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Three years after Oklahoma was put on probation for recruiting violations, having endured forfeits, bowl bans, TV blackouts and poll disqualifications, the Sooners of Coach Barry Switzer will be making their official NCAA-approved debut this season.
Switzer is not exactly a mystery man—there is no ignoring a 32-1-1 record, three Big Eight championships, two national championships and 28 consecutive victories. Still, the 38-year-old Switzer has been operating in a kind of splendid anonymity. At a time when the reigns of established leaders like Joe Paterno, Darrell Royal and Bear Bryant are in their second, third and fourth decades respectively, could Switzer be the forerunner of a new breed of campus monarchs? What kind of dynasty is he fashioning out there on the plains of Norman?
And so it was that Switzer was searched out, found at the Oklahoma alumni dance following the spring game. A big man surrounded by several big men, he turned slowly when a visitor tapped him on the shoulder and said, "Hi, how ya doin'?"
Boomer Sooner! Just like that, in one stunning instant it was overwhelmingly clear what Switzer and his Sooners are all about. It had nothing to do with the firm handshake. Nor the broad smile. What revealed all was the fact that Barry Switzer, molder of men, guardian of the grand tradition and the once and future king of the sport, was wearing black horn-rim glasses affixed to a grotesque rubber nose the size of a cucumber!
It was a setup, a joke-shop fakeout as beautifully timed and executed as the Oklahoma wishbone at its triple-option best. And in the explosion of laughter that followed, it remained for Larry Lacewell, Switzer's boyhood friend, chief assistant and irrepressible alter ego, to lend meaning to the mayhem. "Hey," Lacewell cried, brandishing his drink like an Olympic torchbearer, "it's like I always say. We try to make college football fun but it's hard because 80,000 people keep interfering every Saturday."
Fun? Yes. The distinguishing trait of the Switzer Sooners, the mystic something that marks their style and motivates their success, is that they really are, as they keep insisting, just a bunch of country boys having a yahooing good time playing a game they "flat out love."
Make no mistake: Barry Switzer is a hard-driving man. He preaches winning with a fervor that would shame Billy Sunday. He hustles 18 hours a day, burns up the recruiting trails, rouses the rabble at halftime and all the rest. But somewhere along the way Switzer forgot to lose his perspective, he failed to learn that big-time college football is no laughing matter. He says heretical things such as, "Whoever invented this game didn't mean for it to get this big." In sum, the man can't see beyond the end of his rubber nose.
Of course, winning makes grinning easier. And that down-home charm might sour a bit if, say, Oklahoma lost the Texas game, a war of the worlds in its own right. But instant surliness is not likely; in fact, there is every evidence that the Switzer Sooners win because they grin. The players' skits, the gag gifts, practical jokes and general funning around are part of the game plan. Some of it is undeniably sophomoric—which figures, since some of the Sooners are undeniably sophomores. And after all, who primarily is supposed to be enjoying and benefiting from playing college football?
If winning makes for fun city, what does losing bode? Switzer has an inkling. The grumbling was bad enough in 1970 when Switzer, serving as the offensive coordinator under Coach Chuck Fairbanks, introduced the wishbone and nursed it through a 7-4 season. But harder to take was the round of boos on the few occasions when Oklahoma failed to win by its customary four or five touchdowns.
As for this season, Switzer says, "We'll fall off some." Three of OU's 10 departed starters—Defensive Tackle Leroy Selmon, Halfback Joe Washington and Receiver Billy Brooks—were chosen first, fourth and 11th in the NFL draft. "No college has ever had three players go that high," says Switzer. "That shows you the caliber of talent we lost. But heck, in college football you live from year to year. It's a continual thing, a cycle that runs. We've been on Mt. Everest for a while and now....