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TROUBLED TIMES AT OKLAHOMA : When Football Program's Dignity Went Out the Window, Its Priorities Did, Too

March 26, 1989|GENE WOJCIECHOWSKI | Times Staff Writer

NORMAN, Okla. — Don't believe a word the license plates say here: Oklahoma is not OK. It is embarrassed, confused, angry, bitter and considerably less naive about the inner workings of its once-mighty football program.

Reality operates in strange ways. One day, you're on top of the college football polls; the next, you're on probation, as the University of Oklahoma is in the National Collegiate Athletic Assn. for the next three seasons.

Suddenly the Boz is blurting out best-selling tales of gun, steroid and cocaine use at Bud Wilkinson House, the campus athletic dormitory at OU. A fable, you think--until one night a shot rings out from inside the dorm: Cornerback Jerry Parks has aimed a gun at the chest of offensive lineman Zarak Peters--and then, incredibly, pulled the trigger. The bullet came within inches of Peters' heart.

Peters lives, but the OU football program goes on the critical list. After all, how many slugs to the image can it take?

Sadly, there is more. An alleged gang-rape of an Oklahoma City woman by three OU players rocks a campus increasingly suspicious of the Sooner system. Add to that the startling arrest of quarterback Charles Thompson on charges of selling cocaine and you have a university searching for answers and, on occasion, scapegoats, of which the list is long and distinguished.

Among those already fitted for nooses are Coach Barry Switzer, Athletic Director Donnie Duncan, the school's board of regents, Oklahoma Gov. Henry Bellmon, the players and even the win-at-all-costs philosophy that permeates a program such as Oklahoma's.

In the end, it seems as if you can point a finger in any direction and be at least a little bit right.

Oklahoma's misfortunes became national news, of course. Thompson made the cover of Sports Illustrated, which would have been a nice addition to the family den had he not been wearing an orange jail jumpsuit and handcuffs. "How Barry Switzer's Sooners Terrorized Their Campus," is how SI put it in its headline.

Editorials demanding Switzer's removal became the rage throughout the state. Actually, rage became the rage as OU's loyal fans turned a bright Sooner red while their football program became part of Johnny Carson's nightly monologue.

"It's real hard to take," said Becky Turnbull, chairwoman of the school's Undergraduate Student Congress. "But there's not a lot you can say back. You cannot defend (the players') actions because there are no excuses for what they did."

These are strange times at OU, which is accustomed to football success and, to a lesser extent, notoriety. But now there is a sense of weariness here, as if breaking NCAA rules is one thing, but committing felonies is a whole other story. Patience has worn thin.

So upset was Wilkinson's 1949 team, its members canceled a scheduled reunion in protest of the program's direction, or lack thereof.

Even the diplomatic and gentle Wilkinson, who has long since severed his ties with the university, was perturbed about seeing his name on a dormitory that housed the likes of Thompson, Parks and the alleged rapists--Glenn Bell, Nigel Clay and Bernard Hall.

"It's something that you're not in any way pleased to be associated with," Wilkinson said.

David Swank, interim university president, went so far as to consider firing the popular but problem-plagued Switzer. After all, it was Switzer who had persuaded the now-troubled youths to attend Oklahoma. It was Switzer who was supposed to oversee the program--on the field and in the dorm. And it was Switzer who, after 16 seasons at OU, may have simply worn out his welcome.

But while editorials from Oklahoma City to Tulsa called for Switzer's resignation, public opinion did not. At last count by Switzer's secretary, Kay Day, there were about 1,000 letters piled in stacks near her desk. "Pull any stack and I dare you to find a negative one," she said.

Among those calling to wish Switzer well were a NASA scientist, a Catholic nun and Reggie Jackson. "(Jackson) said, 'Don't resign. Don't let the you-know-whats get you down,' " Day said.

Then, in the March 12 edition of the Sunday Oklahoman, OU fans and former players expressed their support of Switzer with a full-page ad that normally costs $13,500 (newspaper officials wouldn't reveal what they charged the former players and fans.) The ad ended this way: "If his (Switzer's) teams have ever brought you cheering to your feet, we invite you to stand with us and stand up for him now."

Thus, it didn't come as a big surprise when Swank chose to give Switzer an opportunity to save the OU program.

"I decided that Barry at least was the best person, at this time," Swank said. "I wanted to give him a chance to correct the difficulties. (But) he has to, Donnie Duncan has to, and I have to make sure that we put into effect all of these recommendations or I'm sure the regents will look very carefully at the three of us and make sure they find somebody else to see if it can't be accomplished."

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