Gaylord Memorial Stadium was packed. The weather chilled. A loud, rowdy group walked down the end-zone ramp and waited. They were wearing red shirts and white pants. In their hands were wooden paddles. They were hugging, laughing, celebrating, joking, and moving.
On this day, the RUF/NEKS celebrated 100 years as the University of Oklahoma’s male spirit squad.
Through the ruckus, a small elderly man separated the sea of red and white. The RUF/NEKS members gently, respectfully cleared a path for Bob Miller. He is one of the few surviving RUF/NEKS members of 1946 and he led the organization from 1947–1949. In this moment the 91-year-old man was leading the pack again. The eyes of the entire group fixed on him.
The current president of the RUF/NEKS Alumni Association, Kenneth Forehand, organized the event, which was held the weekend of the OU-Tulsa game, and described the importance of Bob Miller and the RUF/NEKS from 1946–49.
“I think what they did was huge. We aren’t what we are or who we are today without them,” said Forehand.
Bob Miller made his way to the 50-yard line. More than 100 RUF/NEKS cheered him on. Shortly after, Miller was welcomed on the sidelines.
For the next 30 minutes, RUF/NEKS old and new shook hands and spoke with the legend. Miller held a hopeful, accomplished smile. The same smile he held all those years ago.
After WWII ended in 1946, nearly 6,000 student-veterans made their way to Norman, Oklahoma. The campus of the University of Oklahoma changed dramatically.
Bob Miller, 23, arrived in Norman from a small eastern Oklahoma town of Indianola. He transitioned from flying U.S. Army Air Forces cargo planes over the Pacific Ocean to deciding what classes he would take. From WWII veteran to university freshman, Miller said he was just looking for a good time.
George Lynn Cross, the longest serving president at OU from 1943–1968, spoke with Miller and other new freshmen. He encouraged them to focus on their studies and who they wanted to become.
“The president gave a big speech to a group of people,” Miller said, “I was nothing but trying to figure what I was going to become in school.”
In 1943, 34 RUF/NEKS members disbanded during the war. In 1946, Miller was presented with the opportunity to join as the spirit group re-started. They had a small brotherhood of friends — known for red shirts, flamboyant escapades and generally causing a ruckus wherever they went.
“Those guys were coming back from a war,” said Forehand reflecting on Miller’s generation. “It’s hard to imagine that a little group would mean so much to them.”
The RUF/NEKS at the time were sparse and poorly run. Financially, the organization was stagnant. The spirit squad of 12 members mishandled fundraising opportunities and pocketed the earnings. However, that did not deter Miller from joining.
Miller attended a small RUF/NEKS meeting shortly after arriving in Norman, and he found his place.
The potential of a new brotherhood, and a little revelry, appealed to the veteran entering a new phase of his life.
“I became a RUF/NEK the next meeting we had,” said Miller. “When I got in the meeting, I became a RUF/NEK that night because it was the first organization that I wanted to belong to. I thought, hey, look here, I can have some fun doing this!”
Soon, as a pledge to the RUF/NEKS, Miller underwent similar initiation scenarios that occurred in his military cadet training.
“Satan, himself, would be proud to endorse,” some of what new pledges would endure according to The Oklahoma Daily.
Before he was an official member, he had to prove his loyalty to the RUF/NEKS cause. Pledges completed tasks west of Norman such as: climbing a tree and waiting for several hours, or being forced to wear backward shirts, burlap sack shorts and scrub Campus Corner with toothbrushes.
“We had a good initiation,” said Miller. “If you’re going to be a RUF/NEK you have to be a part of it.”
Miller said the experiences were designed to develop unity and brotherhood.
The rigid process of becoming a member of the RUF/NEKS created the experiences for the foundations of friendships that would ultimately last lifetimes and transcend ages.
Adam Burnett, a current RUF/NEK, expressed gratitude toward the RUF/NEKS who reignited the organization after the war. Burnett’s great-grandfather was a member of the RUF/NEKS in 1929.
“The men who kept the RUF/NEKS alive have allowed me to reach through over eighty years to allow me to follow in my great-grandfather’s footsteps and call myself his brother,” said Burnett. “And given me the opportunity to do things that I never dreamed I would get to do.”
One night a year after pledging, Miller slept quietly in his room. He woke to the sounds of his RUF/NEKS brothers shouting down the halls. They broke through his door, carried him to Brandt Park and tossed him in The Duck Pond.
This was a special ceremony for RUF/NEKS presidents — Miller would experience it three times.
Under his leadership, the organization boomed. Miller’s first improvement was to establish financial responsibility.
The RUF/NEKS sold eye-shades during football games as a fundraiser in support of their endeavors.
“That was a money making little deal,” said Miller. “And I guaranteed that we didn’t throw the money away. If you checked out 50 (eye-shades), we made dadgum sure you turned in 50 (dollars).”
His job was simple. And, his simplicity turned a frazzled squad into an organization that molded lives for generations after.
“If there was anything connected to the RUF/NEKS I was part of it,” said Miller. “I thought that was part of my job.”
With a new bank account and new pledges, he developed the idea to decorate the stadium for pep-rallies and football games.
“You had a little bit of a status and you made a lot of noise,” said Miller.
The red shirts, the rowdiness, the paddles, they were always leading the pack.
