Happy 50th birthday, Barry Switzer! Somehow you seem both older and younger than you are: How can anybody so youthful-looking have 142 career wins, and how can anybody so old mesh so well with jive-talking kids? But after some folks at the University of Oklahoma gave you that cake early last week and decorated your office with black balloons, black crepe paper and a tablecloth emblazoned with the words OVER THE HILL, BUT READY TO ROLL, you pretty much summed up the paradox. What you said was "I'm too old to grow up now." Amen.
So what would you like as a belated birthday present? How about Texas? No, not the University of Texas. You ate that up 44-9 on Saturday in the Cotton Bowl. No, how about the whole darn state of Texas, cut into little recruiting squares, all that high school gridiron talent wrapped up like choice beefsteaks and delivered to the godforsaken prairie town that is Norman?
Switzer may already have that, too. His 5-0, No. 1-ranked Sooners have a defense that has given up only 26 points this year. They are first in the nation in keeping down the score and in curtailing the opposition's total yardage, second in stopping the pass and fourth in halting the run. And eight starters on the D are from Texas. All told, 37 Oklahoma players are from the Lone Star State. Where would Switzer be without Texas?
"We've got to have the Texas kids," he says. "We'll get 90 percent of the best players in Oklahoma. But that's only about eight or nine a year. Then we'll pick up a few nationally. But that's not enough. Texas probably has the best high school football in America, so we get players there. Look at all the great Texas players who've come to Oklahoma—Billy Sims, Joe Washington, David Overstreet, Thomas Lott, on and on. It's as simple as numbers."
October 18, 1987
Well, sort of. If it's so easy to get great players in Texas, how come the University of Texas doesn't have more of them? The Longhorns' best player is running back Eric Metcalf. who had 14 carries for 63 yards and 7 receptions for 39 yards against Oklahoma, and he's from Virginia. Moreover, how do you get anybody to agree to spend his college years in Norman, which is 18 miles south of Oklahoma City, which itself is essentially Tulsa with a capitol building?
"You ever been to West Texas?" asks Switzer by way of explanation. "It's the same as Norman. Lubbock, Amarillo—they're closer to Norman than to Austin. The state line doesn't mean anything. People will go where they fit in." And Switzer makes everyone feel as if they fit in, from farm boys to big-city dudes.
"He's so easy to talk to," says freshman Marcus Lowe, a heavily sought-after defensive lineman from Houston. "When he came to my house, he didn't talk like a coach. And my mom liked him a lot."
Says Sims, the Hooks, Texas (pop. 2,507), resident whose Heisman Trophy sits in Switzer's office, "If there's ever been a players' coach, he's it."
Yes, Oklahoma is the home of the happy, victory-craving player. Switzer has averaged almost 10 wins per season during his 14 years with the Sooners, and he has the fourth-highest winning percentage of anyone who has coached at least 10 years in college. He gets into enough off-field trouble—in 1984, he pleaded guilty to driving while impaired, and he successfully fought an insider-stock-trading suit—that Dallas Morning News columnist Blackie Sherrod was able to write recently that Switzer is "a crisis on the way to happening."
In a sense, the Sooners have become the Los Angeles Raiders of the NCAA, with Switzer assuming the role of Al Davis, loved by his charges, despised by opponents. This year's Oklahoma-Texas mismatch showed just what kind of team Switzer has been able to build with all those Texas studs, and it also demonstrated how far University of Texas football—and that of the entire Southwest Conference—has fallen.
Poor recruiting, coaching instability (there have been seven head-coaching changes in the conference in the last three years) and the hangover from NCAA police work (since 1985 every Texas team in the Southwest Conference except Baylor and Rice has been investigated, and four have been put on probation) have all taken their toll. Texas is on a two-year probation for 51 violations and has been docked five scholarships by the NCAA. Just how sorry the fortunes of this once-mighty conference have become was obvious on Sept. 26 when Arkansas, a preseason favorite for the championship, lost 51-7 to Miami in Little Rock. Then the other putative SWC power, Texas A & M, lost to Texas Tech, which had already lost to Baylor, which had been humbled by that noted juggernaut, Missouri.
And Oklahoma isn't the only one rustling Texas talent. Schools from California to Indiana have moved in like crows at a road kill. Tim Brown goes to Notre Dame, Charles Arbuckle and Brian Jones go to UCLA, Harvey Williams goes to LSU, Thurman Thomas goes to Oklahoma State, and Texas schools take what is left over.
In years past, the Oklahoma-Texas game has carried some weight. On 35 occasions, at least one of the schools has come in undefeated. But this time—with Texas at 2-2, having beaten lowly Oregon State and Rice at home after losing its first two to Auburn and BYU—the betting line had the Sooners winning by 31, the biggest point spread ever.
"Oklahoma-Texas used to be a border war," said Sooner senior defensive end Darrell Reed in midweek. "Now it's lost some electricity. It's not the same."
