Barry Switzer, now the coach of the Oklahoma Sooners, was once a humble boy who never had much to say. He grew up in little Crossett, Ark., and lived in a house set on tree stumps.
Hogs and dogs and chickens ran crazy under that horrid shotgun shanty, which had no telephone and no electricity, at least not until Barry made ninth grade. As a boy, Barry used to study by a coal-oil lamp and listen to the world news over a little transistor radio. He was good and country that way.
For a living, his father did a lot of things. He ran a dry-cleaning business and a car lot and opened a fishing camp and a furniture place. But his father was best known for running moonshine whiskey and later being thrown into prison. The story you hear told is that the old man never got to see the boy play football his senior year in high school. And that is what's funny.
It is funny because the boy became a football coach, leader of the team set to play top-ranked Penn State in the Orange Bowl on New Year's Day. And he grew out of that weird shyness. He grew to love to talk. The boy became the most successful football coach in college football today.
"I'm low-profile and a wallflower to some extent," Switzer said in the spring of 1984, trying to talk down the image he came to own as a bold, irreverant fellow who loves to party and who would do almost anything to win. But only a few months later, the low-profile wallflower, now 48, became embroiled in a public debate over why his team, then ranked second, deserved to win the national championship if it beat No. 4 Washington in the Orange Bowl.
Up until the night of the contest, Switzer lobbied long and hard in an attempt to denigrate the Brigham Young University Cougars, who had enjoyed an untied and undefeated season and owned the nation's top ranking. Switzer joked about BYU's weak schedule, its membership in the lowly Western Athletic Conference and its difficult victory over an average Michigan team in the Holiday Bowl. All of it proved to be an unfortunate waste of time. The Sooners lost to Washington, 28-17, and BYU went on to win the national title.
Now in his 13th season at the Norman, Okla., school, Switzer has chosen to say little about why Oklahoma deserves the national title if it beats Penn State, regardless of how Miami fares against Tennessee in the Sugar Bowl. After last year's experience, he bows out of any discussion that may come back to haunt him later on.
"Never will you catch me doing that again," he said. "I won't do it."
When reminded that Miami whipped the Sooners, 27-14, in October, and owns an identical 10-1 record, Switzer shakes his head and perhaps hopes for divine intervention. In so many words, he says he will not get into a free-for-all over the issue because this year is entirely different than last. He says he does not "want to play that game" of repeatedly stating his claim because he does not "see how in the world we can not be No. 1 if we beat Penn State. It's inconceivable to me that the people who voted you No. 2 wouldn't put you at No. 1 if you beat the top-ranked team.
"The setting is here. The No. 1 team in the nation is here. Last year, the No. 1 team was at . . . what was it? The Holiday Bowl?"
Switzer would prefer to think about his No. 2 ranking in the United Press International coaches poll than the No. 3 spot his team holds in the Associated Press poll, which consists of sportswriters throughout the nation. He also tries to skirt any discussion of the Sooners' loss to the Hurricanes, who are ranked second in the AP poll, and says only, "We're stronger now. We're so much better on offense."
Most of the Oklahoma players are less inhibited than their coach. Said quarterback Jamelle Holieway: "Right now, I think we're the best team in the nation, but the fact that Miami beat us might make a difference for some of the voters. If Miami wins in the Sugar and we win here, it could be a kind of funny situation."
Perhaps that's why Switzer focuses more on the game than the polls. "Isn't all this ridiculous?" he said. "All we're going to try to do is win a football game, just one football game. That's all. That's all we're out to do."