NORMAN, Okla. — It wasn't until Oklahoma went 7-4-1 one season, then 8-4 the next two that Barry Switzer's life style got really famous. Suddenly it was as if a Robin Leach gone bad had burst into the coach's life.
"The football coach, son of a bootlegger, parties the balmy Oklahoma nights away in the fashionable splendor of a 4,000-square-foot mansion, which is warmed by a 43-foot fireplace. There he entertains the corporate kings and oil moguls, men whose tips in the stock market soon become part of his fabled fortune, a cool million dollars. A man about town. . . . "
And so it went. Maybe it would have happened anyway, this being Oklahoma, but when a highway patrolman stopped Switzer with whiskey on his breath, it was not just front page news in the Sunday paper, it was the banner headline.
That was after those 8-4 seasons, keep in mind. Nothing like a couple of 8-4 seasons to put a man's life style into focus.
Suddenly these things mattered: Switzer's divorce, his far-flung and widely questioned financial empire, even his team's graduation rate. It was all fair game. Since when was any of this interesting? Oh, since about 1983, when the Sooners last had an 8-4 season.
Switzer couldn't have been prepared for what happened. Oklahoma was used to winning its football games. Switzer was used to winning his. His first three seasons, for instance, he lost just one game. So how could he know what a four-loss season--what ultimately three of them in a row--would do to the public perception of his character.
Well, Oklahoma wasn't going to have it. The NCAA had once sniffed around Switzer; now, amazingly, the SEC, and that's not the SEC that plays football, was looking into things. What letters next? The IRS, the FBI, the ASPCA? No, the university would not have it.
Reportedly, the school regents had Switzer in tears over a supposed one-year probation. This would not do, this party-animal image, this money-grubbing attitude. Insider trading? Get it together, Barry. Or else.
Whatever happened in any meeting, this much is certain. His five-year contract, automatically rolled over in previous years, began ticking down that year. That's pretty severe.
The Daily Oklahoman called for his ouster. After his team lost to USC in 1982, the paper declared: "As a winner, Switzer was tolerable to many. As a loser, perhaps it is time for him to move on." Suddenly there were the occasional reports that Dick Vermeil or some coach of similar stature had sneaked into town.
The university had to have a coach with a better life style, somebody who didn't booze, who graduated his athletes and who didn't get called in by the Securities Exchange Commission over a $97,900 stock profit. In short, they needed a coach who didn't lose four games a season.
Well, it's all history because Switzer hasn't lost four games in a season since. In fact, in the last two seasons since he was put on notice, his Sooners have won all but three games and a national championship. And, even as they prepare to entertain UCLA Saturday, many are predicting they will win another.
And hometown newspapers report with some pride on the rehabilitation of Switzer that has made this possible. He saw the light. Now papers that had begun to sneer at the life style of this rich and famous person are chronicling the born-again Switzer, down home, disciplined, with an aura of saintliness about him.
The man, humbled by the regents, the fans and the media, has rediscovered character. Why, just the other day, so it was reported, he sent off a check for $1,000 to help some single parent who faced eviction. True story.
Barry Switzer sits in his office under the stadium stands, agitated by the above scenario. "There might be some people who'd like to take credit for what has happened here," he says, tersely.
For the turnaround?
"You might call it a turnaround. I mean, 8-4, wasn't that an awful season? Yeah, we've come a long way back, haven't we?"
Of course, 8-4 is an awful season, at least here. Back in 1975, when Switzer had a 25-game winning streak, he was being booed for not winning by large enough margins. Switzer can be sarcastic, but he cannot be unmindful of the tradition of Oklahoma, or even Switzer football. It's a monster. His job, like it or not, is to feed the monster.
Most years, he has kept the monster more than filled. His record of 126-24-4, along with three national titles, gives him the best record of any coach still in the game. It even ranks him with Bud Wilkinson, the man who created the monster. Their winning percentages are nearly identical. But 8-4 seasons leave the monster hungry.
The thing that seems to bother Switzer the most about it all is the aforementioned credit some folks are taking for turning him around. "We're practicing longer?" he repeats, incredulous. "That's why I don't read what they write. More disciplined? More hands-on coaching?" He fairly snorts in disgust.