In his office -- and nearly surrounded by athletic spoils -- Barry Switzer talked in starry-eyed gloom about the one that got away. This was in 1975. Oklahoma had beeen on NCAA probation the year before and still won one version of the national championship. With Joe Washington and the Selmons, it would win every version this time.
On that team, Elvis Peacock was a sophomore, Billy Sims was a freshman and blockers the size of redwoods were sprouting all over campus.Still, Switzer was not totally satisfied. He had narrowly missed signing another player the nation just then was starting to notice, a fullback of enormous power and enthusiasm.For a moment, Switzer dreamed in silence.
What a backfield that would have been one day: Billy Sims and Earl Campbell.
Coaches are that greedy, like someone who has many of the world's most precious jewels yet also covets the Hope diamond. An especially slick, basketball recruiter once said to a rival: "My dream is to get waves and waves of players -- and bury you."
But recruiting has become such a nightmare that even the most casual fan must be slightly cynical. Too many Fs have become Bs on too many transcripts. Too often, normal progress for "student-athletes" is defined as 20 tackles, 35 tackles, 75 tackles and 110 tackles.
The more rational officials have pressed for reform for years, sometimes successfully. And the latest ideas, proposed by an organization that includes most of the major conferences except the Big Ten and Pac-10, are refreshingly progressive.
The College Football Association wants to sponsor a recruiting package it says will allow high-school prospects more time for their studies and relieve the travel pressures on recruiters. It also wants to create a nationally standardized rule for academic progress once those prospects sign and begin playing college sports.
Although not finalized, the recruiting plan calls for football coaches to be severely limited in their off-campus contacts with an athlete, possibly only during three months (December through February). Coaches are on the road so much now their families need name tags, ones that say: "Hi, I'm your son." And some halfbacks have more trouble penetrating the wall of college coaches after a game than they did the stacked defenses during it.
The only problem the president of the American Football Coaches Association, Maryland's Jerry Claiborne, has with the package is that it's not large enough and explosive enough for anyone who tampers with it.
"Excellent," he said of the curtailed off-campus recruitment. But he would like to take some larger steps forward.
"What we need," he said yesterday, "is a for a national signing date that takes effect as soon as a prospect wants to make up his mind. The date now, I believe, is the third week in February. Nothing a kid signs before then is binding. It ought to be.
"What happens is that you sign a kid and then have to keep babysitting him until the national date. You sign a kid early then go out and recruit and then come back and make sure somebody else doesn't get the kid you already signed. Talk about a waste of money. But I wasn't able to get this across to the other coaches at our meeting.
"What it would do is localize recruiting. Alabama would get the kids who want to go to Alabama, Maryland would get the kids who want to come to Maryland.Then you could go out and recruit kids in other areas that their local schools didn't want or who didn't want to attend the local schools.
"A kid doesn't have to sign early. But if he does, it ought to be binding.
People have got to trust each other, to go by the rules."
That is the problem, the reason the NCAA has rules that seem ludicrous to anyone unfamiliar with intercollegiate cheating. There are too few coaches like Claiborne devoted to maintaining an honest program and too many coaches obsessed with gaining every possible advantage.
"We keep trying to close the loopholes," said Bill Hunt, director of the NCAA's enforcement program."We keep trying to eleiminate rules that don't work and have as nearly as possible clear, concise regualtions that the majority of people subscribe to and honestly try to comply with. This isn't easy. The rules get complex and the book gets lengthy because of individuals who take a rule that has a very obvious and clear intent and circumvent it because of a gap in the language.
"Then you try and close that gap and it expands the language. Then you have to officially interpret it and that gives you another interpretaton."
A man associated with the Maryland radio network has been bringing a teenager to Terrapin games almost since he was a tot. The young man has grown up to be quite a good player, a prospect, defined now as a recruit and thus unable to take his regular ride because it is considered an unfair advantage to Maryland and against NCAA rules.
Claiborne once turned Maryland into ACC and NCAA officials because a neighbor of a player it signed took that player to a game in his car. Many other coaches don't even know that is against the rules, let alone report such a seemingly piddling matter.
This is an important reason Claiborne is for fewer rules but stricter penalties. He is properly defensive about stories that suggest all of inter-collegiate athletics is a den of iniquity, that every coach is a conniver who will stop at nothing to gain an unfair advantage.
So what penalties are strict enough to stop the cheating that in fact seems to be getting worse each year?
"Penalize the school -- and also the prospect and the coach," Claiborne said. "I just don't believe a young man violates a major rule (against accepting cash, a car, etc) without knowing it. Pressure? Sure there is. But a kid knows right from wrong.
"How do you punish coaches? Suspend 'em. Make it so they can't skip to another job (in college coaching) without being punished. Cancel a few schedules, if that's what it takes."
That's what it might take. That and a coach dedicated to defense staying on the offensive during this drive.