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.
People who knew Davis say his passion for flying began before he arrived at Oklahoma.
He and friend Wes Caves, a Tulsa, Okla., businessman who also died, were the flight crew for the private jet that crashed into a northern Indiana neighborhood, National Transportation Safety Board investigator Todd Fox said Monday.
Fox said he had minimal information about the pilots, but said both had pilots’ certificates and both had multi-engine aircraft certificates, he said.
Caves, 58, owned the Beechcraft Premier I twin-jet. It was not immediately clear if he was at the controls when it crashed. Patsy Davis, Steve’s mother, said she believed it was possible her son would have been in the co-pilot’s seat.
“He hadn’t flown for a while, but as far as we know, he was still a licensed pilot. He didn’t own a plane,” she said Monday.
The crash occurred after two aborted attempted landings at South Bend Regional Airport, Fox said. The plane leaked enough fuel to force the evacuation of hundreds of people from surrounding homes, but most residents were allowed to return Monday morning.
Davis’ parentssaid 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 Caves 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.”