Barry Switzer, the cool hand Luke of college football, was attending the grand opening of a car dealership in Oklahoma City a couple of years ago when the future almost kicked him in the face.
"I was watching this group of break dancers who were performing," says the Oklahoma coach. "They were called the L.A. Breakers—the L.A. was for Lawton [Okla.] Area—and the leader was doing the damnedest things I'd ever seen. He'd drop to the floor, spin around, get up on his head, fall down again and come back up just like a snake. Unbelievable stuff. I said to somebody near me, 'Who's that dude?"
"And the guy said, That's Charles Thompson.'
"I almost died. 'Charles Thompson, the Lawton High quarterback?' I asked.
November 30, 1987
" 'Yeah,' the guy said.
" 'Holy potatoes,' I said. And I walked right over and introduced myself. What a great, great athlete."
The rest you can figure out. Switzer went into his' snake-charming, mom-slaying recruiter mode, Thompson decided to attend Oklahoma and, on Saturday, he led the undefeated Sooners to a 17-7 win in Lincoln over previously undefeated Nebraska, the nouveau trash-talkers of the Great Plains. An example of the newly loosened Cornhusker lips: Coach Tom Osborne said a couple of days before Oklahoma arrived in Lincoln, "The big question is, How will Thompson react to the Big Game?"
Just fine, as it turned out. Thompson, a 5'10", 174-pound redshirt freshman, prevailed because he's such a stellar athlete, capable of rushing for 131 yards on 21 carries and of dishing off to his fellow whippets (Patrick Collins, 13 carries, 131 yards; Rotnei Anderson, 24 carries, 119 yards; Anthony Stafford, 12 carries, 48 yards) at just the right moments, and because the Sooners scrambled to recover most of their fumbles. But, most important, Thompson kept his wits about him.
Coming into the Battle of the Century II (Battle I, in case anyone has forgotten, occurred in 1971 and was won by Nebraska 35-31), Oklahoma seemed like a fighter plane without a pilot. On Nov. 7, during a 29-10 victory over Oklahoma State, the Sooners lost their starting quarterback and leading rusher, junior Jammin' Jamelle (J-Boe) Holieway, to torn ligaments in his right knee. Thompson, then thought of as a scrawny mop-up man, had come on in the final minutes against the Cowboys and was less than impressive as a first-time starter the next week in a surprisingly harrowing 17-13 victory over Missouri. Oklahoma also had lost its second leading rusher, Lydell Carr, to a knee injury in the game against Oklahoma State, and critics were saying the Sooner wishbone offense was running on empty.
Indeed, in its previous four games Oklahoma had lost 12 fumbles. But the Sooner 'bone never breaks; it just bends, quivers and twangs back in your face. Coming into Saturday's game the darned thing was leading the nation in rushing with an average of 429.8 yards per game. And the 19-year-old Thompson already had carried the ball 84 times for 673 yards and 10 touchdowns. (Passing, of course, is an afterthought at Oklahoma, but Thompson also had thrown 28 times and completed 11 passes for 207 yards and two touchdowns.)
"Sure, I'm worried about Charles," Switzer said before the Nebraska game. "He's got to hold on to the ball, mainly, and not have any lost-yardage plays. But he had a great practice on Tuesday, and I told him, 'Play like that Saturday, and you'll stun the nation.' "
Thompson stunned most of Saturday's onlookers by refusing to take the snap on Oklahoma's first play from scrimmage. Too much noise from the Cornhusker fans, he told the ref. Bad move, right? A freshman mistake? Nope, said Thompson after the game. "I felt mature. I was using that first play to my advantage, to show the defense that I was in control. To show them this guy isn't as dumb as he looks."
For some reason the crowd, which is generally not polite to people wearing crimson and cream, quieted down, and Thompson looked pretty smart moving the Sooners close to the Nebraska goal line. Then Anderson fumbled, and Husker linebacker LeRoy Etienne, who led Nebraska with 15 tackles, recovered at his own eight. Fumbles are to the wishbone as blown engines are to Indy cars—the price of life in the fast lane. But most of the time Anderson looks as if he's trying out for the juggling team. He would fumble three times on the day, losing two, making a total of six such miscues in the last three games.
Two series later, Cornhusker I-back Keith Jones, who would finish with 94 yards on 15 carries, ran 25 yards around right end for a touchdown and a 7-0 Nebraska lead. The Memorial Stadium record crowd of 76,663—the 156th straight sellout in Lincoln—released its red balloons into the sky and whooped like ranchers at a cattle auction. Husker fans don't despise Oklahomans the way, say, Texans do, but they are a little sick of the Sooners' dominance in this annual affair—14 regular-season victories in the last 21 years, 11 in the last 15, and 3 in a row going into Saturday's game.
And there's the way Oklahoma has won. Six times since 1966 the Sooners have come from behind in the fourth quarter to triumph. And in four of those games (in '66, '76, '80 and '86), Oklahoma scored the clincher in the final minute. Last year the Sooners won 20-17 on a field goal with six seconds left. No wonder that among the hottest-selling pregame items in Lincoln were T-shirts inscribed SOONER BOOMER and showing a fierce, bare-chested Nebraska farmer cradling a grenade launcher.
So, even though the Cornhuskers got the early lead, it was no surprise that they were doomed. And this was true despite the fact that before this game everything seemed to be going Nebraska's way. Through scheduling sleight of hand, the Huskers had a week to rest up for Oklahoma (their game against Colorado had been moved from Nov. 14 to Nov. 28), and Nebraska had beaten its last two opponents by the combined score of 84-10. Oklahoma, meanwhile, was limping: Holieway and Carr were out, and even Switzer himself had a knee injury (a partial ligament tear suffered on Nov. 14, when Missouri linebacker Reggie Ballard crashed into him on the sideline). The Sooners were cast as unlikely underdogs, the oddsmakers having made the Cornhuskers as much as 7-point favorites.