They held the responsibility of motivating the student body. But more than that, they did everything together. Miller’s leadership created an environment where RUF/NEKS pledges turned into boisterous, trend-setting, red and white screams for the university.
In October of 1948, an editorial of The Oklahoma Daily describes the school spirit of the RUF/NEKS and the frustration from one of the band members.
“School spirit is a grand thing, but not when it is carried to the point of annoyance and nuisance,” said a member of OU’s Big Red Band, “I’m speaking of all of the ‘paddle-panging’ that the Ruf-Neks seem duty bound to do every time the band appears for a public occasion.”
Much like today, the RUF/NEKS were an embodiment of passion. And, nothing needed more passion than the OU-Texas game.
About 40 students stood in line overnight to purchase 800 remaining tickets for the upcoming 1948 OU-Texas game before being dismissed by the dean of students.
“It was the most important thing,” said Miller. “You couldn’t wait to go. You saved all your money. At the very last minute, you saved your money so you could go to the the Texas ballgame.”
In 1948, OU had lost eight straight games to the Texas Longhorns. The Sooners were ready for a victory.
An article from The Oklahoma Daily said the RUF/NEKS organized “the biggest and noisiest pep rally ever held” at Owen Field. An estimated 6,000 fans arrived in support of OU before the big game.
On October 8, 1948, the first-ever televised Cotton Bowl was played in front of 67,435 newly renovated seats — this was the largest crowd to ever watch a football game in the southwest.
Oklahoma All-American quarterback “General Jack” Mitchell marched up and down the field in head coach Bud Wilkinson’s famous split-T formation. OU led by 14 going into the 4th quarter.
Wilkinson said his strategy was to have the lead in the fourth and defend it. Texas made a strong effort and scored twice to OU’s one touchdown in the 4th. But the Longhorns couldn’t overtake the Sooners. Bud Wilkinson won his first of six straight against Texas (1948–57). In the last minute of the game OU fans counted in mass cadence until the clock expired.
OU defeated Texas 20–14.
The underdog victory for OU resulted in a postgame wingding on the field. The RUF/NEKS led the charge from the Oklahoma end zone. Fans stormed alongside them and tore down a Texas goalpost in celebration.
“We just couldn’t wait to tear that thing down,” said Miller. “As if it were the most important thing in the world. I thought that was that just about the greatest thing you could ever get.”
In Norman, after the big win against Texas, the students wanted to extend their celebration on Monday. Miller and the RUF/NEKS were contacted to lead the demonstration. The RUF/NEKS gathered at Boyd House, the home of the university president, and started shouting for school to be cancelled.
Whether they got the day off or not, the RUF/NEKS were always an extension of the student body. They were always team spirit. It appeared to be contagious.
Out of all of the pledges under Bob Miller’s leadership, not one quit.
“We never had a person back out the whole time we were there,” said Miller.
During his time as president, Miller saw an increase in RUF/NEKS members from approximately 12 to more than 75. But the organization was more than numbers.
It was the bonds of brotherhood created between friends. It was the late fall pep-rallies, OU-Texas rivalries and the thousands of students cheering for the RUF/NEKS to get another day off of school. It was letting loose and not having a care in the world. It was a group of individuals seeing an opportunity to contribute, to have a laugh, to be involved. It was the unexpected memories they created. It was the unforgettable memories they shared. It was being a part of the RUF/NEKS.
“The most important aspect of the RUF/NEKS for me is my bond with my fellow RUF/NEKS brothers.” said Burnett. “I have met my best friends through this club.”
Miller graduated and closed the RUF/NEKS chapter of his life in 1949. But, the book was still being written.
After his time as a leader of the RUF/NEKS, Miller served his country in two more conflicts. Flying missions in the Korean War and the Vietnam War.
His son, Mark Miller, said he is an embodiment of the greatest generation.
“The greatest generation had consistent qualities: the desire to be involved, the desire to participate, the desire to be part of an organization,” said Mark Miller.
When Miller retired and moved to McAlester, Oklahoma his love and passion for the university began to blossom again.
“It was undivided attention for OU games. Anything and everything Sooners, he loves,” said Mark Miller.
Forehand believes what Bob Miller and the RUF/NEKS of 1946–49 accomplished was critical for the long term success of the RUF/NEKS organization.
Because of them, and others like them, lives of hundreds of individuals were shaped. Memories, traditions, legacies all were formed by the involvement of a few young men coming back from war.
They kept the family moving.
“My RUF/NEKS friends — you can’t even put into words what they mean to me. They are my family,” said Forehand.
Being a member of the RUF/NEKS is an OU tradition that may never die, it continues to develop and evolve.
“The life on the field is what everyone sees,” said Forehand. “It’s really just a small sliver of who we are. We room together, we are at each others weddings, the bonds are there forever.”
Just before kick-off, Bob Miller raised his right hand. Along with 85,657 others, he sang the OU Chant. It was the moment when history came to life. When the past became the present. Nearly 70 years later, on the same field he used to lead the pack, he watched his legacy.
In front of him the RUF/NEKS fired their shotguns. Horses pulled a covered wagon across the end zone. Flags waved. Young men and women shouted and raced around the field, orchestrating the movement of emotions in the stadium. All creating experiences that will remain with them for the rest of their lives.
Their chants rolling on and on.