In their crimson button-ups, sleeves casually rolled up like ’50s Greasers, this paddle-wielding University of Oklahoma male spirit squad screams “rough-and-tumble renegades.”
But, anomaly alert: These guys’ undying dedication to the university and its athletic programs actually make them one of the most loyal — and longest running — student groups on campus. In fact, the group prides itself on being America's oldest male spirit organization.
We’re talking about OU’s biggest football fanatics and shotgun-shooting staple of Sooner sidelines: the OU RUF/NEKs. The group has churned out hundreds of crimson-bleeding brethren since its formation a century ago.
To celebrate their 100th anniversary this year, we reunited a few RUF/NEKs from the 1960s-90s — an OU fitness instructor, a dentist, a dean and a retired high school principal and athletic director — to give Sooners a look into the lives of the RUF/NEKs throughout the years.
Becoming a RUF/NEK
“I would say a lot of what the public perception is, a lot of that is probably accurate,” said ‘93 OU grad Geoff Potts, an ornery smile spreading across his face. “At least when I was a freshman, we were a pretty wild and woolly group. … Clearly, when you carry a paddle around, you’re not really hiding anything.”
“So we’ll just leave that to people’s imaginations: What you’re thinking there is probably true. There are things people would say to us that we would neither confirm nor deny to, you know, just let the legend grow.”
Potts graduated from the OU College of Dentistry in 1998 and now practices dentistry in Norman. He and friend and fellow RUF/NEK Kenneth Forehand — a ‘93 grad now working as an instructor for OU Fitness & Rec — sparred together on camera, proving you can take the boys out of the RUF/NEKs, but you can’t take the RUF/NEKs out of the boys.
“RUF/NEKs were always a little rough around the edges,” Forehand said. “My friend’s girlfriend, who was here in the ‘30s, even, talked about how they always were a little rough. And that’s OK. We weren’t disrespectful to … umm ... OU people, anyway. ... But it’s also as an older member once told me: It’s a way of walking, a way of carrying yourself. And that is the lesson they tried to teach us: standing up for yourself, carrying yourself. And hopefully we’ve been able to live our lives with that a little bit.”
Forehand and Potts both found that being a member of the RUF/NEKs and having classmates and folks from their hometowns look up to them instilled pride and confidence in them.
Like many RUF/NEKs, Phil Applegate found that joining the sport got him as close as he could get to the game he loved without him actually being on the roster. Applegate, earned his first degree from OU in '79 and played football for OU from 1974-75.
“And by then I had collected enough concussions I believe I qualified for the RUF/NEKs,” joked Applegate, now the dean of Lifelong Learning and Continuing Education at the University of Tulsa. “For me, it really was a way of staying around football and staying around athletics.”
Applegate recalled a 1977 game against The Ohio State University in which the RUF/NEKs won over a group of young, rowdy Buckeyes. The RUF/NEKs stepped off their charter bus and onto the nation’s largest college campus to find the Ohioans were far from enchanted with their cowboy hats and boots and Okie accents.
“Some people were rather antagonistic over the evening, but we made some of our best friends ever in Ohio,” he said, adding the Buckeyes’ passion for OSU and the RUF/NEKs’ commitment to OU bonded the two groups that night.
“We taught them some of our rather insulting songs about Texas; they taught us theirs about Michigan.”
Forehand thought back to one of his favorite RUF/NEK shenanigans in which he and a couple RUF/NEKs rode to the Gator Bowl in Jacksonville, Florida. On the way there, the young men let the ponies out to trot and got a surprise when they galloped away.
"We got left," Forehand said. "They went across a bridge and to the other side of town in Jacksonville. We didn’t even know where we were, and this was back before cellphones. A police officer on her horse came up and a called for a patrol car came and picked us up."
Keeping the traditions alive
The RUF/NEKs have their share of traditions to uphold. For one, there's the tradition of learning the history of the university, front to back. RUF/NEKs can ramble through OU's presidents in a matter of seconds, tell you which campus buildings perished in fires and other trivia probably not known by the average student.
Plus, there's the annual beard-growing contest that explains the RUF/NEK moniker a little better. The name actually harkens back to hard-working oil field laborers, or roughnecks.
Then there’s driving the Sooner Schooner across Owen Field after OU touchdowns, with the real-life Boomer and Sooner ponies pulling them along.
The group also has remained philanthropic throughout the years. Potts recalls one of his favorite pastimes: traveling to the Jane Brooks School for the Deaf in Chickasha to hide Easter eggs.
"The response we got from the kids ... They looked at us almost like, I don’t want to say heroes, but they really put us on a pedestal," Potts said. "We had the Schooner there with the ponies and it just gave you a really good feeling just to see the reaction from those kids."
And then: the tradition of the RUF/NEK paddles.
“It’s just a symbol of what we are,” said Dan Quinn, a 1968 OU grad and RUF/NEK. Quinn — a former Norman city councilman and retired Norman High School teacher, principal and athletic director — thinks back nearly 50 years to recall the best feeling as a RUF/NEK: him, as a freshman, running across the football field with his friends, sliding into the goalpost, beating his paddle on the ground and reciting the “Fadada” chant. (Quinn says he can still recite it. But of course, he would never because its lyrics are top secret.)
Quinn says the tradition of not just showing extreme pride in OU, but protecting the campus still lives on. He remembers an OU loss in the ‘70s in which RUF/NEKs swarmed the OU goalpost at the end of the game to keep victorious Nebraska from claiming it.
“It’s just that type of honor and pride in what you have and what you’ve got,” he added.
Once a RUF/NEK …
Although several years have passed since these men have donned their RUF/NEK gear and carried their paddles on Owen Field, they say the relationships they’ve made and the feeling of pride they achieved from being a RUF/NEK never will fade.
“To be quite honest with you, the hair on the back of my neck (rises when I see) them running across the field,” Quinn said. “I’ve been doing this for how many years, going to football games? And I still have a sense of pride and a little bit of a sense of jealousy of not being able to do that again.”
Applegate said the group members keep in touch through Facebook and other social media and have continued their strong friendships throughout adulthood. They return to OU to tailgate before football games. They attend annual golf outings. And, when they’re together in person, Applegate says the men fall back into their old stride.
“We just had our annual golf tournament, and these are men I’ve known for over 40 years. We walked in and we just fell back into the same conversational patterns as if we hadn’t seen each other over the summer.”
Forehand has similar sentiments. He said RUF/NEKs often act as godfather for one another's kids, attend their friends' weddings and the weddings' of their friends' children.
"The on-field stuff is nothing," Forehand said. "You're proud to be there, and you got to represent the university, and it was fun, but ..."
"It's a lifelong thing," Potts added.
"You don't ever quit being a RUF/NEK, that's for sure," Forehand said.
As RUF/NEKs age and the distance between them grows, their friendships created in that "wild and woolly" OU spirit organization press on.
Learn more about the RUF/NEKs and their 100th anniversary on the RUF/NEKs' Alumni Association page: rufneks.com.
Featured photo (top left): The late Carl Albert (center), who served as speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives from 1971 to 1977, was honored in the '70s by the RUF/NEKs. The Oklahoma native was a RUF/NEK while attending the University of Oklahoma.