He has never put much stock in appearance, but some blemishes are too conspicuous for even Barry Switzer to overlook. When Switzer, the Dallas Cowboys' coach, saw his just-installed oak cabinets scuffed up as badly as his reputation, well, that was enough to make him snap.
The incident took place early this month, when anti-Switzer sentiment was running high. Switzer and his girlfriend of four years, Becky Buwick, were standing in the kitchen of the $500,000 home that he is having built a couple of miles from the Cowboys' Valley Ranch training facility. Surveying the cabinets Buwick noticed distinct scratch marks in numerous places. "I was sure vandals had done it," Switzer recalls. "I damn near blew a gasket."
Switzer calmed down the next morning after learning the culprits were not disgruntled Cowboys fans. In an effort to provide the "antique lodge" look that Switzer had requested, cabinetmakers had taken nails to the panels, and after several coats of stain and varnish are applied, the cabinets will supposedly possess great character. "In the meantime, they look terrible," Switzer said last week while showing the scratches to a visitor. "Can you believe they take good stuff and scratch it up?"
That's what many critics had accused Switzer of doing to the Cowboys since he succeeded Jimmy Johnson in March 1994. He has been labeled a clueless coach, a shameless slacker and a roguish renegade. In the wake of Dallas's Jan. 14 triumph over Green Bay in the NFC Championship Game, however, the Switzer-bashers are losing their voices—or at least are getting drowned out by the chorus of cheers, like those Switzer received following the 38-27 victory over the Packers at Texas Stadium. The odds against Switzer, 58, fretting over vandals have grown much longer now that the Cowboys are in Phoenix for a Super Bowl XXX showdown with the Pittsburgh Steelers next Sunday. Though no one is comparing him to Vince Lombardi, he has proved that he's no Ray Handley, either.
Handley, who succeeded Bill Parcells as coach of the New York Giants after their Super Bowl XXV victory in January 1991, went 14-18 over the next two seasons and was fired. A similar fate befell Phil Bengtson, who coached the Packers after the legendary Lombardi stepped down following his Super Bowl II triumph in 1968 and went 20-21-1 in three seasons before resigning under pressure. Say what you will about Switzer's fourth-and-one gambles and boot-stomping public outbursts, but give him this: He inherited the football equivalent of the Mona Lisa, and he was smart enough—and secure enough—to refrain from sketching in a mustache.
"Sometimes doing nothing is the right thing to do," says Michael Irvin, Dallas's Pro Bowl wide receiver. "When you walk into a situation and everything's great, it shows more power and more intelligence to do nothing. Most coaches would have made you feel their power. They would have made a move just to make a move and would have screwed up everything."
If anyone symbolizes the change in perception about Switzer, it is Irvin, who in nationally televised comments at the NFC championship trophy presentation ceremony demanded that people give Switzer his due, purposely punctuating his remarks with a forbidden expletive. It seems now that the two chatterboxes are kindred spirits, but their initial interactions suggested otherwise. When Johnson and Cowboys owner Jerry Jones had their nasty split two months after Dallas's second consecutive Super Bowl victory, in 1994, Irvin vowed he would not play for Switzer. Approached by reporters during that wild week at Valley Ranch, Irvin hurled a trash can. Then, during a team meeting, Irvin became so incensed at Switzer's praise for Jones that he stormed out of the room.
But as he always seems to do, Switzer has won over many doubters, including Irvin. Although Cowboys quarterback Troy Aikman has never been outspoken in his support of Switzer, he did present the coach with a game ball after the NFC title game. Dallas players who thrived under the autocratic Johnson have come to appreciate the laid-back style of his successor. "He is unlike any coach in the history of football, and whatever it is he possesses, players rally to it," says Cowboys director of scouting Larry Lacewell. "They may not take to him at first, but eventually they buy into it." For one thing, Switzer makes no attempt to convince people that he is a master strategist. "But do you think Jimmy ever called a play?" he says. "Do you think [49er coach] George Seifert does? They did when they were assistants, but now they're overseers. Most people can't even define what coaching is. It ain't all X's and O's."
Switzer's charm lies in his unabashed sincerity and his disdain for self-promotion. Whereas Johnson thrives on the aura of authority he projects, often using it to motivate his players, Switzer, as they say on the street, is keeping it real. "I don't need credit," he says. "I don't have an ego, and I don't care if anybody believes that or not."
For that reason, says Jones, "Barry was as much the man for the Cowboys in 1994 as Jimmy was in 1989. If I was going to make a change, I really needed someone who could take the heat."