Five months ago in Philadelphia, Miss., Marcus Dupree's uncle Curly Connors was sipping a soft drink behind the counter of the small convenience store he runs. He carefully put the bottle down on a countertop scratched by years of dimes and quarters sliding across it, looked up and said of his nephew, "He's the kind of kid that if things don't go right, he'll up and leave. I hope that folks at Oklahoma understand that. And if that happens, I know people will say he's a quitter."
Last week, with things not going right, on the field or in the classroom, Dupree up and left. People said he was a quitter. The folks at Oklahoma didn't understand. Everybody was pointing the finger at everyone else, with the biggest load of blame being dumped on the beleaguered Sooner coach, Barry Switzer. "I'm disgusted," said Switzer last Thursday. "It's inconceivable to me that a football player of his stature at a major college would take a week of vacation in the middle of the season." A week? It might be forever.
While football players gravitate to unhappiness as regularly as coaches gravitate to paranoia, what sets the Dupree case apart is that he was—and maybe still is—the finest amateur player in the country. Trouble is, Dupree, a 233-pound sensational-when-he-wants-to-be running back who has only permitted glimpses of what he might be, is, according to Switzer, fat, lazy, undisciplined, unmotivated, selfish, indifferent, immature and lacking in mental toughness. In private, Switzer isn't so gentle.
Last week's events were bizarre. Torn ligaments we can understand; shoulder separations we can understand; even drugs we can understand, sort of. Dupree we can't understand. His disenchantment with Oklahoma became apparent last spring when he told SI [June 20] of his strained relationship with Switzer. This latest manifestation of his unhappiness started on Oct. 8 following his poor performance—14 carries for 50 yards—in the Sooners' 28-16 loss to Texas in Dallas. After the game Dupree asked for and received routine permission to go home to Mississippi before returning to the Oklahoma campus on Monday. He got the part about going home right; it was the coming back to school aspect of the deal that gave him trouble and caused the furor. Said the idolized and mediablitzed Dupree last Thursday, "You can have all the fame in the world and not be happy. Happiness is more important than anything. And I'm not happy."
Where Dupree will end up remained uncertain as of Monday. He may well return to Oklahoma, although if he does, he'll have a very big mountain to climb in the minds of his teammates. Strong Safety Keith Stanberry was blunt: "I'm disappointed in the type of person Marcus is." Dupree also could wind up at Mississippi State, Alabama or Southern Mississippi. If he goes to any Division I school besides Oklahoma, he won't be eligible to play until 1985. Dupree says he might even attend a small school like Millsaps in Jackson, Miss, or Mississippi College in Clinton. Maybe he'll just go off in the woods and eat fruits and nuts.
Dupree, 19, who led the Sooners in rushing last year as a freshman with 905 yards but had gained only 369 in five games this season, was on the brink of returning to Norman last Friday evening. He was prepared to swallow his medicine, which he knew would be indescribably bitter when mixed with his ego, and assume a new attitude. But then he heard Switzer say of his leaving the team, "This might even help us."
That tore it up for Dupree, who for months had been chafing under a drumbeat of criticism from Switzer. That a lot of Switzer's observations were correct is immaterial; that they made Dupree mad is very material. Further, Dupree was miffed that Switzer never seemed to believe him when he said he had a pulled hamstring, knee injuries, asthma, virus, car trouble, alarm clock malfunctions. Dupree's best friend, Ken Fairley, 29, a counselor at Southern Mississippi, says, "Marcus felt like Switzer blamed him for the Fiesta Bowl loss [to Arizona State last January] and now for the Texas loss. There was no line of communication between Marcus and Switzer." Counters Switzer on being the fall guy, "He's got to make an excuse for quitting, doesn't he? If we were undefeated and he were leading the nation in rushing, do you think he would have quit?"
Switzer's most crucial mistake was inconsistency. Following the Fiesta defeat, during which Dupree ran for 239 yards, Switzer criticized him for being out of shape. The next month Switzer said, "Marcus Dupree is the greatest football player in America. He's better than Herschel Walker." In 1982 Switzer dropped his beloved wishbone offense and installed an I formation to give Dupree at least three times as many chances a game to run with the ball. Last spring Switzer said, "Dupree is lazy. It's all come too easy." A book and several songs have been written about Dupree. He spoke of winning the Heisman, and Switzer said, "Attaboy." Talk about confusing signals.
Also, Switzer in his exasperation says things about Dupree that are unfair and even downright inaccurate. For example: "He really hasn't practiced since he came here." Wrong. While Dupree missed workouts with injuries and always viewed practice with the same enthusiasm he would a wart on the tip of his nose, he'd come around enormously on that score. According to assistant coaches, Dupree this fall not only had been practicing with an enthusiasm heretofore foreign to him but also was leading the yelling and carrying on during workouts and was making a conscientious effort to get along with his teammates. Before the Texas game, in spite of a nagging knee injury that was depressing him—and reducing his effectiveness—Dupree had his best week of all and even seemed to be emerging as one of the team leaders.
Now the difficulties threaten to knock the wheels off the Sooners' wagon. On Saturday, Dupree-distracted Oklahoma needed a miracle finish to overcome seven turnovers, a school-record 15 penalties for 145 yards and a 20-3 deficit to whip its normally docile sister school, Oklahoma State, 21-20 in Stillwater. (The Cowboys have defeated the Sooners only once since 1966.) The victory was set up by Tim Lashar's onside kick that was recovered by Oklahoma's Scott Case with 2:50 to play. Lashar, however, was supposed to hit the ball deep. Everybody was told that except Lashar. Thanks, luck. Then, one minute, 34 seconds later, he booted a decisive 46-yard field goal. This finally shushed the rowdy Cowboy fans, who had posted several signs in honor of Dupree's disappearance, including BARRY, IT'S 1:30 DO YOU KNOW WHERE YOUR PLAYERS ARE? The scoreboard even flashed such messages as OSU WELCOMES SOUTHERN MISSISSIPPI RECRUITING COORDINATOR.
