Barry Switzer blew onto the coaching scene at Oklahoma with the unexpected swiftness and force of a summer storm on the plains. After his first 29 games, the Sooners were 28-0-1.

Then Oklahoma was beaten, 20-3 by Kansas, and one oil-bloated alum is supposed to have shouted toward another: "Told you so. I warned you we'd lose sometime if we hired that guy."

Earle Bruce will be excused for not laughing, seeing as how he actually experienced a version of that nonsense. In firing him earlier this week, Ohio State was trying to avoid the frightful possibility of more than one near-.500 season with its guy.

Those not deep into college football probably never heard of Bruce until his bizarre dismissal began unfolding. That's a reason, very likely the major one, for his being let go. That and following a Buckeyes football saint, Woody Hayes.

Bruce has one of the least magnetic personalities in sport. In a roomful of college coaches, you might ask the wily Switzer how he coaxed all those great Texas high school players across the border.

You might talk with Joe Paterno about the great issues of the day and wonder, pretty please, if Lou Holtz would demonstrate some sleight of hand. You might mistake Bruce for a waiter and order him to fetch a drink.

To anyone not familiar with Ohio State President Edward Jennings, his firing of Bruce smacks of lunacy. Before this season, Bruce and Nebraska's Tom Osborne were the only coaches whose teams had won nine or more games each of the previous eight years.

Over those eight seasons, Bruce's teams had averaged more than 31 points; five of them led the Big Ten in scoring. His overall 75-22 record was the best in the conference.

Insiders figured it would not take much of a decline by the Buckeyes for Jennings to oust Bruce. A drop from 10-3 to 5-4-1 before Saturday's game with Michigan did it.

Even by the often-cruel standards of college football, Bruce's dismissal was unusual. One day, the coach stuck out his chin to rumors of his demise and bravely declared: "I'm staying." Next day, Jennings pretty much replied: "No, you're not."

Actually, Bruce is being gutsy enough to coach against Michigan Saturday in Ann Arbor. If Ohio State wins, Jennings will have fired a coach who won 75 percent of his games and averaged exactly nine victories over nine seasons.

Yes, what Jennings did smells. Even if Ohio State was going to slip-slide under Bruce, he deserved to coach through next season, the final year of his three-year contract. Notre Dame honored all five years of Gerry Faust's contract.

So arrogant and graceless was Jennings' move that one of his favorites, Athletic Director Rick Bay, resigned. We don't do this sort of thing at Ohio State, Bay had said, before Jennings corrected him.

Harold Shechter, Ohio State's former faculty representative to the Big Ten, told Akron reporter Jack Torry: "I think it was very poorly handled. I'm very sorry about this . . . I thought he {Bruce} represented this university very well.

"I'm extremely impressed with Rick Bay. I think his resignation was first class."

In addition to a career-long record (at Tampa, Iowa State and Ohio State) that ranked him among the top 15 active coaches nationally in victories and winning percentage before the season, Bruce graduated at least as many players as most of his peers.

The only whisper about him was his frequenting a local harness track, Scioto Downs. Also, he switched the spring game so as not to conflict with his attending the Kentucky Derby. Betting on horses is legal, he reminded critics.

Bruce's handling of former Buckeyes quarterback Art Schlichter's gambling problem was an underlying factor in his dismissal, Ohio State Gov. Richard Celeste declared the other day.

The coach insists he and his former quarterback had no more than a nodding relationship at the track. Besides, Schlichter's last season at Ohio State was 1981. If Bruce's actions were so serious, why did Jennings wait six years to punish him?

More likely, Jennings simply wanted a coach who could sell Ohio State and its major contributors with more polish. Celeste also admitted as much, saying that members of the school's board of trustees didn't believe Bruce's teams could win big games.

The sad fact is this: Jennings likely will be able to get away with his handling of Bruce. Like others around the country, Ohio State fans believe their school invented football and that more than two losses a season is close to criminal.

Bruce's downfall probably started his first season, when he succeeded Hayes with an 11-1 team whose only setback was by a point to USC in the Rose Bowl.

Great with somebody else's material, the critics yelped when his next six teams got stuck in a 9-3 rut. Bruce tried to affect a less-rumpled image by donning a suit and snappy hat during a victory over Texas A&M in the Cotton Bowl that ended a 10-3 performance last season.

Jennings is said to covet a football coach with the same good looks and personality as the basketball coach he hired two years ago, Gary Williams. He had better find one, because some hard conference reality already is becoming evident.

No longer is it the Big Two (Ohio State and Michigan) and the Little Eight, as it was during most of the 1970s. Buckeyes fans were fearful Bruce would be unable to keep the flow of wondrous prospects leaving Ohio to a trickle.

Bruce was more successful than most people who succeed legends in college sport. The coach who replaces him will be reminded of the Jennings Maxim: nine is not enough.