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Bedlam is a great rivalry name, but rarely accurate

We usually already know what’s gonna happen.

Oklahoma vs. Oklahoma State Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports. Banner Society illustration.

The Okahoma-Oklahoma State rivalry has a really great name: Bedlam.

But it’s an odd name both because the series between the two schools has been closer to the opposite of actual bedlam, and because it’s unclear how the name first caught on, let alone stuck.

1. “Bedlam” suggests chaos and uncertainty. But there’s little chaos and uncertainty when Oklahoma beats plays Oklahoma State.

The Merriam-Webster definition of bedlam is “a place, scene, or state of uproar and confusion.”

Bedlam is the name of every OU-OSU athletic competition. But it’s most commonly used to label their football series, which has decidedly lacked bedlam.

In advance of Bedlam 2019, here was the all-time series record:

  • Oklahoma: 88
  • Oklahoma State: 18
  • Ties: 7

That’s a 78% clip for the Sooners, who’ve been consistently dominant since the teams first played in 1904. They won the first 11 meetings and have had several more streaks of between seven and 19 years, never giving the Pokes any extended traction. This sport has many unpredictable rivalries, but Bedlam is historically not one of them.

The series is even more lopsided than a lot of people might expect, given the programs’ arcs over time — OU as a blue-blood with a bushel of championships, OSU as a team that’s missed bowl games often. And the Bedlam results have barely changed since the late 2000s, despite Mike Gundy getting the Cowboys rolling in their other games, a point that has led to public friction between Gundy and his boss.

It’s often said that anything can happen in Bedlam. Indeed it can: Oklahoma can win by a little (48-47 in 2018), a medium amount (62-52 in 2017), or a lot (75-0 in 1904).

(Some year, Oklahoma State will win, and someone will email me this post to point out anything really can happen in Bedlam. That’s fine, but please wait for OSU to stitch together a winning streak longer than two games at any point in the history of the series before doing so.)

2. It’d be one thing if this predictable series had an especially BEDLAM origin story. But the nickname has no agreed-upon origin story.

In 2005, the Oklahoman’s John Rohde wrote about the origin of the name. He couldn’t peg when it started, who did it, or even in which sport it originated.

“I'm here to admit I have no idea who begat bedlam, or when. I'm fairly certain no one else knows for sure, either,” Rohde wrote.

The Oklahoman is the paper of record in Oklahoma. Rohde says no reference to “the Bedlam series” appeared in the paper until 1943. Previously, an excerpt from 1917, bolded in part by me:

So surprised were students, faculty members and citizens when they first heard the 9 to 0 victory story from Oklahoma City that confirmation was necessary. Then bedlam broke loose. Nine long shrieks of the college power plant whistle told the score. Guns were fired. The antique, dust-covered bell in old Central building belfry chimed for the first time in years. Literally the town was painted white. On buildings, sidewalks, windows and other places, the score was painted. A huge figure nine and a tiny naught.

So that’s at least a mention of the word, written by one person in reference to this series after a 9-0 OSU football win more than 100 years ago. But there’s no definitive evidence that points to any one event as the moment the label stuck. Rohde asked the school’s longtime sports information director, Pat Quinn, and he didn’t know, either.

"I can't say for the life of me when that term started," Quinn said. "But the only people I hear say it now are car dealers, or credit-card holders, or whatever it is they're selling."

Bedlam is also a name for a centuries-old psychiatric hospital in London, but nothing binds this Oklahoman sports rivalry to that facility, which was founded in 1247.

Oklahoma newspapers in the early 1900s regularly featured the word “bedlam” about other things, such as a group of people in elk costumes. In 1907, the Muskogee Times-Democrat used “bedlam” to describe the scene at a Republican convention with 1,500 delegates. That’s about it.

The first Oklahoma-Oklahoma State game ever was, at least, deeply bizarre.

In 1904, Oklahoma and Oklahoma A&M (which would later become OSU) played in Guthrie, the capital of the territory. The Oklahoma win would set the tone for the next century-plus.

At one point, a punter reportedly punted the ball way up into the air, and when it landed, it bounced beyond the field and into a creek that was either freezing or really, really cold. Football’s rules were, uh, not fully modernized at this point, and players from both teams chased after the ball. An OU player recovered it in the creek and was awarded a touchdown, which OU didn’t need but was probably happy to get anyway.

It’d make sense if that game was the reason for the Bedlam nickname. But old press clippings don’t indicate that it was.

The Bedlam label kind of works, maybe because the modern Big 12 lends itself to high-scoring affairs. The style of play is chaotic enough. But nothing about Oklahoma-Oklahoma State is more chaotic than a bunch of other Big 12 games, and a lot of those games don’t get won by the same team 75 percent of the time or more.