THE BEST TEAM YOU'LL NEVER SEE

You can spin the dial all fall but you will not find the powerful Oklahoma Sooners. On NCAA probation, they cannot be televised, play bowl games or even be ranked, according to one poll
November 04, 1974

It is as if the redoubtable Fay Wray, rescued from atop the Empire State Building while King Kong was batting down bi-wing fighter planes, went before a news conference, brushed back her frazzled locks and exclaimed, "What giant gorilla?"

That or something outrageously close to it is the position that United Press International finds itself taking these days after agreeing to ban teams on probation from its weekly college football poll. UPI's new policy might have gone unnoticed except for the fact that one of the censured teams is a big grinning monster that just will not go away. In fact, the Oklahoma Sooners have been going ape all season and, while not exactly swinging from a skyscraper, they are very conspicuously holding forth right up there in the No. 2 spot in the other major poll, run by the Associated Press.

All of which introduces paradoxes wrapped inside rule books. Because of the stance taken by the NCAA, ABC and UPI and their various awards, rankings, TV shows and statistical lists, plus the fact that Oklahoma is barred from bowl games and network TV this season, the formula for the Sooners' exposure is: UPI can cover but never rank, ABC can mention but never show and the NCAA can list but never recognize.

The situation would be even more outlandish if No. 1 Ohio State were to lose one of these Saturdays. That would give the rival AP the unique opportunity of awarding a mythical national championship to a team that is by and large unseen and nonexistent.

But shed no tears for Oklahoma. The Sooners are making their presence felt this season the same compelling way that Red China did when it was barred from the United Nations. They keep menacing people. With a smile, of course. Once penitent, the Sooners have even gone so far as to trade their pious faces for an attitude that borders on the carefree.

"They can keep us off TV and ban us from the bowls," says Coach Barry Switzer, "but nobody said that we couldn't win and have some fun."

Against Colorado two weeks ago, the merriment began with cries of "Let's win this one for the UPI!" After roughing up the Buffaloes for a quarter or two, the regulars sprawled on the sideline like so many young gods taking their leisure. One Adonis donned his celebrity sunglasses. Center Kyle Davis flirted with a blonde in the third row. Halfback Joe Washington, taking off the hand-painted silver shoes that carried him for 200 yards, four touchdowns and perhaps a step closer to the Heisman Trophy, strolled to the stands to cadge a Coke.

Indeed, if the team continues to mangle opponents, Sooner fans will not see much more of the starters than the rest of blacked-out America. In last week's 63-0 win over Kansas State, for example, the regular defense played only long enough to leave one lasting impression. Led by All-America Rod Shoate, a swift and punishing linebacker, and the double-trouble brothers, LeRoy and Dewey Selmon, up front, Oklahoma did not exactly tackle runners. They avalanched them.

Quarterback Steve Davis, a licensed Baptist minister, showed no mercy in the ruthlessly efficient way he ran the Wishbone. And Washington, the nation's leading all-purpose runner, displayed his wiggly, flip-flop moves as he ran for another 100-plus yards. "Anybody who tries to cut with him," says Switzer, "who tries to go east, west and north at the same time with him, will break both knees and ankles." Another Washington trademark is soaring over tacklers with a grand vaulting leap that would do Nureyev proud {see cover). A former hurdler, Joe says, "When you can't go around somebody or through them, the best way is to fly over them."

Last week's victory over Kansas State also kept Oklahoma's unbeaten streak flying along at 24, the longest in the country. "I'll tell you one thing," says Switzer, "we gotta be the nation's No. 1 unranked team."

For all his whimsy, Switzer deeply resents "our alleged non-existence" in the UPI poll. Being snubbed, he says, is the least of it. "There are enough other polls around to make up for UPI. Heck, I'd just as soon be ranked in Playboy. Besides, the one great criterion is winning and as long as we keep doing that people will recognize us."

What rankles Switzer is the fact that the UPI poll, the votes of a panel of 35 coaches, is governed by his peers—or "biased rivals" as he calls some of them. That is why he views the ruling, which was passed by the American Football Coaches Association in January by a near unanimous vote, as a direct attempt to get Oklahoma. "If it wasn't, then why impose it now?" he asks. "We're the only team that it really hurts. Do you reckon they'd have come up with the rule if we had gone 6-5 last year? No way. It's probably a good rule. I just object to the timing of it. Lord knows we've already suffered enough penalties."

Oklahoma's woes began in the spring of 1973 when the Big Eight, backed later by the NCAA, put the Sooners on a two-year probation for recruiting violations committed during the tenure of Chuck Fairbanks, who resigned after the 1972 season to coach the New England Patriots. The most serious charge was leveled at an assistant coach, since departed, for knowingly accepting a forged high school grade transcript of Quarterback Kerry Jackson.

Switzer, hit with the sentence shortly after he replaced Fairbanks last year, complains that as meted out it is in effect a four-year penalty. Along with the ban on postseason play in 1973 and 1974, the eight winning games in which Jackson appeared in 1972 were forfeited and, to accommodate ABC's contract with the NCAA, the TV blackout was pushed ahead to cover 1974 and 1975.

Nonetheless, Switzer believes that in some perversely wonderful way the crisis inspired his young, unsure Sooners "to play far above their capabilities. How else can you explain the fact that a team that was picked for no better than fourth in the conference went 10-0-1 and ended up No. 3 in the country last year? Something else beside talent and coaching snuck in there."

