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Merrily, They Roll Along : Oklahoma Sooners Are Undefeated, Again--and NCAA Is Snooping Around, Again

November 01, 1987|SALLY JENKINS | The Washington Post

NORMAN, Okla. — The Oklahoma Sooners refuse to be quarrelsome on these late, somnolent, red-dust afternoons. Reserve quarterback Charles Thompson chases down starter Jamelle Holieway and flings water in his face, while three offensive linemen do a dainty imitation of the Crimson and White girls cheer. As Barry Switzer laughs in a most uncoachlike way and practice collapses around him, it is evident that the Sooners like each other very, very much, even if nobody else does.

All the while at Oklahoma, the NCAA is greatly interested in potential violations, a Texas newspaper has reported allegations of cash payments to players, and a secretary named Shirley is prominently mentioned. Barry Switzer has turned 50, which is perhaps the most shocking news of all, while the No. 1-ranked Sooners remain unbeaten at 7-0 and blithely seek yet another national championship.

"People say we're just a bunch of dudes wearing a lot of gold," linebacker Dante Jones said. "We are. But you can't say the atmosphere is stuffy."

Rather, the atmosphere is that of a ruthlessly successful program that has won six national championships since 1950, a team regarded by some as too criminally good to be clean. Although the Sooners have not been on probation since 1973, there are signs that this will not be an altogether easy season. Despite the Sooners' nonchalance as they pursue a second national title in three years, the NCAA continues to pursue its preliminary investigation in Norman.

Two weeks ago, the Dallas Morning News reported that Sooner recruiting coordinator and secretary Shirley Vaughan operated a system by which players received cash payments from the scalping of complimentary tickets, and that some received preferential car loans from a local bank. While denying the crux of the story, Switzer acknowledges that the NCAA has been conducting an unrelated preliminary inquiry into his program and that some minor infractions might be found.

Switzer said "it is naive" to deny that some players may have sold complimentary tickets to obtain cash before 1985, when the NCAA instituted a gate-pass system to prevent scalping. He also said he has told the NCAA that he provided improper transportation to a recruit he recently signed. But Switzer denied there was an orchestrated effort through Vaughan to give athletes special benefits in violation of NCAA rules.

"There is no illegal recruiting machine. That does not exist at OU," Switzer said. "If there was, our ass would have been in trouble long ago."

The parking lot at Bud Wilkinson House, the red brick Oklahoma athletic dormitory, has been one of the most wondered about landmarks in college football, a supposed mecca of the Mercedes Benz, BMW and Corvette. Instead, while there is the occasional luxury vehicle, it is primarily populated by Chevrolets.

"I think you'll find it looks like most others," said faculty representative Dan Gibbens, a professor of law in charge of overseeing Oklahoma's athletic propriety.

Yet every time Oklahoma lures extraordinary talent, all eyes turn toward that asphalt square. This season, for instance, there are 37 players from Texas on the roster, the Sooners regularly swooping across the Red River and romancing away some of the premier recruits. There also are swift quarterbacks from California and mountain-bred linemen from Colorado, all of whom make up one of the most diverse and impressive lists of national talent.

Senior Keith Jackson, the 6-foot-3, 245-pound all-America tight end, came out of Little Rock, Ark., and incensed Razorbacks when he declared for Oklahoma. The widely held assumption was that he had gotten a deal that caused him to betray his home state. One morning he opened his mailbox and found a rat.

"People said I must have gotten something," Jackson said. " . . . I tell them, come on down here your own self and see."

Many have done that and come up with nothing, according to Oklahoma officials, who maintain the scrutiny the Sooners have come under from all quarters has caused them to be increasingly more careful, and clean. Switzer said, "We look, too, and we don't turn our backs."

For instance, Gibbens insisted a system of car checks be run, requiring players to fill out forms listing the vehicle registrations and any payments they are making. In some instances players have been told to get rid of their cars because of questionable loans, he said.

"The lights have been on us for more than 15 years," Gibbens said. "There has been a suspicion for as long as I can remember that our people are getting car deals. And I think even among the players there is some talk about other ones who might be getting deals."

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