’98 A Season to Remember
Color commentator for KRXO FM and University of Central Oklahoma Hall of Famer John Fitzgerald remembers the 1998 season fondly. He never officially lost a game.
“It’s the most special thing that I’ve accomplished as a football player,” Fitzgerald said.
His path to Edmond isn’t much different than some of his fellow teammates; it started somewhere else.
“I took a football scholarship to Oklahoma State in 1995,” Fitzgerald said. “I got there, didn’t love it and decided I was done with football.”
He then took a year off to compete in track and field, but it wasn’t the same.
“I realized I missed football and wanted to play again,” Fitzgerald said. “I had friends that played at UCO and decided to walk-on and had a great four years.”
Fellow teammates Todd Barnes, Claude Davis, Johnny Luter and Reggie Donner had stories of their own.
Barnes was a starting wide receiver for the University of Oklahoma in 1997, but transferred to UCO due to then head coach John Blake changing the offense. Davis, who is in the UCO Athletics Hall of Fame, spent time in the military before coming to UCO thanks to his connection with Luter as high school teammates in Lawton.
Luter, a two-time All-American and UCO Athletics Hall of Famer, blew out his knee in 1997, costing him the season. He came back in 1998 to spearhead the nation’s number one defense. However, it was Donner, an All-American running back that played at conference rival Texas A&M University-Kingsville that might have them all beat.
“He showed up to Edmond on a bus,” Fitzgerald said. “He went to a McDonald’s and called on a payphone to coach to ask where the school was and showed up wanting to play football.”
With new talent on hand and a healthy Luter, the teams’ expectations were high.
“We thought we were going to be good,” Fitzgerald said. “We were 9-2 in 1997 and we had a good nucleus of people coming back.”
They opened the season against Northwestern Oklahoma State University, a National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics school at the time, and only won 3-0.
“After that week we kind of thought ‘I don’t know how good we’re going to be,’” Fitzgerald said.
The next week Kingsville came to Edmond riding a 40-game conference win streak and six straight Lone Star Conference championships.
“We beat them like a dog 38-9,” Fitzgerald said. “I think after that we knew we had something pretty special we just needed to harness it.”
The Bronchos went on a run, outscoring their next three opponents 90-30 including a shutout win against Abilene Christian University. However, it was a week six game against East Central University that threatened to stop their undefeated season in its tracks.
“[In the] middle of the season against winless East Central, we had to go to overtime to win,” Fitzgerald said. “Close call against a bad team. We had a players-only meeting after the game on Sunday night and talked it over. We never looked back.”
They won the next three games, setting up a season finale against 9-1 Northeastern State University with an undefeated regular season and Lone Star Conference championship on the line.
“We were right under the student section and they had T-shirts that said ‘Kick the “H” out of the Bronchos,’” Fitzgerald said. “[During] the opening kickoff they were chanting ‘overrated.’ Alton Lusk took it back 97 yards for a touchdown and we never looked back. That was a really fun game.”
The Bronchos won 36-10. With the undefeated season accomplished, they turned their attention to the playoffs. They got past Chadron State University in the first round 21-19, setting up a rematch with Kingsville. UCO would lose for the first time 24-21 in overtime, ending their season.
“That was pretty bad,” Fitzgerald said. “We had chances to win that game. We missed a 37-yard field goal with 10 seconds left in regulation. It sucked, there’s no other way to put it.”
Several months later, the NCAA declared 23 of Kingsville’s players ineligible, causing them to forfeit their whole season, which gave UCO an undefeated 13-0 record.
“On paper, we’re 13-0, but didn’t get to play Northwest Missouri State the next week,” Fitzgerald. “By the time the announcement came to us, we were probably focused on offseason football. It was the kind of stuff you go ‘oh really that’s great’ and then you just move on.”
Despite how it ended, Fitzgerald is glad to be a part of the 1998 team.
“It’s special,” Fitzgerald said. “Going undefeated in the regular season is hard to do. You have to be good and you have to be lucky. Sharing that time with those guys was fun. It’s something I will always cherish.”