Disciplining stars is something Switzer has seemingly found difficult to do. For instance, starting Split End Buster Rhymes, recruited as an all-world running back in 1982, was caught with another player in possession of a third player's stereo that they'd swiped from the third guy's room. Inexplicably, Switzer allowed Rhymes to remain on the squad as a disciplinary redshirt. Then last December Rhymes was caught cheating on a botany test—"I really got stuck," he says—and was tossed out of school for one semester. It's not necessary to put people in jail and toss out the keys for such indiscretions, but at some point a no-nonsense stand must be made. Dupree, with all his excuses and ailments—some real, some imagined—has left Switzer twisting in the wind and looking foolish.
Ditto the university, for Dupree had stopped being a college student. Jin Brown, academic counselor for the athletic department, told SI's Jill Lieber last week, "I've talked to all of Marcus' teachers the last few days. He just hasn't gone to school. What has he done classwise this year? Zip. Nothing. He probably would have flunked every course." Dupree regularly cut American History 1493, failed the first test in the course, dropped it and picked up Skills for College Success, which he attended once. And in a remarkable lapse of judgment, he failed to attend most of the classes in Philosophy 1203, which is taught in part by University President William S. Banowsky. Says Brown, "When we give a kid an athletic scholarship, it's to represent us in games. Because he doesn't cut it scholastically, how can you hold him out of games?"
If that sort of educational philosophy is open to question, Brown's further observation on Dupree is not: "Marcus is too immature to make a rational decision, especially right now." It's this immaturity that friends repeatedly cite as being Dupree's key shortcoming. Says Oklahoma basketball All-America Wayman Tisdale, a buddy who knows star pressure well, "You grow more from the bad times than the good. Marcus is too immature to realize that." Adds Sooner Defensive Tackle Rick Bryan, who is also an All-America, "Marcus doesn't handle the pressure very well. When you are under pressure, you don't run home."
Despite this being his second year away from Philadelphia, Dupree says that he was homesick and that he didn't realize how much he missed his mother, Cella. She, however, encouraged him to stay at school, although on Saturday she said, "Whatever Marcus wants is what I want." When Dupree would say he was coming home to visit, Cella would try to dissuade him by saying, "Why, Marcus? Ain't nothin' changed." Moreover, Dupree knew he was falling far short of his expectations, and everyone else's. And as his troubles deepened, he talked to no one. That was true to form; he has always been reticent. Brown thinks Dupree's penchant for keeping everything inside himself is "the whole problem." His roommate, Quarterback Danny Bradley, says, "He never indicated to me that he would do this. I don't know why he isn't here. If they [the coaches] showed more concern for Marcus as a person, instead of worrying about him running over people every week, the situation might be different."
Almost all of Dupree's friends and coaches believe that when he went home after the Texas game, he had no intention of staying there. Switzer talked with him by phone on the ensuing Monday and told him in no uncertain terms to get on a 1 p.m. flight out of Jackson and to get back to Norman pronto. Dupree now says he couldn't get a ride to the airport. On Tuesday he went to the airport but just before boarding the plane had a change of heart. He remained around Jackson and then went to visit a high school classmate, Alvin Kidd, at Mississippi College. On Wednesday Dupree called Sooner Assistant Coach Scott Hill and Fullback Spencer Tillman. Dupree told Hill he planned to return to Oklahoma. From Tillman he wanted to know whether his car, a 1982 Oldsmobile Toronado, was all right.
By Thursday, Dupree was in Hattiesburg with Fairley. About 10 p.m. that night Dupree had a brief interview in a parking lot with three reporters, to whom he said, "I'm not going back to Oklahoma." He also lamented his inability to please Switzer. On Friday, Dupree visited with Southern Mississippi Coach Jim Carmody and telephoned Mississippi State Coach Emory Bellard. Later that day Sooner Assistant Coach Lucious Selmon, who had recruited Dupree out of the grasp of Texas, showed up. Says Selmon, "I think he's at the crossroads, a fork, becoming a mature man or trying to hold on to his mother's guidance." Their three-hour conversation took place largely at Carries Luncheonette—Dupree ordered his favorite, fried chicken—and Selmon made some serious headway. "He said he wasn't happy in Norman," says Selmon. "He never once told me that before."
As for Switzer's harping, Selmon said diplomatically, "Marcus doesn't take criticism too well." On parting at the Hattiesburg airport, Selmon told Dupree, "Give it a lot of thought." Dupree said he would, but when he slid back into the car driven by Fairley, Dupree said, "I'm still not goin' back there." Selmon, however, maintained at week's end that the chances were 3 to 1 that Dupree would return to Oklahoma.
Sooner Assistant Head Coach Merv Johnson says of Dupree, "He enjoys all the benefits of football, all the adulation. He just doesn't enjoy football. He's got to want to do it. It's like going to work every morning. Unless he comes to that feeling, that he wants to go to work every morning, what's the point?"
In the midst of all the recriminations, it seemed odd that only a few months ago Dupree was musing, "I try to make life simple, mind my own business, keep my mouth shut and make life fun." Last week, he was, sadly, 0 for 4 on those counts. The folks at Oklahoma do understand that.