"But don't get me wrong. We will win. We're going to play well because of who we are. There are too many ghosts around not to be motivated. Lots of places, 8-3 or 7-4 ain't too bad."
Even so, beware Sooner doomers. Switzer has made a profession out of reversing dim prospects. His darkest moment, of course, came when his team was put on probation less than three months after he succeeded Fairbanks, who had resigned to coach the New England Patriots. The probation stemmed from the charge that during Fairbanks' tenure an OU assistant coach knowingly accepted an altered high school transcript for Quarterback Kerry Jackson.
Soon after the probation was announced, Switzer addressed a Tulsa alumni group, his eyes welling with tears. "I'm a fighter! I'm a competitor! I'm a winner!" he said. "And nothing is going to stop us!" Then, easing off with the kind of disarming turn that became the mark of the man, he ended by saying, "I'd better go now. I'm double-parked and I may get another year for that."
Subsequently, Switzer often opened his speeches by saying that he had just received a telegram from President Nixon thanking him for taking the heat off Watergate. If the gag lines got better, his luck most decidedly did not. Beginning with the death of his father, who was killed in an auto accident shortly before Switzer was appointed head coach, misfortune piled on top of mishap. Two of his children developed serious eye defects. His new car, fishing tackle and golf clubs were stolen. His cat was run over. And at one point the bulk of his defensive line was in the hospital.
But there was no looking back; it was autumn and inspirational speech time. "I've been to 11 bowl games in 13 seasons," Switzer told his team. "I've been around a lot of success, a lot of great players. Bowl games and playing on TV are fine incentives. But I'll tell you what, people—the greatest reward in football is winning. That's the most important goal. That's why they have scoreboards. When they put us on probation, they made one mistake. They didn't tell us we couldn't win the Big Eight championship. And nobody said we couldn't win the national championship. Men, that is our challenge."
That first year, the young, unsure Sooner team that was picked to finish no better than fourth in the conference won the Big Eight title and ended up No. 2 in the nation. And then, prodded, cajoled and entertained by Switzer, it won back-to-back national championships. Of those seasons Switzer says, " Walt Disney couldn't have written a better script."
As it was, Barry Lane Switzer starred in his own version of Song of the South. He started at the bottom, the swamp bottom of the Ouachita River in Crossett, Ark. "It's a little town, a sawmill, paper-mill town," he says, "and we had acreage out in the country." He was raised in a shotgun house, so-called, he says, because "you could shoot a blast through one end and out the other without hitting a thing."
Larry Lacewell, who has turned down several head coaching offers to stay with his "runnin' buddy," grew up in Fordyce, just a hoot and a holler up the road from Crossett. He says, "Hey, I thought I was poor till I visited Barry. His house was one of those antebellum jobs up on stilts. You know, the kind with a tar-paper roof and chickens and dogs and hogs underneath."
Switzer says, "We didn't have a telephone till I was in college. I went through junior high studying under coal-oil lamps and listening to battery radios because we didn't have electricity. We had the old privy out back, the three-holer with the Sears, Roebuck catalog and the lime sacks in the corner. At night I used to take my grandmother and mother to the privy carrying a coal-oil lamp and a .22 pistol to shoot the copperheads. My granddaddy planted tomatoes behind that very same privy, and I'll tell you something else—they were the best darned tomatoes in the county."
Switzer churned butter, pumped water for the milk cow and showered under the eaves when a good summer rainstorm blew in. In the winter, he remembers, "Many a morning I'd go out on the back porch, take a gourd we had hanging on the wall and break the ice on the water bucket. We had to take the water into the kitchen and heat it for shaving." Forever missing the "yellow dog school bus," Switzer would hop on passing pulpwood trucks and ride a cord of wood to town. That was about as adventuresome as a Crossett boy's life got, that and an occasional stab at mumblety-peg and stealing watermelons. "There wasn't much to do," Switzer says. "We didn't have many organized sports. There were no tennis courts or golf courses or anything like that. Usually I just went down to the pool hall and played moon, dominoes or snooker."