Life itself can't give me joy
Unless I really will it;
Life just gives me time and space.
It's up to me to fill it.
—Water-splotched poem on refrigerator at home of Oklahoma football Coach Barry Switzer.
Switzer doesn't spend much time around the refrigerator in his Norman house, other than to grab a Coors as he passes through. But the sentiment of the verse—affixed there with magnets by his wife Kay—is appropriate. Barry Switzer is filling up his life by winning football games at an astonishing rate. Nobody coaching today is better at it. In 5½ seasons at Oklahoma Switzer's record is 56-5-2. He has never finished lower than first in the Big Eight, where victories, no less titles, tend to be hard-scrabble. Twice his Sooners have been national champs.
And this year could bring Switzer the most joy of all. The earmarks were there in the Cotton Bowl last Saturday as undefeated Oklahoma crushed Texas 31-10. "I know you have to take the bad with the good," says Switzer, "but we ain't had much of the bad around here."
October 15, 1978
Indeed, even injuries to Sooner stars simply gave less-heralded players a chance to prove that they, too, were good. Make no mistake, Oklahoma (5-0) is definitely in the hunt to be national champion.
On Thursday night before the game, Switzer's legs sprawled across a coffee table at home while he watched his favorite television program—The Barry Switzer Show. As his own taped image pondered Saturday's possibilities, the in-flesh version was saying, "The most important thing to remember is that coaching is like a terminal disease. It's gonna get you sooner or later." If that's the case, "later" seems to be fading farther into Switzer's future each year instead of drawing closer.
Switzer had a suspicion this season's Oklahoma team was loaded, especially on offense, but two of the Sooners' early opponents were West Virginia and Rice, which didn't prove much of anything. Two weeks ago a 45-23 win over Missouri gave him a clue; Saturday's blitz of Texas convinced him.
What happened was that the proud Sooners, with a reputation for playing as well in crucial games as any team in the country, went out against Texas and did what they had been promising their supporters all week: they played lights-out football. Click, click and it was 14-0 less than three minutes into the second quarter. When the dazed Longhorns finally plodded off the floor of the Cotton Bowl, they knew they had been rounded up and branded with a big OU.
While Switzer is the architect of this house of success, it was Halfback Billy Sims who did most of the hammering. He rushed 25 times for 131 yards, scored two touchdowns and threw a block that enabled David Overstreet to light up the scoreboard. Before the game, Switzer had said, "Sims is a great, great back. People just don't know that yet." Now they do.
In two previous seasons, Sims had been hurt and could not play against the Longhorns. This year the junior from Hooks, Texas anticipated something marvelous. At a pep rally in Norman he had coyly asked how many students were going to Dallas. All, of course, were. "Good," said Sims, "because I want you to see me fly." Sims didn't let anyone down. He literally flew with the hurtling, twisting style that has earned him a season average of 7.4 yards per carry. Nevertheless, afterward he complained, "I really meant to fly higher." Says Switzer, "I wish he'd stay on the ground a little more. But that's Billy."
And Billy's flying act was plenty high enough for a program that some thought might be getting ready to crash. The trouble goes back to last season when Oklahoma was 10-2. "I remember when 8-3 used to be a helluva year," laments Switzer. But the real trouble was that the Sooners lost to Texas in the regular season—a humiliation hard to live with for 364 days in the Southwest. But perhaps even worse, Oklahoma was crushed 31-6 by an underdog Arkansas team in the Orange Bowl.
Throughout last year, there had been unhappiness on the Sooner coaching staff, and much venom was directed, privately, toward Defensive Coordinator Larry Lacewell. He was one of 12 assistants to Switzer but he didn't think of himself that way. One day at practice Lacewell was asked for something and he sniffed, "Ask one of the assistant coaches to do it." There was talk that Lacewell, Switzer and others partied too much and prepared for games too little. Before the Orange Bowl game, Lacewell was standing at a bar one night with a big crowd gathered around. "This is going to be the first time in history a team had to send home its coaches for disciplinary reasons," he said. There were those who didn't laugh.
Pressure mounted on Switzer to fire Lacewell. Other assistants threatened to quit. Then, several months after the Orange Bowl debacle, Lacewell and Switzer had a personal falling-out, and Lacewell quit. Subsequently, Jerry Pettibone and Gene Hochevar left for reasons of their own. As a result of all this turmoil, people suspected that some of the wheels had fallen off the Sooner wagons and there was no way to get them circled up in time to defend their Big Eight title.
But what has developed instead is a new seriousness of purpose, although Switzer denies anything is different this year. "Arkansas beat us because they played better," he says. "Nobody will accept that."
Oklahoma has always been a loosey-goosey kind of team under Switzer, who comes as close as he ever will to formalizing his coaching philosophy when he says, "The good players play good when they blow the whistle." What is implied in that statement, fairly, is that Oklahoma usually has players that are better than good. But this season, the Sooners' stance is not quite so freewheeling as it used to be and a notch shy of the former air of total arrogance. Nobody, though, is accusing Switzer of becoming stuffy. Asked how he felt about a noon kickoff for the Texas game, he chortled, "Fine, it gives the winner longer to party."
