In the three seasons between 1981 and 1983, Barry Switzer's Oklahoma football teams won 23 games, lost 12 and tied one. There probably aren't more than 20 programs in the country that wouldn't be proud of and happy with a record like that.
Unfortunately for Switzer, Oklahoma is one of them.
At Oklahoma, when that wind comes sweeping down the plain, it had better not be sweeping a 23-12-1. At Oklahoma, 23-12-1 doesn't get you the grand prize in the lottery; at Oklahoma, 23-12-1 gets you almost gone.
As in, can I help you load the car, coach?
That's right. They were ready to fire good old Barry this year. Pack him up and ship him out, with a full tank of gas and a hearty chorus of "So long, it's been good to know you." They were ready to forget that in Switzer's first three seasons his record was an amazing 32-1-1 with two national championships, and that in his next five seasons his record was merely a spectacular 51-8-1. They were concentrating on 23-12-1, including 1-9-1 against teams ranked in the top 20 when Oklahoma played them.
You see, at Oklahoma -- and at almost all big-time sports programs, college or professional -- administrators, owners and fans can find it in their hearts to forgive a coach some highly publicized personal indiscretions, such as being arrested on a charge of driving under the influence of alcohol (subsequently reduced to a lesser charge), or being involved in a Securities and Exchange Commission trial on charges of illegal "insider" information (he was found not guilty), or having to make a loan settlement with the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation in the wake of an Oklahoma City bank failure. All those are unflattering to a program, but they are forgivable as long as you win. It is a double standard that tarnishes your innocence as much as it camouflages your guilt, but as long as you win, you will get the benefit of the doubt from charitable and sanctimonious men alike. But 23-12-1 just isn't considered winning. Not at Oklahoma.
"At Oklahoma, they want to win," Switzer said the other day. "It's as simple as that. They want to be the best program in the country . . . And you know what? I want it more badly than them."
Well, by Wednesday morning they all could leave here very happy.
Oklahoma is in the Orange Bowl with a 9-1-1 record and a reasonable chance at the mythical national championship if it should convincingly defeat Washington Tuesday night, and Switzer is no longer looking over his shoulder to see if the posse is gaining. And while he doesn't concede that his job was, in fact, in jeopardy at the start of this season -- even though after last season the university's Board of Regents refused to roll over Switzer's four-year contract for the first time in his 11 years as head coach there -- he has been seen exhaling a lot more this season than the last three.
"Look, I don't think I was going to get fired," Switzer said at practice. "Yes, two (of seven) regents talked to me about the direction our program was going. But they were more concerned about the way the team looked, than the win-loss record. We looked poor last year. We set a conference record with 98 penalties. We looked especially bad on nationally televised games when we kept jumping offsides. We had no direction. We were just real poor. We didn't do a good job as coaches. So I don't think there was a certain number of games we had to win, as long as we looked better as a team."
That's easy for him to say.
There was an audience around him, writing down each word, and Switzer has always liked an audience. He stood there needing only the knee-high boots to make him every inch the motorcycle cop: he had his aviator shades on, his legs widely bowed, his head tilted kind of Clint Eastwood style. It was sometimes hard to tell if Switzer was smiling or just smirking when questions concerning his allegedly precarious tenure were raised. "Look," he said, "I don't care if you're Matthew or John or Luke, if you're coaching at Oklahoma and you don't win enough football games, they're gonna want to put you on the cross.
"The bottom line is that in this job you're hired to win football games. You can do all those other things well -- like making speeches, selling tickets, being a statesman -- but if you're losing too many games, you won't be around long enough to show 'em how well you can do all those other things."
And how many is too many?
Or, conversely, is there a specific number of victories that Switzer feels he can comfortably sleep on?
"Personally, my feeling has always been that you have a successful season when you contend for the league championship," Switzer said as the late afternoon sun danced a jitterbug on his thick, gold watch. "I consider that a successful year, and the last three years we've done just that, we've played for the championship. Okay, we lost three in a row to Nebraska, but we were in the same position this year, playing the big games for the championship -- against Nebraska and Oklahoma State -- and we won. All I can ask is that we get in that position."
It's been well documented just how Switzer got in that position this year, how he hired the wunderkind Mack Brown as his offensive coordinator, how he scrapped the I-formation he'd installed for the now long-gone Marcus Dupree and resurrected the wishbone for the still-here Danny Bradley, how he cracked down on his players, his coaches and even himself, establishing a strict disciplinary code and threatening to dismiss anyone who broke all those new rules.
It has been called a season of redemption for Switzer, but you'll note that even as he basks in the sun here, he keeps his shades on. What the Barry Switzers and the Joe Paternos and the Vince Dooleys of the world have learned is that a coach would do well to avoid being blinded by the light; even the ones who stay in one spot the longest have to be able to see where the next turn might take them.