Some time ago, Mack Brown picked up the telephone and said hello to a man in dire need of help. Oklahoma Coach Barry Switzer, calling from the heart of a Big Red nation beset with a mounting crisis of mediocrity, wanted to know if Brown would fly out and "talk over bidness."
Brown, then the coach at Appalachian State in Boone, N.C., met with Switzer over a plate of charbroiled beef at a Norman, Okla., steak house and found the Sooners' coach "absolutely caring, smart and misunderstood." They talked about everything and nothing, then struck up a deal that has inspired and carried No. 2 Oklahoma throughout this remarkable season.
"After I said I'd come, he took me out to a meeting room and introduced me to the players," Brown said the other day. "I was standing behind him, looking at all these young men looking at me. He turned around, put his hand on my shoulder and said, 'This is Mack Brown, fellas. He has an Orange Bowl ring. And you don't. We're gonna listen to him.' "
Brown, now the offensive coordinator, won the ring in 1982 as offensive coordinator at Louisiana State. After preparing his team for Tuesday's Orange Bowl game with No. 4 Washington (10-1), Brown recalled his marriage to Oklahoma football, a short-lived affair that will end the day after the game. Brown has accepted the Tulane head-coaching job and plans to fly to New Orleans Jan. 2, the day the Sooners fly back to Norman.
He was standing on the Tartan track at Tropical Park, jiggling a pocketful of quarters and dimes and searching for words to describe Oklahoma's climate of frustration after three consecutive four-loss seasons. "There was no sense of direction," Brown said, "and no really good idea how to call back the glory that was gone."
Switzer enlisted Brown's aid to help reinstate the wishbone offense and install a sophisticated passing scheme that would complement the option ground game. The year before, in a move that proved to be monstrously misbegotten, Switzer had scrapped the wishbone for the I-formation when Marcus Dupree emerged as a runner of enormous possibility. When Dupree left, so did the reckless heart of the Sooners' offense.
"He could have been as good as there had ever been," Brown said. "Barry thought that by lining up strong up front and getting a few blocks, all you'd have to do was pitch the ball to Marcus and win games."
Never one to cower in the face of adversity, Switzer projected Danny Bradley as the key to the team's salvation, and called on Brown to groom and educate the senior quarterback from Pine Bluff, Ark.
"The first thing I asked him was, 'What do you do best?' " Brown said. "He has to have confidence and feel that he contributes to the overall scheme of things out on the field. He understands that I make most of the decisions during a game, but I let him audible off or call his own pass plays sometimes. We've demanded so very much of Danny, but he's come through."
Bradley, at 5 feet 10 and 187 pounds, accounted for much more than any statistical yardstick can convey. On top of producing 1,271 yards and 16 touchdowns, he reversed the swelling tide of discontent among Sooners fans while leading the team to a 9-1-1 record and a Big Eight championship.
Bradley also hopes to be the one soul in America responsible for convincing pollsters that the national championship should not belong to Brigham Young, which finished the season 13-0.
"I play a terribly important role on this team," Bradley said. "There's no question about that. I'm aware that the offense is built around my ability, and I appreciate that. I want the responsibility, but I have to credit Mack Brown. He came in and gave us the sense of direction we'd been lacking at Oklahoma for a long time."
Switzer said, "People have been trying to manufacture reasons why we won this year. It was a combination of things. The kids played well and hard and the coaches did a damn good job. But if there's a singular reason for our success, it would have to be Danny Bradley playing to his very best and guiding us along."
An ankle sprain and injured index finger on his right hand kept Bradley out against Kansas, which produced a 28-11 upset. That loss, according to Brown, forced Bradley to grow up. The Jayhawks scored on a 63-yard pass-interception return, a safety and four field goals; the Sooners' offense, with 17-year-old Troy Aikman at quarterback, managed to get inside the Kansas 40-yard-line only twice.
"A lot of people have blamed the quarterback for our lack of performance that day," Bradley said, "but that's wrong. We just weren't ourselves, and playing Kansas shortly after the tie in the rainstorm against Texas, we were in for an emotional letdown. We just didn't play."
The game with Washington, Bradley said, will be much like the Pittsburgh contest, featuring "speed versus muscle, strength against strength." Oklahoma won that game, 42-10, the week after beating Stanford in the season opener. Early on, Bradley played with a calculated sense of daring that's ideal for a wishbone attack, and the defense responded with equally great performances.
Only four Oklahoma opponents scored more than 14 points this year, that against a unit with 17 of its top 22 players in their freshman and sophomore seasons. The Sooners are ranked first nationally against the rush, second in total defense and sixth against scoring. Tony Casillas, a 272-pound junior nose guard built like a firehouse, leads the charge with 84 tackles.
"We're a tough bunch of people," Casillas said. " . . . I think those four goal-line stands we had at crucial situations this year is proof enough that we're pretty strong. I see us shutting down the Washington running game, eliminating the pass and taking it all home. We're going into this believing it's for the national championship."
The Sooners' season produced no 1,000-yard rushers. In discontinuing a proud tradition, Switzer spread the wealth. Lydell Carr gained 625 yards and Steve Sewell had 577. Spencer Tillman, who gained 1,047 yards last year, was hurt in preseason and missed the first four games. He returned against Texas, running for 105 yards in the 15-15 draw.
"I learned a long time ago not to worry about those things you have no part of," Tillman said. "The season was tough at the beginning for me, but it picked up and now we're in line for the national title. I can't worry about what pollsters think of Brigham Young . . . But I can concentrate on Oklahoma and how we play.
"I think Washington can best be compared to Nebraska; they're that good. They've got as much talent and speed as anyone we've played. I think we're ready to go, though . . . It's about time we strap it up and play the game."