Barry's Back

Five years after Oklahoma forced out Barry Switzer, he is suddenly coach of the Dallas Cowboys
April 10, 1994

Barry Switzer looked like a man who had just been pulled from the wreckage of his own life. He had slept about five hours in the previous 72. He was sitting last Thursday night in Othello's restaurant in Norman, Okla., a low building radiating five shades of neon. Othello's is the home of the Table of Truth, a red Leatherette booth in which Switzer has dined nearly every night for 10 years. A tiny brass plaque sits on the wall of the booth, placed there in Switzer's honor. It Says, OLD COACHES NEVER DIE, THEY JUST FORGET THE SCORE.

Switzer had driven three hours from Dallas at the end of his first full day as the Dallas Cowboys' coach. At Othello's a party of 30 was gathered around a banquet table for a lobster dinner prepared by the restaurant's owner and Switzer's good friend, Pasquale Benso. Surrounding Switzer were family and friends wearing T-shirts in Cowboy blue and gray. BARRY'S BACK, they read.

That's right. Switzer, 56, the banished king of college football, the guy with the image tarnished nearly black, is the new conservator of America's Team. During the March 30 news conference at the Cowboys' Valley Ranch complex announcing his appointment, Switzer held forth like a carnival barker. But a moment after the session ended he stood in a hallway, seemingly dazed by the week's events. "I feel like I just won the lottery," he said. "Pinch me."

The day before, Cowboy owner Jerry Jones had accepted the resignation of Jimmy Johnson, the coach who had guided his team to two straight Super Bowl wins, and replaced him with Switzer (following story). Out of coaching since his forced resignation from Oklahoma in 1989, Switzer suddenly had a five-year contract worth a reported $1 million annually to take a job that few thought he could handle. This was a man whose coaching prospects had appeared to be nonexistent. To NCAA schools he is a pariah for having presided over one of the college game's most unsavory programs, and his favored brand of offense, the wishbone, made him ill suited to coach a pro team. "I know people doubt it," Switzer says. "But let me tell you, I can do this."

Switzer went right to work, striding the halls of the Cowboys' office complex, doing his best to win over the skeptics with his considerable charm. Switzer assured all within earshot that the Dallas offense would rest in the hands of new coordinator Ernie Zampese, Johnson's last hire. Switzer ran into All-Pro wideout Michael Irvin, who in the wake of Johnson's resignation had declared that he wouldn't play for Switzer. "Hey, Michael, who you going to play for?" Switzer boomed, grabbing Irvin's hand. "Don't worry, I won't make you throw any of those crackback blocks. I'll get you the ball." Irvin, disarmed, winked at Switzer and promised to come by to get acquainted.

The trouble with getting to know Switzer is that there are at least two of him. His penchant for self-destructive behavior is matched by a genius for survival. Switzer has been accused of many things and has done quite a few of them.

The son of a Crossett, Ark., bootlegger who did time in prison and a mother who committed suicide in 1972, Switzer got to the University of Arkansas on a football scholarship. Though he had never been a head coach, he succeeded Chuck Fairbanks at Oklahoma in 1973 and went on to win three national championships, amassing 157 victories in 16 seasons. While the Big Eight slowly integrated its teams in the mid- and late '60s, Switzer eagerly recruited black players, and he gave several blacks an opportunity to coach as his assistants. At the same time he thumbed his nose at the NCAA, an organization he considered insensitive in its treatment of athletes, especially those from poor backgrounds, and his program was regarded as one of college football's outlaws.

"The best team money could buy, right?" Switzer says, groaning and laughing at the same time. "Look, I never bought players. It didn't work that way. I took care of them when they were there and so did my assistant coaches, probably. I had a hard time saying no to players. But I never bought them. I didn't have to."

Switzer survived a brush with the Securities and Exchange Commission, which in 1983 investigated, and subsequently exonerated, him in connection with an insider-trading scheme. However, Switzer resigned as the Sooners' coach in June '89 after a series of events that included a shooting and a gang rape in the athletic dormitory and the arrest of his starting quarterback, Charles Thompson, for selling cocaine. Six months earlier the program had been placed on probation for violations that included players' receiving cars and cash.

Though reviled by his critics, Switzer has inspired loyalty in most of his former players and associates, among them Cowboy quarterback Troy Aikman, who started for Switzer at Oklahoma in 1985 before breaking his ankle against Johnson's Miami Hurricanes in the season's fourth game. Later that year Aikman and Switzer agreed that, as a dropback passer, Aikman was miscast at Oklahoma, and Switzer called UCLA coach Terry Donahue on the quarterback's behalf. Last week Aikman was a valuable public ally for his past and present coach. "I feel like I'm stuck in Groundhog Day," he said.