When the Sooners flew to Dallas on Friday morning, they were, to a man, optimistic. And for good reason. After all, when Texas won 13-6 in 1977, Oklahoma not only had played without Sims, the man with the electric hair and the invisible wings, but also Quarterback Thomas Lott and Fullback Kenny King were hurting and far below par. All were well this time. Finally, the Longhorns no longer had Heisman winner Earl Campbell, who broke Oklahoma tackles and ultimately hearts as he rambled for 124 yards and the game's only TD.
As evidence that the Sooners do get down to business when business is at hand, they stayed at a Ramada Inn in Fort Worth. No raucous Friday night downtown Dallas nonsense for them. By dawn Saturday everyone was ready, and a nervous Rex Norris, the new defensive coordinator, moaned, "This job beats defusing bombs, but that's about it." The players had been shown game films, most often the one of last year's Texas game. Which made Switzer kick chairs and carry on something awful. "And I'll tell you another thing," he yelled at his team, "if they don't move the ball the first few times they have it with [Randy] McEachern at quarterback, they'll put in [Donnie] Little, a freshman. Imagine, a freshman! I don't know how tough he is, but he ain't tough enough to play in this game. This is no place for a freshman."
The Switzer harangue continued, "A few years ago, we got 13 of the best 30 high, school players in Texas. You all came here to play on a national championship team. If you win today, you're odds-on to win it. All you have to do is go out there and be road graders. I mean bury these people. I want you to come out whooping and hollering and knocking the hell out of folks. Ninety percent of the country is going to be watching you on TV and the other 10% is going to be mad because they can't." Switzer raged on to his peroration: "No mistakes in the kicking game, men. That's the most crucial thing."
Switzer was generally prescient, but not 100%. The Sooners elected to kick off and promptly made a mistake in the kicking game—unavoidable, perhaps, but a mistake. When soccer-style Kicker Uwe von Schamann approached the ball, he slipped on the worn-out artificial turf, barely made contact with the ball, and Texas got to begin play on its own 45. But the Longhorns, who struggled on offense all afternoon (they gained 191 yards; Oklahoma had 410), could do nothing. Then, on the Sooners' second play from scrimmage, King took the ball off tackle on a play designed to take advantage of trap blocking by rugged Guard Greg Roberts, and rambled 55 yards. But King, who weighs 210 pounds, pretends he is 260, "so I can run over people." He was stopped on the Texas 20 with a jarring tackle, suffered a hip pointer and, two plays later had to quit for the afternoon. As King found a seat on the sideline, Sims blasted the final 18 yards for the first Sooner touchdown.
On the first play of the second quarter, Sims circus-caught a Lott pass for 35 yards. Things were going as Lott had predicted. "We're going to pick up right where we left off last year," he said, "and they're ahead." Said Switzer, "See, even when our players get beat, they don't believe it." A Sooner fumble by King's replacement, Vickey Ray Anderson, stalled Oklahoma. But when Texas took over, just as Switzer had said, Donnie Little came into the game—and fumbled on the second snap. The Sooners' Reggie Mathis recovered on the Texas 26. Sims went for 17. Four plays later, the officials ruled he had flown over the goal from the one. Bingo, 14-0.
Russell Erxleben kicked a field goal for Texas and von Schamann had one, too, with one second to go in the half, making it 17-3. But more indicative of Oklahoma's superiority was the 116-yard bulge it held in rushing yardage, 174-58.
In the third quarter, Linebacker Daryl Hunt picked off a Little pass and the Sooners scored again on the subsequent 11-play, 53-yard drive when Lott threw another strike. This one went for 24 yards to Bobby Kimball in the end zone. It was further evidence that Lott, who was wearing a bandanna depicting a Colonial horseman—one of 70 he uses to keep his hair from getting dirty and the ends from being split—is coming of age as a wishbone passer. The rap on Lott for more than two years has been that he can't throw, which causes Switzer to grump, "That's not true. Besides, they never complain when a passing quarterback can't run." Lott ran for 32 yards and passed for 77 before he had to leave the game with a sprained ankle.
Later in the third quarter, Johnny (Lam) Jones got Texas' only touchdown when he went 25 yards on a flanker around. But Texas was finding life without Earl Campbell most difficult. Addressing that problem on the eve of the game, Texas Coach Fred Akers had said, "Well, not having Earl means we're balanced. That's one advantage. But there's no way any coach would say he's better off without an Earl Campbell." In truth, Texas was better balanced. That is, more people shared in not getting much of anything. Little carried 17 times for 33 yards; Johnny (Ham) Jones carried 17 times for 34 and LeRoy King nine times for 42.
Oklahoma scored for the last time in the fourth quarter after another interception, this one by Linebacker George Cumby. But, as in Kenny King's opening-quarter run, the price for six points was high. J. C. Watts, who had come in for the injured Lott, threw a 22-yard pass to Split End Steve Rhodes, who made a brilliant catch on the one—and severely bruised his shoulder. Three plays later, Overstreet ran the ball in with the aid of the block by Sims. That block may just personify the Sooners' new all-out style, because Sims rates the thrill of running interference somewhere below being run over by a bus.
On the way back to Norman, Switzer was lauding his defense, praising his offense, fretting about injuries and observing, "We played just as hard against Texas last year when we lost as we did this year when we won. In this game, you have to realize that occasionally you're going to lose again." But for the Sooners that dreadful time looks to be a good way down the field as they continue to fill the lives of Oklahoma football fans with wins.