No Doubt About It: Oklahoma's No. 1

After resolving several off-field problems, much maligned Barry Switzer led a group of youngsters to the national crown
January 13, 1986

Once upon a time, there was a college team with a purse-carrying quarterback, a defense that barked, a punk-coiffed linebacker and a coach nobody could quite figure. That team showed up in the Orange Bowl on New Year's night with enough beefcake to make Crockett and Tubbs blush and put a Miami vise on the national championship. It did just that by beating undefeated and No. 1—ranked Penn State 25-10.

And darned if maybe Sooner coach Barry Switzer didn't wake up to find that some people liked him after all. What's more, Oklahoma wasn't supposed to win the title until next year. But Switzer straightened out his act, and out of the vanilla world of BY-Who parity arose this cherry-red, four-on-the-floor dynasty called the Wishbone of the '90s.

It's 9 p.m. on Biscayne Boulevard in Miami, five days before the Orange Bowl, and Switzer sees flashing red-and-blue lights. He's in the passenger seat, listening to the driver explain to the cop the finer points of left turns without left-turn arrows. After 10 minutes of haranguing between the two, Switzer lowers his window, leans his famous mug out and says, "How 'bout you just give us the citation, officer, so we can be on our way?"

The officer gives Switzer a look that would melt a sunroof, and Switzer ducks his head back in the car and doesn't make another peep. "One thing I've learned," he says. "Some people don't care where you coach."

One thing we've learned about Switzer is that he has learned a Sooner Schooner full of things lately. He's 48 and going on 49, not 29. In the last five years he has survived a divorce, a D.W.I. charge, a civil suit brought by the Securities and Exchange Commission for insider trading, three (gasp) four-loss seasons, a poorly veiled threat upon his job, an Oklahoma City newspaper's call for his head and Marcus Dupree.

Switzer has struck up feuds with everybody from Darrell Royal to the state of Utah. When Switzer pooh-poohed BYU's being named national champion in 1984, the Salt Lake County Council of Governments named a sewage lagoon after him. "Most guys' kids want to see Yellowstone on a family vacation," Switzer says. "My kids want to go see a sewage treatment plant." Talk about Old Faithful; Switzer could generally be counted upon to muck up a good thing. "Barry can be very self-destructive," says Janet Gibson, his very close friend of almost four years.

To America, Switzer wore a black hat, XL. He was the Switzer in Penn State coach Joe Paterno's "I don't want to leave college football to the Jackie Sherrills and the Barry Switzers of the world" remark of 1979. He was the outlaw unbound. He was roguish, braggish, boorish. He spoke fast, drew fast, partied fast.

He won and won and won, but who wanted to write that, when Switzer could fill up your notebook with so much other good stuff? He was self-destructive, but is it any wonder, considering his background? The son of a Crossett, Ark. bootlegger, Switzer never had a phone until he was in college and didn't have electricity until he was in the ninth grade. As a kid, he would carry a kerosene lamp and a .22 pistol at night and lead his mother and grandmother out the back door and up the hill to the outhouse, ready to shoot copperheads, which were as fond of that hill as they were.

Because of his father's fame at the local Alcoholic Beverage Control board, Switzer's home was often searched without benefit of a warrant. Once Switzer himself was searched while he was coming home from school. Still, Switzer admired his father, even while his father was in prison. "It was the days of The Grapes of Wrath" Switzer says. "Everybody went to California looking for work and didn't find any. So my father came home and had to find a way to feed his family. They were hard times."

As were Switzer's. Bootleggers' sons weren't much welcome in Baptist living rooms, and most fathers prohibited their daughters from dating him. "I'd have my buddies go up to the door to pick up the girl, and I'd be waiting outside in the car," he says.

Switzer was angry—and paranoid. "It was insecurities," he says. "I was always wondering who was talking about me."

When he was 21, Switzer was home with his brother when he heard a shot. He went outside to find his mother laying on the porch, shot through the head by her own hand. Switzer picked her up and carried her inside. "She was a very sick woman," he says, "only we weren't aware of it. She needed help and love, and they weren't given to her." The whole family shared the blame, but Switzer's guilt went deeper. He had not kissed her that night.

In 1972, Switzer's father was killed. Some say he was murdered. The family was told that he was being rushed in a car to the hospital for treatment of gunshot wounds when the car hit a power pole and caught fire.

Alone, Switzer "set out to prove some things." When he did, when he went 29-0-1 in his first 30 games at Oklahoma, when he won national titles in 1974 and '75, he laughed long and loud. But now, three years after the divorce, after the humbling 31-6 loss to 18-point-underdog Arkansas in the 1978 Orange Bowl, after the departure of the talented but moody Dupree, after the dustup with the Securities and Exchange Commission, after a 1-2 start in 1982, after his contract was not given its traditional five-year rollover, Switzer is different. Now only Switzer's defense is destructive. "I found out that in this business humility is only seven days away," he says.

He also says he's not "All-Hospitality Room anymore." Indeed, even after he won his third national title in 13 years last week, Switzer stayed just 15 minutes in the Orange Bowl hospitality room to celebrate with his coaching staff. Was this the same Swinging Switzer who used to throw press parties for 200 at his house after wins over Wake Forest? Boisterous Barry? "He likes to call himself Boring Barry these days," says Janet. "He's hardly up after 10:30."

