He has never put much stock in appearance, but some blemishes
are too conspicuous for even Barry Switzer to overlook. When
Switzer, the Dallas Cowboys' coach, saw his just-installed oak
cabinets scuffed up as badly as his reputation, well, that was
enough to make him snap.
The incident took place early this month, when anti-Switzer
sentiment was running high. Switzer and his girlfriend of four
years, Becky Buwick, were standing in the kitchen of the
$500,000 home that he is having built a couple of miles from the
Cowboys' Valley Ranch training facility. Surveying the cabinets
Buwick noticed distinct scratch marks in numerous places. "I was
sure vandals had done it," Switzer recalls. "I damn near blew a
Switzer calmed down the next morning after learning the culprits
were not disgruntled Cowboys fans. In an effort to provide the
"antique lodge" look that Switzer had requested, cabinetmakers
had taken nails to the panels, and after several coats of stain
and varnish are applied, the cabinets will supposedly possess
great character. "In the meantime, they look terrible," Switzer
said last week while showing the scratches to a visitor. "Can
you believe they take good stuff and scratch it up?"
That's what many critics had accused Switzer of doing to the
Cowboys since he succeeded Jimmy Johnson in March 1994. He has
been labeled a clueless coach, a shameless slacker and a roguish
renegade. In the wake of Dallas's Jan. 14 triumph over Green Bay
in the NFC Championship Game, however, the Switzer-bashers are
losing their voices--or at least are getting drowned out by the
chorus of cheers, like those Switzer received following the
38-27 victory over the Packers at Texas Stadium. The odds
against Switzer, 58, fretting over vandals have grown much
longer now that the Cowboys are in Phoenix for a Super Bowl XXX
showdown with the Pittsburgh Steelers next Sunday. Though no one
is comparing him to Vince Lombardi, he has proved that he's no
Ray Handley, either.
Handley, who succeeded Bill Parcells as coach of the New York
Giants after their Super Bowl XXV victory in January 1991, went
14-18 over the next two seasons and was fired. A similar fate
befell Phil Bengtson, who coached the Packers after the
legendary Lombardi stepped down following his Super Bowl II
triumph in 1968 and went 20-21-1 in three seasons before
resigning under pressure. Say what you will about Switzer's
fourth-and-one gambles and boot-stomping public outbursts, but
give him this: He inherited the football equivalent of the Mona
Lisa, and he was smart enough--and secure enough--to refrain from
sketching in a mustache.
"Sometimes doing nothing is the right thing to do," says Michael
Irvin, Dallas's Pro Bowl wide receiver. "When you walk into a
situation and everything's great, it shows more power and more
intelligence to do nothing. Most coaches would have made you
feel their power. They would have made a move just to make a
move and would have screwed up everything."
If anyone symbolizes the change in perception about Switzer, it
is Irvin, who in nationally televised comments at the NFC
championship trophy presentation ceremony demanded that people
give Switzer his due, purposely punctuating his remarks with a
forbidden expletive. It seems now that the two chatterboxes are
kindred spirits, but their initial interactions suggested
otherwise. When Johnson and Cowboys owner Jerry Jones had their
nasty split two months after Dallas's second consecutive Super
Bowl victory, in 1994, Irvin vowed he would not play for
Switzer. Approached by reporters during that wild week at Valley
Ranch, Irvin hurled a trash can. Then, during a team meeting,
Irvin became so incensed at Switzer's praise for Jones that he
stormed out of the room.
But as he always seems to do, Switzer has won over many
doubters, including Irvin. Although Cowboys quarterback Troy
Aikman has never been outspoken in his support of Switzer, he
did present the coach with a game ball after the NFC title game.
Dallas players who thrived under the autocratic Johnson have
come to appreciate the laid-back style of his successor. "He is
unlike any coach in the history of football, and whatever it is
he possesses, players rally to it," says Cowboys director of
scouting Larry Lacewell. "They may not take to him at first, but
eventually they buy into it." For one thing, Switzer makes no
attempt to convince people that he is a master strategist. "But
do you think Jimmy ever called a play?" he says. "Do you think
[49er coach] George Seifert does? They did when they were
assistants, but now they're overseers. Most people can't even
define what coaching is. It ain't all X's and O's."
Switzer's charm lies in his unabashed sincerity and his disdain
for self-promotion. Whereas Johnson thrives on the aura of
authority he projects, often using it to motivate his players,
Switzer, as they say on the street, is keeping it real. "I don't
need credit," he says. "I don't have an ego, and I don't care if
anybody believes that or not."
For that reason, says Jones, "Barry was as much the man for the
Cowboys in 1994 as Jimmy was in 1989. If I was going to make a
change, I really needed someone who could take the heat."
It didn't help Switzer, already a controversial figure from his
days as the coach at Oklahoma, that much of the heat was
generated by Jones himself. During the infamous night at the NFL
owners meetings in Orlando when he triggered Johnson's
departure, Jones asserted that 500 coaches were capable of
guiding his talented team to a Super Bowl win. As an example he
cited Switzer, who as an assistant supervising freshman recruits
at Arkansas in 1961 had coached Jones and Johnson. Less than two
weeks later Jones shocked the football world by bringing Switzer
back from a five-year coaching exile. It was as if Jones was
saying, "I can get anyone to coach this team and still win,"
and, as a result, everyone jumped on Switzer from the start.
