College football has known better coaches than Barry Switzer, though not many. It has never known one who took more delight in winning. To see Switzer coach was to behold a man having more fun that the law should allow; to hear him speak now, at age 80, is still to laugh out loud every 30 seconds.
It works like this: You dial the number, he answers and off you go. You ask a simple question: How much of the 2017 Georgia Bulldogs has the man who led Oklahoma to three national championships seen? His answer: “None.”
That’s not quite true. “I saw the highlights and that's all,” he said. “And I’ve read about them since we've been named (Rose Bowl) opponents. Damn, I can’t believe I paid $15, $16, for that Sports Illustrated preview issue.”
Then: “I know they’ve got a great recruiting belt. I know they’ve got big-ass linemen.”
You suggest that Georgia’s defensive front seven is first-rate. He says, “Yeah, but some of those guys will have their hands on the ground (in linemen’s stances). They’re going to need a lot of those Willies (weakside) and Sams (strongside) linebackers. They’re going to be put in space. That’s the problem Oklahoma presents.”
Then: “The toughest job in college football is defensive coordinator in the Big 12. We (meaning a Big 12 defense) don’t get to play ’em tight. That’s because of the formations they use. Offensive formations dictate defensive alignments. That's always the case. If you have to line up in space, you have to cover.”
Switzer hasn’t coached since 1997, two years after his Dallas Cowboys won the Super Bowl, but that’s as good a breakdown of Georgia’s defense versus Oklahoma’s offense as you’ll get. Defenses work best in clusters. The Sooners spread the field.
Switzer: “The key for Oklahoma is to stop the (Georgia) running game. The best thing Georgia can do is do what they do and keep the Oklahoma offense on the bench. That was what we did. I didn’t care about touchdowns. I cared about holding it for eight minutes and making first downs.”
He speaks of his famous Wishbone. Many others employed the offense back in the day, but nobody ran it like Switzer’s Sooners. “I sent out a tweet today,” he says. “Somebody was talking about coach (Bear) Bryant going to the Wishbone in 1971. He went to the Wishbone because he saw Greg Pruitt in the 1970 Bluebonnet Bowl.”
Pruitt was the swift halfback in the Wishbone that Switzer, then Oklahoma’s offensive coordinator, assembled for Chuck Fairbanks. The Sooners were 20-2 in 1971 and 1972, finishing second in the Associated Press poll both years. Then Fairbanks left to coach the New England Patriots, and things really got going.
Oklahoma promoted Switzer to head coach. Over his first eight seasons, the Sooners went 82-8-2, taking national titles in 1974 and 1975. They finished in the AP’s top three six times. OU had seen great runs before – Bud Wilkinson’s teams claimed three national championships in the ’50s and won 47 consecutive games, a record that endures – but no team ever won with such gusto as Switzer’s.
The good times lessened after the 1980 season. Oklahoma went 10-2 that year, finishing third in the AP poll behind Georgia and Pittsburgh. On Sept. 26, 1981, the No. 2 Sooners faced No. 1 USC here at the Los Angeles Coliseum and lost on a touchdown pass at 0:02. Switzer, who has lived a swaggering life of few regrets, rues that day.
“If I'd gone on fourth down, we'd have won the damn game,” he says. (A back named Buster Rhymes had fallen just short on third down.) “Then we had an interception, if Darrell Songy could have held on. Then we let the quarterback scramble and he hits the tight eight. Marcus (Allen, the Trojan tailback who would beat Herschel Walker for the 1981 Heisman) got 200 yards on us.”
Over that season and the next three, Oklahoma would go 32-14-2, which Switzer concedes was “a lull – I had gone away from things I believed in.” He scrapped the Wishbone to accommodate a heralded recruit from Mississippi about whom Willie Morris wrote the weighty book, “The Courting of Marcus Dupree.” Switzer calls Dupree “probably the best player I ever recruited,” but he was gone midway through his sophomore season, yet another tale of promise unmet.
In 1985, Switzer hired Jim Donnan as offensive coordinator, the idea being to maximize the talent of sophomore quarterback Troy Aikman. In the season’s fourth game, Aikman suffered a broken ankle. Whereupon Switzer “went back to what I wanted to do.” He dusted off the Wishbone and installed Jamelle Holieway at quarterback. That season yielded Switzer’s third national title, and it has resonance today. Donnan would later coach Georgia; one of his players was Kirby Smart. Holieway remains the only freshman quarterback to lead a team to a national title; the Bulldogs’ Jacob Fromm could become the second.
Another parallel line: Switzer’s last Oklahoma season was 1988, the same year that Vince Dooley stepped aside at Georgia. “I was naïve enough to think I’d go in (to the College Football Hall of Fame) the same year as coach Dooley on the first ballot. He got in. They kept me in purgatory for 20 years.’”
Actually, it was only another seven years before Switzer gained admission, but the message was clear: Even as he was winning everything there was to win, the belief was that Switzer not only played by his own rules, but broke those, too. He resigned in the summer of 1989 with his program on NCAA probation and his quarterback Charles Thompson having been arrested for cocaine possession. The man who holds thee fourth-highest winning percentage among major-college coaches – ahead of him: Knute Rockne, Frank Leahy and Urban Meyer – was no longer a college coach.
Today he’s an interested observer regarding the first meeting of his former program and Georgia. Isn’t it odd that two programs of such history never collided? “We didn't have 'em on our schedule,” Switzer says. “We always played Texas as non-conference game. We’d go East or West for travel purposes. Very seldom did we play SEC schools.”
Seldom, but not quite never. this correspondent’s first road game while covering Kentucky was the Wildcats’ trip to Norman in 1980. Two years later, the Sooners played in Lexington. Switzer recalls that excursion for reasons other than the game. “We went a day early,” he says. “I wanted to see Secretariat. We went out to Calumet Farm. I don’t think the team was too excited about it.”
Switzer still lives in Norman, three-quarters of a mile from the stadium where he worked. He’s not surprised that OU has risen to the playoffs in Year 1 under Lincoln Riley. Heck, he didn’t lose a game in his Year 1.
“I still had all those players – Joe Washington, the Selmons,” he says. “The only one who got off the bus was Chuck. The only one who got off this time was Bob Stoops. Shoot, I knew they were going to win.”
Then: “Everybody questions the defense, but shoot, everybody scores in this league. You can hang half a hundred and still get your ass beat. It's all Mike Leach's fault. (Formerly of Texas Tech, Leach coaches Washington State.) He started this. All his proteges are the ones doing it. Somebody is missing the boat not hiring his ass in a big league.”
Switzer won’t be in Pasadena, and more’s the pity. He does a webcast during OU games, and he does TV commentary for a local outlet. Asked who’s going to win, he says: “It’s a tight fit. Oklahoma’s got big-play ability. It's going to come down to how Oklahoma plays defense.”
And here, nearly 20 minutes after it began, the conversation ends. The guy on this end of the phone enjoyed the heck out of it. The guy on the other end seemed not to hate it, either.