklahoman journalists by purchasing a digital subscription today. 

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