"Those parties I gave for writers painted me a certain way and that has stuck with me," Switzer says. "But I have changed. I'm getting too damn old."

It's not easy to get that through America's skull. Wrote Jim Lassiter in Oklahoma City's Daily Oklahoman, "Too many...look at the Sooners' wishbone—touchdown one time, fumble the next—and confuse it with their head coach."

In truth, Switzer is more sure-handed than he has ever been. He bit the financial bullet by selling his controversial holdings. He stopped "wallerin' around" with the I formation to suit the Duprees of the world—"stuff I really didn't believe in," he says—and returned to the proven wishbone, of which he is the benevolent protector. He stopped throwing postgame parties. His idea of a big night these days is a steak on the charcoal, a game on the tube and Janet, 18 years his junior, on his arm.

The Division I coach with the best record (124-24-1), Switzer didn't finish among the top five finalists for AP Coach of the Year. However, he may never have worked harder or coached better than he did in taking a team with only three seniors playing major roles to the championship. Imagine that you are Switzer and that you have just lost by two touchdowns at home to Miami in the fourth game of the season. Moreover, your starting quarterback, Troy Aikman, is out for the season, leaving you with a brand-new air-capable offense you can't use because all you've got are two freshman quarterbacks who can't throw. What do you do? You start checking the help-wanted columns.

Except that Switzer didn't. Instead, he went back to the wishbone and installed freshman Jamelle Holieway, he of the Louis Vuitton pouch (please, not purse), at quarterback. Switzer had a reputation for showing up in the last five minutes of practices, but now he put in triple time. Before the season began he even made three trips to Colorado Springs to study the flexbone offense of Air Force. By the time Oklahoma arrived in Miami, the fabulous Holieway was the team's leading rusher, the defense—a group that has a fondness for pack howling before plays—was No. 1 in the country, and the Sooners were seven-point favorites over the nation's No. 1-ranked team. Go figure.

At the airport, in the hotel lobby, in the press conferences, it was clear which outfit was howling and which was the dog. Penn State's practices were closed; Oklahoma's open. Ditto for mouths. Said Holieway, "If we score seven points, we'll win." OU's leader was Brian (The Boz) Bosworth, who looked up from his pool chaise longue one day, shook out his Commando, red-tinted, tailed 'do and said, "In all humbleness...we're bad."

And they were. But not as bad as Penn State, the most un-No. 1 under the sun. The Lions had no first-team AP All-Americas; trailed opponents in first downs, offensive plays and time of possession; and were led by a quarterback who completed 45% of his passes. In the Orange Bowl, John Shaffer converted 10 of 22 throws for 74 yards and had three interceptions. One set up the Sooners' first field goal, and another killed a drive at the one. Woof, woof.

All of this when Penn State's defense had played the wishbone clairvoyantly, holding Holieway to one yard rushing. It's cool. Holieway just reached into his pouch of tricks and found Keith Jackson on a 71-yard fly in the second quarter to give Oklahoma a 10-7 lead and break the Nittany will. Even one point behind is too much when your O is no go thanks to Bosworth's Kennel. The Boz led the pack with 13 unassisted tackles.

And when Miami coach Jimmy Johnson failed to run up the score in New Orleans against Tennessee to the tune of 7-35, Switzer's bad boys had themselves a national championship in a rebuilding year. Read it and weep: Switzer's back-field goes freshman (Holieway), sophomore (halfback Patrick Collins), sophomore (fullback Lydell Carr) and junior (halfback Spencer Tillman). Defensively, the Sooners will open next fall with only one player who hasn't started.

Once upon a time there was a coach who won and won and won until people couldn't help but notice. He won exactly as many national titles and bowl games as Bud Wilkinson. He won more national championships than Ara Parseghian and Bob Devaney, had a higher winning percentage than Bo Schembechler and Tom Osborne and still had 15 good coaching years left. Then he found out it was more fun to take along some company, just in case the steaks came two to a package.

It's 9:30 p.m. at a restaurant in Miami Beach, the night before the Orange Bowl, and a man approaches Switzer's table. This, of course, is as unprecedented in Miami as the sharing of cocoa butter. After all, this is the town where a guy once videotaped Switzer eating breakfast. Look here, Gladys, watch what he does with the hash browns.

"Excuse me, Coach," says the man. "You don't know me, but I'm from Edmond [Okla.] and these people won't take my Visa card. I was wondering...."

Switzer pauses, looks at Janet. The man asks for $50. Switzer reaches into his wallet and gives the guy $100.

So whadya know about that?

Some people do care where you coach.

PHOTOHEINZ KLUETMEIERLargely because the freshman Holieway (above) made far fewer mistakes than the junior Shaffer (left), Switzer was a winner. TWO PHOTOSJOHN BIEVER[See caption above.] PHOTOJOHN BIEVERShaffer's backup, Matt Knizner, also discovered that the Sooner D was not all bark. PHOTOHEINZ KLUETMEIERJackson scored on a 71-yard pass play to put Oklahoma ahead 10-7. PHOTOJOHN BIEVERWith 13 solo tackles, Boz made waves.

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