People who know Switzer contend that he is quieter these days than he was as Oklahoma's coach. He says that he has given up red meat and hard liquor, preferring pasta and red wine. He has made several visits to Italy in recent years with Benso, whose family is from the town of Mola di Ban on the Adriatic coast, and with his children: Greg, 25, a former Arkansas linebacker who is now in graduate school at Arkansas studying to be a concert pianist ("He can bench-press a piano, but he'd rather play it," says his father); Kathy Rutz, 24, an Oklahoma senior who has studied in Rome and lived with her husband for a year in Singapore; and Doug, 21, an aspiring quarterback at Missouri Southern who recently applied for a White House internship. Divorced since 1981, Switzer is the steady companion of Becky Buwick, the women's gymnastics coach at Oklahoma.

In his five years away from coaching, Switzer was involved in several businesses, including a meat-and-produce packaging company, a group of physical rehabilitation centers, a couple of restaurants and an insurance company. He also served as a front man in failed negotiations to bring an Arena Football League team to Oklahoma City and exerted considerable effort to persuade the Comanche, Creek and Seminole Indian tribes in Oklahoma to build gaming facilities on their land, though he met with little success.

Switzer was well-off financially, but Jones's first phone call to him about the Cowboy job was like a bucket of water to a thirsty man. "I needed it," Switzer says. "Not to prove something. I needed it because I missed coaching. I didn't know how much until the last few days."

It is not surprising that Jones called upon Switzer, whom Jones has known since his college days at Arkansas. In 1961 Switzer was a young Razorback assistant supervising freshman recruits, including Jones and Johnson, who went on to become roommates and teammates on the 1964 national championship team.

While Jones headed off to make millions in oil and gas, Switzer and Johnson moved through the college coaching ranks, often recommending each other for jobs. From 1970 to '72 Switzer and Johnson served at Oklahoma under Fairbanks, along with yet another Arkansan, Larry Lacewell, who is currently the Cowboys' director of college scouting. Today, Johnson's former wife, Linda Kay, and Switzer's ex, Kay, remain close friends, but not all the personal and professional entanglements of the Arkansas clan have been so pleasant. Lacewell left Oklahoma in 1977 after his wife, Criss, became involved with Switzer. "I won't skirt the issue; I got mad and left," says Lacewell. "But it was blown out of proportion; it wasn't what people thought." After a separation, the Lacewells reconciled, but Lacewell told one Cowboy that the idea of working with Switzer again had put a knot in his stomach.

Yet when Jones asked for Lacewell's opinion of Switzer, Lacewell's recommendation was instrumental in bringing Switzer to Dallas. "I don't think he ever set out to be a bad guy," Lacewell says. "He doesn't get up saying, 'I'm going to do something bad today.' He falls into a trap and doesn't know how to get out of it. Maybe he should have handled a lot of things differently, but he has handled the most important thing superbly, and that's his relationships with his players."

For his part, Switzer says, "I wouldn't be here if it wasn't for Larry."

Jones said that his first phone call to Switzer was on March 28, six days after the incident at the NFL owners' meeting that irreparably damaged the Jones-Johnson partnership. Switzer casually contradicted his new boss, saying it was around March 24. As Switzer lay on his couch at home, Jones called and said, "Are you interested in coaching again, and are you interested in coaching the Cowboys?" The answer was an emphatic yes.

Only Switzer's children and a couple of confidants, including his lawyer, Larry Derryberry, knew of his call from Jones. At one point Derryberry called Kathy, who was keeping a vigil at her father's duplex apartment. "How's he doing?" Derryberry asked. "He needs to chill out," she replied.

At 10:30 a.m. on Tuesday the 29th, Switzer's phone rang again. He was in the shower. He stood dripping, a towel wrapped around him, as Jones offered him the job. The towel fell off. "I was standing there buck naked," Switzer says. Jones asked him to come to Dallas for negotiations. Switzer chatted with Jones for another minute and then hung up. "I won the lottery," he told Kathy.

Switzer and Jones and their lawyers met at the home of a friend of Jones's in Piano, Texas. Derryberry began the negotiations by telling Jones, "If this is a take-it-or-leave-it deal, he'll take it." The lawyers worked until 2:30 a.m. At that point Switzer and Derryberry sat alone for a while, and Switzer suddenly turned contemplative. "I don't know that I deserve this," he said. Twelve hours later he faced a blaze of TV lights as the new Cowboy coach.

It was at the end of the next day that Switzer drove back across the Red River for his farewell party at Othello's. Over the restaurant, above the neon, a new sign in blue lettering had been raised. It said, HOME OF BARRY SWITZER, COACH OF THE DALLAS COWBOYS. Inside, Benso was talking on the phone. "So," he was saying, "you want Super Bowl tickets?"

TWO PHOTOSPHIL HUBERJones (opposite, left) says Switzer is a big catch, but many in Dallas lament the one that got away. PHOTOPAUL B. SUTHERLAND/THE DAILY OKLAHOMAN; RICH CLARKSON (INSET)Switzer's fall was hastened by Thompson's arrest (top), but ex-Sooners like Aikman remain loyal. PHOTOJACQUELINE DUVOISIN[See caption above.]

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