Now Switzer sees his fellow coaches sneaking up on him and, he says, that kind of "additional punishment of the innocent we can do without." Notre Dame's Ara Parseghian professes some sympathy. "It's possible that a coach may be totally guiltless," he says. "But if the problem is severe enough to warrant NCAA sanctions, it's possible he can be playing and winning with recruits who normally wouldn't be there. It's unfortunate that the guy stepping in has to be victimized."

Darrell Royal, whose Texas team has lost four straight years to Oklahoma, takes a harder line. "I resent even playing them when they develop a monster team with illegal tactics," he says. Adds another coach, "I'm darn sick of Oklahoma. One more violation and they can bar them from football permanently as far as I'm concerned."

Without pointing fingers, Switzer says that ranked teams coached by men like Parseghian and Royal, both of whom happen to be on the 12-member AFCA board that drew up the poll proposal, automatically moved up a notch in the ranking when Oklahoma was banished.

Even so, Switzer appreciates AFCA Executive Director Bill Murray's argument that football demands special rules because "it is the only NCAA sport that depends on polls instead of playoffs to settle a national championship. The NCAA does not allow teams on probation in other sports to compete for the title, so we feel that the same restrictions should apply in the polls."

What Switzer does not buy is Murray's insistence that "the vote was not aimed at Oklahoma because, for one thing, there are four other teams on probation." Just how crucial to the standings those probations are was demonstrated recently when UPI listed California in a tie for 19th place. Trouble was, California was also on probation and a hasty correction had to be made.

As Penn State Coach Joe Paterno contends, the polls have imperfections built into them. "I don't believe in them," he says. "It's a publicity gimmick. No one really knows from week to week which is the best team." In fact, how can one coach on the East Coast evaluate a team on the West Coast that he has never seen? Also, beyond the inclination to vote for your friends, some coaches vote for upcoming opponents to make them look more formidable.

Like their voting patterns, the reactions of other coaches tend to follow regional and conference ties. Bill Mallory of Colorado, a Big Eight member along with Oklahoma, says, "I feel Oklahoma should be rated in the polls. They are considered eligible for the Big Eight conference race and they are not required to forfeit any games. The penalty of ineligibility for bowl games and exclusion from TV is enough."

North Carolina's Bill Dooley, conversely, believes that "if we voted for Oklahoma or any other team, it would mean an endorsement for everybody to go out and cheat, get on probation and win a national championship."

The Associated Press, whose poll is made up of votes by 63 sportswriters, takes the view that "we're not in the business of policing college football. As long as Oklahoma continues to field a deserving team, we'll rank it." Nonetheless, several AP voters agree with Bob Roesler of The New Orleans Times-Picayune when he says, "I have very strong feelings that a school on probation should not be in the polls. But I vote for Oklahoma since I'm playing by the AP rules."

Though Darrell Royal may "resent" having to play the Sooners, he is wed to them economically for better or worse. Right now it is worse, for as Switzer points out, "People like Texas and Nebraska are on a form of probation, too. If ABC doesn't televise our games with them, then they're left out in the cold." The Big Eight is also feeling the squeeze. By Switzer's estimate, the conference stands to lose more than $2 million because of the TV ban.

Has the probation had any effect on recruiting? "None," says Switzer, "because a lot of schools we recruit against are on permanent probation. They're never going to any bowls."

Switzer knows exactly where he is going in the immediate future, into a $5.3 million stadium expansion program and, possibly, independence from the Big Eight. Anyone showing interest in these and other subjects will find it hard to resist the Barry & Larry Show, a rapid-fire talkathon in which Switzer shouts into one ear and Assistant Coach Larry Lace-well into the other while sitting in front of a flamenco guitarist in the wee hours:

Barry: "If dropping us from the poll was such a good idea, then why didn't they think of it way back in 1957 when Auburn won the national championship while on probation?"

Larry: "I'll tell you one thing, they ganged us."

Barry: "When they put us on probation, I said, 'I'm a fighter! I'm a competitor! I'm a winner! And nothing is going to stop us!' "

Larry: "Ol' Barry may be snakebit, but he could hire out as a cheerleader."

Barry: "Whup! Whup! Whup! We could have beaten Notre Dame or Alabama just like that last year."

Larry: "There's an old Arkansas saying: It ain't bragging when it's a fact."

Another fact is that all three of the Switzers' children were conceived about the time of a bowl game. Greg is their 1967 Orange Bowl son. Kathy is their 1968 Astro-Bluebonnet Bowl daughter. And Doug is their 1971 Sugar Bowl baby. "My wife," says Switzer, "is the only one who is happy that we can't go to a bowl this year." She and Woody Hayes, that is.

TWO PHOTOSRICH CLARKSONBefore the rout of Kansas State, Coach Switzer (at left) exhorts his troops. After it, Joe Washington shows how the team ranks in Norman. PHOTORICH CLARKSONLinebacker Shoate washes down State. PHOTORICH CLARKSONSteve Davis operates the Sooner machine. PHOTORICH CLARKSONThe red avalanche engulfs a hapless rival. PHOTORICH CLARKSONKey figure in the furor was Kerry Jackson.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)