With their manes teased into an electric frenzy and their broad bellies wrapped in silver-studded harness leather, a pair of ponies pulling a miniature covered wagon made history last New Year's night when they scampered across an over-mowed cow pasture in Miami.
The 1985 Orange Bowl featured two of the best teams in the country -- Oklahoma and Washington -- in what was billed by some as a battle for the national championship. In the weeks before the contest, Oklahoma Coach Barry Switzer lobbied long and hard, trying to convince pollsters that undefeated Brigham Young University, a member of the dubious Western Athletic Conference, did not deserve to win the national title, regardless of the Cougars' perfect record and dramatic victory over Michigan in the Holiday Bowl.
Switzer, who this week would not return telephone calls, talked and talked a year ago. And then he talked some more. When they finally played the game, a third unsuspecting team, this one driven by several cheerleader-types and representing everything good about the Sooners spirit, prompted a crisis of confidence for the team and helped kill its dream of honor.
The Sooner Schooner's happy romp across the floor of the stadium came after Tim Lashar kicked a 22-yard field goal, giving Oklahoma an apparent 17-14 lead early in the fourth period. The ride was brief, as were the cheers, for flags flew and the Sooners drew a 15-yard penalty for unsportsmanlike conduct. That, coupled with an illegal procedure penalty, virtually pushed Lashar out of field goal range. Tim Peoples, a Washington linebacker, blocked Lashar's subsequent 42-yard attempt and shifted the momentum to the Huskies, who went on to win, 28-17, in a bizarre, almost mystical game that did not daunt BYU's claim of the national title.
"Sometimes you win national championships with teams that aren't as deserving as other teams you've coached," Switzer said recently in his office.
And sometimes you don't. To his credit, and to the relief of the other three schools contending for the national championship, Switzer has not said much about the polls of late, perhaps knowing it will be to his advantage in the long run.
Switzer voted Fresno State No. 1 in the last regular-season coaches poll conducted by United Press International, the same poll that had his team ranked second and Penn State first. Oklahoma is third, Miami is second behind Penn State in the Associated Press poll.
His poor secretary informs all inquirers that Mr. Switzer has been swamped with calls from reporters wondering why he thinks the Sooners deserve the national title if they beat top-ranked Penn State in the Orange Bowl and Miami overwhelms Tennessee in the Sugar. There is one question Switzer has had a hard time answering: How can he explain away his team's 27-14 loss, at home, to Miami in October?
The argument one hears when in the company of Oklahoma people is that their boys were not playing up to their potential back then, what with Troy Aikman, a classic dropback passer, operating a wishbone offense designed almost exclusively for the run.
They say the team, guided now by freshman Jamelle Holieway, who took over when Aikman injured his ankle against Miami, compares with the best teams Switzer has ever fielded, including the 1974 and 1975 national championship clubs. They point out that the defense, with all-Americas Kevin Murphy, Tony Casillas and Brian Bosworth, ranks first in the country against the pass, second against the run and first overall.
And they remember that the coach said this: "We're the best we've been since the days of J.C. Watts and Billy Sims."
After just seven starts, Holieway won Big Eight honors as the offensive player of the year, mainly because he was a gorgeous, magical blur running the wishbone and was able to resurrect a sleeping giant to its most impressive form. He led the team in rushing with 760 yards and did so heroically, working the triple-option as its makers probably never imagined.
"Jamelle Holieway," Switzer said, "was recruited by Pac-10 schools -- Southern Cal and those people -- as a cornerback and wide receiver. Oklahoma and Colorado were the only schools to recruit him as a quarterback. He was smart. He knew this was the system for him."
Another admirer of Holieway is freshman offensive tackle Anthony Phillips, who weighs every bit of 274 pounds.
"When Jamelle came in," he said, "our line finally got it right. Before that, we'd been doing too much shifting around, trying to get the right combinations. Jamelle goes out there and gets the points when we need 'em."
Switzer said he had planned to work in both Holieway and Eric Mitchell, another talented freshman, at quarterback long before Aikman was hurt.
"We wanted to put them in a positive situation and let them prove themselves," he said. "But it didn't work out that way. They had to go in without any experience and play like champions right away.
"As it turns out, these two guys are the best we've ever had in the option game. Jamelle jumps around and makes big plays, reverses the field and leaves everybody behind him. It's not the plays or the playbook you're running, it's his ability to make things happen."
Switzer also offers high praise for Bosworth, one of the most celebrated linebackers ever to play in the Big Eight. Bosworth wears a commando-style haircut, one that prompted scores of Edmond, Okla., schoolboys to run down to a local barber and demand "one of those Bosworth jobs." Only a sophomore, Bosworth won the Butkus award as the nation's top linebacker.
"I'm pretty controversial sometimes," Bosworth said, moments after explaining why he barks like a dog in the locker room before big games. "I'm a lot like Coach Switzer. I don't want to say that I like to go out and abuse people, but I really do. I like to go out and knock the living hell out of people and make 'em not want to touch the ball the next time out."
Then he ran his fingers through his hair, gave his inquisitor a ravaged pair of eyes and said that's what Oklahoma football is all about.