"There's no question that the way the thing evolved colored
Barry in a way that wasn't positive," Jones says.
In fairness to the critics, Switzer has made several moves
worthy of scrutiny. Last January, at a key juncture of the
Cowboys' 38-28 loss to the San Francisco 49ers in the NFC
Championship Game, he was assessed a 15-yard
unsportsmanlike-conduct penalty for bumping an official. In
November, Dallas looked ill-prepared in a 38-20 loss to the
injury-plagued 49ers, Switzer's third setback in as many games
against the Cowboys' chief rival. Then there were the hard times
endured by Big D in December, symbolized by Switzer's infamous
fourth-and-one call on Dec. 10 in Philadelphia. With the game
tied at 17 and Dallas a foot shy of a first down at its own 29
late in the fourth quarter, Switzer elected to run Emmitt Smith
rather than punt. Smith was stopped, but the play was nullified
because the clock had reached the two-minute warning before the
ball was snapped. So Switzer ran basically the same off-tackle
play, and the Eagles stopped Smith again, setting up Philly's
winning field goal.
It was hardly the soundest of football decisions, but the
Cowboys have won four straight since, and Irvin points to the
call as a key to the team's Super Bowl drive. "That made all the
difference," Irvin says. "You have to understand, we were in a
major slump. He was saying to us, 'I still believe y'all are the
best in the world.'"
"Fourth-and-what?" Switzer says. "It's kind of insignificant
today, isn't it? Look, I had the guts to go for it, based on the
faith I have in my football team."
Slowly, the players have reciprocated that faith, especially
after Switzer gave the best motivational speech of his pro
career after the debacle in Philadelphia. In calling upon his
players to confront adversity with toughness and overcome it
with determination, Switzer recounted his own stormy upbringing:
His mother committed suicide, and his father was a bootlegger
who died after being shot by a girlfriend. The speech struck an
emotional chord with the players, even those who flourished
under the atmosphere of braggadocio instilled by Johnson. "We
don't have the [Johnson] swagger anymore," Smith told reporters
earlier this month. "Now we're the bootlegger's boys."
Switzer, as is his nature, shies away from assuming any credit
for his team's success. "Don't make coaching more than what it
is," he says. "It's players going out and playing good, and
whichever team's players can do that while making the fewest
mistakes usually wins. It doesn't take 16 hours a day to figure
Such proclamations rankle other coaches, many of whom take pride
in their obsessive approaches. Switzer has eschewed the long
hours favored by many in his profession and, commendably, has
devoted quality time to his children: Greg, 27, an aspiring
classical pianist; Kathy, 26, who helps her father manage his
off-field responsibilities; and Doug, a quarterback at
Arkansas-Pine Bluff whose games have drawn his father away from
team meetings on the eve of Cowboys games, prompting criticism
from Johnson and others.
This is not to say that Switzer professes to be a saint. He may
screw up at times, but not maliciously. "He is so much like a
kid in many respects," says Switzer's friend and attorney, Larry
Derryberry. "He's unconcerned with how people perceive him."
Jones recognized Switzer as a kind of endearing, naive rogue
during contract negotiations that sometimes included Lacewell
and Derryberry. (Consider that group for a moment: Larry, Jerry,
Barry and Larry Derryberry.) "During those discussions," Jones
says, "I learned that Barry had a $70,000 debt because he had
signed a note for a friend who had defaulted on payment. He did
it just because the friend needed the money. So I paid it off.
Barry makes you want to do that, because he's so genuine and so
eager to help people out."
Those qualities, combined with his credit-the-players approach,
his openness and his fun-loving nature, make Switzer the
antithesis of the stereotypical coach. "Barry is unique," says
Derryberry, "and I think it throws the average American off a
little. It throws his peers off a lot."
What seems to disarm Switzer's enemies is his ability to smile
in the face of pain. Every few months he requires spinal
injections to alleviate the neck and back pain that has plagued
him for several years. He also suffers from attention deficit
disorder, which is why he has a bottle of Ritalin on his office
desk. It is mostly full. Switzer used the drug for two months
last season but stopped because he felt it dulled his senses.
On Wednesday of last week Switzer was in hyperdrive as he
cruised down MacArthur Boulevard in Irving to his weekly radio
show. He was telling the story of the time in 1983 when, on a
coaches cruise in the Caribbean, he jokingly set up
ultrastraight Penn State coach Joe Paterno with a drug peddler.
Switzer and a 20-something female companion were sitting in a
thatched hut on an island beach, about 20 yards behind a group
of coaches and wives, when an islander pulled out a bag and
offered to sell him a joint. "I said, 'Listen, I've got all the
dope I need, but see that guy with the thick glasses? He's been
looking for some good stuff all weekend. He'll buy everything
you've got.' Well, the guy goes up to Paterno, and I see him
pull the bag out. Paterno goes crazy, and the guy looks up and
points at me, and I'm laughing my ass off."
Switzer is laughing so hard at the memory that he becomes
oblivious to the traffic around him and veers into the left lane
before coming to a stop. Several drivers have to alter their
paths. They recognize him. Not one honks his horn in anger.