Former Oklahoma head coach John Blake was known for giving his players a chance.
That’s how former OU quarterback Patrick Fletcher remembers him. The 1996-99 walk-on got his first taste of collegiate competition with Blake his sophomore year at OU. But Fletcher was fond of Blake way before he put on the crimson and cream pads. Fletcher’s dad, Ron Fletcher — who played for the Sooners under coaching legend Bud Wilkinson — played Blake in the 1982 Oklahoma alumni game.
Fletcher, then just 5 years old, started his relationship with Blake that day, and years later he eventually fulfilled his childhood dream of playing quarterback at Oklahoma under Blake, who welcomed Fletcher as an invited walk-on. For that, Fletcher said he’s forever grateful for Blake, who died of a heart attack on Thursday. He was 59 years old.
In his three seasons at the helm of OU football, Blake tallied just 12 wins before the program sprung back to its heyday of competing for national championships with the next coach: Bob Stoops. But ask any player who played under Blake or any staff member that worked with him — wins and losses are only a fraction of his legacy.
“He gave me my first shot. … I’m forever grateful,” Fletcher said. “I’m extremely saddened by this but also thankful that I got to play under him, even though we didn’t have great numbers. We didn’t have great results. He was a heck of a coach and I was super proud to play for him.”
Blake’s coaching career spans from 1987-2010 along with one season in 2016. He’s been a part of four different college staffs and two NFL teams — the Dallas Cowboys and the Buffalo Bills — as a defensive line coach. He was also a reliable nose guard for Barry Switzer’s Sooners from 1979-82.
A lot of athletes brought to OU by Blake were rewarded in the highest fashion by winning the 2000 National Championship with Stoops just two years after Blake’s departure.
“Your job when you’re employed by a school is to do the best job you can do and to recruit the best players you possibly can,” said former Oklahoma offensive coordinator Joe Dickinson. Blake and Dickinson’s careers crossed paths multiple times. They were both OU graduate assistants in 1983 before coaching together again in 1998 when Blake became head coach at OU, and they worked together for Tulsa and the Bills.
Blake brought in recruits that eventually went down as OU legends. Roy Williams, Rocky Calmus and Andre Woolfolk are just a few names Blake is responsible for luring to Norman in the first place.
“That’s what we all tried to do as a staff, and John was an excellent recruiter,” Dickinson continued. “But at the end of the day, we didn’t win enough football games.
“John was a guy that always looked at the bright side of things. I think he was thoroughly disappointed in the job that we all did at Oklahoma. We didn’t get it done. But he was still proud that he recruited some good players.”
Blake is also Oklahoma’s first Black head coach in any sport, and is the only one to ever lead the football team.
“He had paid his dues and had done a good job with the Cowboys and worked his way up,” said Jarrail Jackson, an OU wide receiver from 1995-99. “To be the first Black head coach at Oklahoma, that was big. He did a good job of recruiting and bringing guys in and making sure everybody felt like they were at home.”
After joining the UCO staff as an assistant coach in 2017, Jackson said he started talking to Blake on a regular basis, often asking him about football strategies. Jackson said he caught up with Blake for the last time a week and a half ago to talk football.
“It was tough to believe,” Jackson said when asked about reacting to Blake’s death. “I just talked to him a little bit ago, and it was just one of those deals where you just can’t believe it. … He was in the best shape of his life. It was hard to hear that.”
In his brief head coaching career with the Sooners, Blake’s shortcomings have been overshadowed by his recruiting, an aspect of his performance that benefitted OU later on.
Fletcher said his biggest takeaway from knowing Blake was learning how to never give up, no matter what.
“John Blake was a very big lineman. He had bulk, but he was undersized and I was definitely undersized, but we had some tough games in (1996-98) and he never gave up,” Fletcher said. “And he coached throughout the whole season that he always demanded us to do our very best. I would say, from Coach Blake, he taught us not to give up. Even though we knew we weren’t going to go to a bowl or if we had a tough loss to a team that we probably should've beat, we were right back out there Sunday and Monday.”