Troy Aikman: Staying at Oklahoma 'would've been nice,' but UCLA was 'really special'

On a podcast with Morten Andersen, Aikman recalled his recruitment, his early days at OU, his injury, and his eventual transfer to UCLA after Jamelle Holieway's emergence
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When he was being recruited by Oklahoma back in 1983, Troy Aikman wasn’t sure what to think.

“I was told when I was coming out of high school there at Henryetta,” Aikman said, “that Barry Switzer was saying they were gonna stay in the I formation — Marcus Dupree was there at the time — and they were telling some other people they were gonna go back to the wishbone.”

Aikman talked about his time at OU and a lot more this week on a podcast with fellow NFL legend Morten Andersen, The Great Dane Nation Podcast presented by Vegas Insider.

“So, they had half the class kind of thinking they were going be this pro style passing attack,” Aikman said, “the other half of the class was kind of told they were going to run the football. Ultimately that is what they did.”

Not without fate stepping in, of course.

Aikman, who had played emergency duty as a backup in 1984, was the clear starter in 1985. But after Dupree had left the team in 1983, Switzer had gone back to recruiting smallish, speedy halfbacks, so the offense — even with the 6-foot-4, 220-pound Aikman — still favored the wishbone.

Aikman infamously suffered a broken leg in a home loss to Miami, and true freshman Jamelle Holieway came in and steered the Sooners to the 1985 national championship.

“My sophomore year, when I was the starter, I was running the wishbone,” Aikman told Andersen, “so even though I was playing, I wasn’t enjoying the football side of it because I knew I was in an offense that wasn’t really a tailor fit for me.

“When I broke my leg and then Jamelle Holieway came in and led the team to the national championship and he was — Big Eight back then is what it was — offensive player of the year, I knew that for me to play, I was gonna have to transfer, and that’s when I made the tough decision to transfer and went out to UCLA, and then things kind of got back on track for my career.”

Today, of course, quarterbacks leaving one school and reemerging at another is the norm. But in 1986, it was rare. Aikman said Switzer had mentioned to the team something about players disappearing after they transfer, but it was actually Switzer who helped guide Aikman’s transfer to UCLA, where he thrived in 1987 and 1988.

“We were told that it was gonna be an open competition for the quarterback job,” Aikman said, “but I mean, come on. Jamelle had just taken them to the national title. So I knew there was no chance that I was gonna have any opportunity the following season.

“I went into Barry’s office and said ‘Hey, I think I’m going to transfer. I think it’s best for me. I think it’s best for everybody.’ And Barry knew that. He was really helpful. He reached out to a number of schools, wanted to know who I was interested in. UCLA was, of course, one of those.

“He called Terry Donohue personally, along with a lot of other head coaches. I think deep down Barry kind of felt bad that it didn’t work out. I don’t think he was misleading to me. I don’t think they really knew what they were going to do when I was being recruited. So I think it was a bit of relief for him as well.”

Aikman finished third in the 1988 Heisman Trophy voting behind Barry Sanders and Rodney Peete, then became the No. 1 overall pick in the 1989 NFL Draft. His career with the Dallas Cowboys got off to a rough start, but buoyed by Jimmy Johnson — who had recruited Aikman when he was head coach at Oklahoma State — Aikman eventually won three Super Bowls in a four-year stretch and became a Pro Football Hall of Famer.

“When you look at Oklahoma now, you see all these Heisman Trophy winners and they’re running the offense that I wish I had been running when I was there,” Aikman said. “The younger generation of kids, they don’t remember Barry Switzer and the wishbone offense and all of those things. Yeah, it would have been nice had it worked out, but my time at UCLA was really special.”