Three days before the game, Switzer sat in his office and fairly bristled. "Why they think they're going to beat the snot out of us, I don't know," he said. "They ain't scored but three touchdowns in three years on our defense."
But Nebraska was talking as though the game were in the bag. Perhaps the boasting got out of hand because the normally staid Huskers are new to the ragging game. It took a preseason meeting between Nebraska's black players and the tightly wound Osborne to help free the Cornhuskers from old inhibitions. "We talked about emotion and how we want to show more of it on the field," says cornerback Charles Fryar of that get-together. "He encouraged us. Now we can high five, wear sweet tails [those little towels] and all that."
"I don't feel like we have to play our best game of the year to beat Oklahoma," said tight end Tom Banderas, getting into the swing of things.
"This is our house," said defensive end Broderick (Sandman) Thomas. "And only we have the key."
"I hate Oklahoma, I really do," said quarterback Steve Taylor. Taylor's quotes papered the walls of the Sooners' locker room. His best offering: THE FLATOUT TRUTH IS OKLAHOMA CAN'T PLAY WITH US. THE SOONERS AREN'T GOOD ENOUGH. LET ME TELL YOU, IT MIGHT NOT EVEN BE CLOSE, AND I MEAN THAT. Whoops.
The Sooners, usually a volatile bunch, spent most of game week listening and waiting. Defensive end Darrell Reed recalls telling defensive tackle Darren Kilpatrick that he had "heard on TV that Nebraska's offense was going to attack our tackles." Kilpatrick smiled and said, "Bring it. I like pain."
Though Oklahoma could not score in the first half, it was clear that only lost fumbles (two) and poor field position (four of its six possessions began inside its 26-yard line) were holding it back. The Sooners' massive offensive line—average size: 6'4", 274 pounds—was relishing its work. "When you come off the ball and knock somebody five yards down the field, you know it's a long day for them," said tackle Jon Phillips afterward. Indeed, when the Oklahoma wishbone is working well, it resembles three or four weasels scurrying out from behind half a dozen rooting pigs.
Meanwhile, the Sooner defense quickly established itself. After Nebraska's 84-yard first-quarter scoring drive, Oklahoma gave up only 151 yards the rest of the way, including 60 on the Huskers' final, abortive drive as time expired. The Sooner defense, which has now allowed only seven touchdowns in 11 games, was led up front by the infernal Dantes—noseguard Williams and inside linebacker Jones—and in the secondary by free safety Rickey Dixon, who had two key interceptions.
At halftime Switzer told his team, "Men, we got them just where we want them. And they know it, too."
Holieway, who was so weighted down with teammates' gold chains that he looked like Mr. T after a crash diet, played valet to Thompson in the locker room. He offered his replacement encouragement, wiped his face and brought him ice. "I'm proud of him," Holieway said.
Before Oklahoma charged back onto the field for the second half, defensive coordinator Gary Gibbs hollered, "Remember, it's Sooner Magic! We always win here!"
Dixon promptly intercepted a Taylor pass and returned it 24 yards to the Nebraska 13. Two plays later, Stafford sprinted around right end to tie the game at 7-7. It was just a matter of time until the 'bone would explode in the Huskers' faces.
With less than two minutes left in the third quarter, it did. Thompson shoveled a perfect pitch to Collins, who turned the left end behind a sweet block by John Greene, shook off a couple of arm tackles and raced 65 yards for a TD. Oklahoma led 14-7. In the middle of the fourth quarter, kicker R.D. Lashar added a field goal, and against that Sooner D, a 10-point lead was as good as 50. For the game, Oklahoma outgained Nebraska 444 yards to 235, and if it hadn't been for those three lost fumbles, the score might have been 38-7.
In the locker room afterward the injured Holieway leaned joyfully on a four-foot homemade key the Sooners had brought with them to twit the once-cocky Huskers. "We didn't need the key to get in that house," he yelled. "We kicked the front door down!"
Switzer looked around at his happy bunch, took a long drag on his cigarette and smiled. He has often explained how he succeeds at Oklahoma. It's simple, really. He gets big linemen. He runs the wishbone. And he fills up the backfield with "great, great athletes," blazingly fast, agile players who might be too small to fit in elsewhere but are perfectly suited for his option offense.
"At the Orange Bowl last year our guys were standing out there during practice doing different athletic things, and little Anthony Stafford jumps up in the air and does a gainer," said Switzer. "Just like that. Eric Mitchel, our backup quarterback, says, 'I bet I could do that.' And he just, whoosh, does a back flip. Never done one before. I mean, the damnedest thing you ever saw. These guys just have great athletic talent."
And by "these guys," Switzer means his black players. He's frank about the role blacks play on his team and about his need to search hard for black players in a state that has few of them. If it means raiding another school's turf, so be it. Switzer's success grows because he, a product of the backwater town of Crossett, Ark., has developed a unique rapport with young black men. Switzer is loose, tolerant, aggressive and outside the establishment, qualities young blacks can identify with.
Across the locker room Thompson folded the towel he wore on his uniform. It bore the inscription KING CHARLES VI. What does Switzer think of that?
"Clothes, hair—what the hell does any of that have to do with winning?" he says. "Earrings. Sunglasses. Does any of that tell you whether a player is a great athlete, what kind of competitor he is?"
Obviously not. At least not at Oklahoma. And so the winningest active coach in college football and his gang are headed off to the Orange Bowl to battle Miami on New Year's Day and perhaps win a fourth national championship in 14 years. Miami is the only team to beat Oklahoma in the last three years.
Nebraska will be watching.
"After practice Switzer said, 'Play like that Saturday, and you'll stun the nation.'"