Still, Oklahoma-Texas is an event as much as a game; it's held on the second Saturday of every October at the Cotton Bowl—equidistant from Norman and Austin—smack-dab in the middle of the State Fair of Texas. The occasion is so colorful, emotion-packed and hyperbolic that it pretty much gives form to all that is both sublime and ridiculous about the college game. Indeed, it's hard not to get chills the first time one hears the Longhorn band play The Eyes of Texas—if one can forget for the moment that it is the same tune as I've Been Working on the Railroad.
Last week there was the usual drunken posturing on Commerce Avenue, with Texas fans wearing a shade of orange more appropriate to industrial furniture, and Oklahoma fans wearing red and white, and screaming "Boomer Sooner!" as though they knew what it meant. A tug-of-war between rival fans that took place across the tiny Trinity River was won by the Texans, mainly because they were about twice as numerous as the Oklahomans.
And there were the inevitable accusations of mischief directed at the Sooner football program by Texas newspapers. The Dallas Morning News reported during the week that Oklahoma players had sold tickets to Sooner games in recent seasons with the help of an athletic department employee and that players had been aided in obtaining car loans from a Norman bank without the usual credit checks. The NCAA confirmed that an investigation was under way. Switzer denied any wrongdoing. "Oklahoma doesn't buy players!" he roared at an Oct. 6 media luncheon. Two days later, in private, he shrugged and said, "That stuff was predictable. You just go on." Jack E. Black, until earlier this year the president of the now-liquidated American Exchange Bank of Norman, which was accused of making the favorable loans, added that during his tenure the bank didn't favor athletes over anyone else, but that it did make a number of bad loans to students in general.
Switzer has let it be known that he would like the annual game moved from the Cotton Bowl and turned into a home-and-home on-campus event. "I don't think we ought to mess with it," responded Texas athletic director DeLoss Dodds. Point, counterpoint.
The Longhorns certainly shouldn't have messed with the Sooners on the field. The only problems Oklahoma had were unique to a team that had rolled over its first four opponents by the combined score of 218-17. The Sooners' ultra-cool, Los Angeles-bred quarterback, Jammin' Jamelle Holieway, the 5'9", 180-pound wishbone magician, was worried about getting enough playing time. "All those Heisman candidates playing four quarters," he said wistfully. "Well, I'm a team-oriented guy. Would I like to pass more? If we had to throw 30 times a game, dude, I could do it."
All-America tight end Keith Jackson, noted cellist and big-play receiver, was concerned that his injured left elbow might interfere with his ability to finger his instrument's strings. But he was not dismissing Texas. "We prepare the same, week after week," he said. "We don't say, 'Ha-ha! It's North Texas State this week!' We have pride. That's why we score so much. We hate close games." (For the record, North Texas State went down on opening day 69-14.)
This match was very close for a quarter (3-0 in favor of Texas), pretty close for a half (13-6, Oklahoma), but after that it was just like the Sooners' previous games—a rout. Early in the proceedings, Metcalf found a few holes in the Sooner defense, and Texas quarterback Bret Stafford completed passes in front of the Sooners' nickel secondary. The Longhorns kicked a field goal just before halftime, which gave them false hope.
It shouldn't have. In the second half, Texas's quarterbacks (Stafford alternated throughout the second half with Shannon Kelley) threw five interceptions; they had seven for the game. Meanwhile, Holieway (15 rushes for 70 yards and 2-of-5 passing for 76 yards and a touchdown) marched the Sooners up and down the field. Oklahoma finished the day still leading the nation in rushing offense (532.2 yards per game) and total offense (529.0).
Backup quarterback Charles Thompson, who entered the game tied for third in the nation in scoring, took over for Holieway in the fourth quarter and ran for 114 yards and a touchdown in eight carries. Thompson is one of the reasons that Switzer can't help running up the score. When Thompson was asked what the difference is between a quarterback and a halfback in the Sooners' wishbone, he replied, "Nothing, except a halfback gets into a three-point stance and a quarterback stands up."
Oklahoma moves the ball so well it's hard to remember that runts like Holieway and Thompson—he's generously listed at 5'10" and 174 pounds—might not even play at schools with pro-style passing or power-I offenses. But Switzer recruits specifically for his attack, and he recruits all the time. In his office last week he stopped in midsentence during a response to a reporter's question, squinted and telephoned a high school coach in Tennessee. "You just pushed a button with me," he said to the interviewer after hanging up. Who knows, maybe that coach's best player will someday find happiness in Norman.
In the Sooner locker room after the game, senior All-America guard Mark Hutson explained why he came to Oklahoma. "I'm from Arkansas, and I wanted to be on a national championship team, and I didn't see it happening back there," he said.
"He wanted to party and not get kicked off the team," suggested center Mark Van Keirsbilck.
Hutson laughed and said, "Barry always has had a loose program. The way he's always put it is, Just stay out of jail, stay out of the papers and play as hard as you can on Saturday. That's all he wants."
That—and a few Texans—might be all he needs.
"This year's mismatch demonstrated just how far Texas football has fallen of late."