"It was a playoff game," Switzer recalls. "I think Billy went for 300 yards in this one. I knew Hooks had to be small because I had never heard of it before. So I called up his coach. Jack Coleman, right then, and said I wondered what the possibility would be of my talking to Billy. 'Well,' he said, 'I think it would be pretty good. He's sitting right here.' " Switzer began recruiting Sims. Hard. Which means that he sent an assistant coach, Bill Shimek, to Hooks and strongly suggested that he take up residence there until Sims was signed.
"The first time I saw Billy he was carrying two big buckets of cow feed like they were water glasses," says Shimek. "From the waist up he looked like a Greek god. He weighed 179 pounds. I thought, 'Lordy, he's something.' "
Switzer acquired the habit of phoning Sims on Saturday mornings at Pat James' Conoco service station in Hooks, where Sims worked. Switzer's neighborly calls, which came before each of Oklahoma's games, were just to assure Sims that Switzer was thinking about him.
"One day," says Switzer, "we were playing Colorado in Boulder, and we were on the way to beating them 49-14, and it was about 28 or 35 to nothing at the half. We came in; there wasn't much to do, and I looked over on the wall and saw a pay phone. I said to myself, 'Why I just think I'll call Billy.' So I spent halftime of the Colorado game talking to Billy Sims."
"Well, I knew if he was talking to me," says Sims, "he couldn't be talking to anybody else." And that was pretty much that.
Sims had a quiet freshman year at Norman, and then, as a sophomore, he injured his right shoulder in the third game, missed the rest of the season and was granted an extra year of eligibility by the NCAA. The following year he injured his right ankle, also in the third game, and saw limited action thereafter. But last year....
"Last year was, you know, kind of like a survival year," says Sims. "I just tried to come out walking." He did considerably better than that. Running out of the right halfback position in the Oklahoma wishbone, Sims gained more than 100 yards in each of his first two games, against Stanford and West Virginia. Then the Sooners blasted Rice 66-7, and Sims played less than one quarter and gained 33 yards, his only sub-100-yard game of the season. In the Texas game, on national television, Sims rushed for 131 yards and two touchdowns, and his Heisman campaign was off the ground. He added to his credentials by rattling off three straight 200-yard games, the only Big Eight player ever to accomplish that feat. Sims finished the regular season with 1,762 yards, led the nation with a 160.2 per-game average, scored 20 touchdowns and averaged an NCAA-record 7.6 yards each time he carried the ball.
Still, Sims, a modest man, did not believe he had a shot at the Heisman. He thought Rick Leach, the Michigan senior, would win it, or, if the trophy was to go to a junior, White would be the recipient. "I had no preseason buildup," he says. "Everybody was saying, 'Who's Billy Sims?' I had seen a film on TV of Charles White. USC was promoting him for the Heisman, spending all this money. I never thought I would get it for nothing." Sims also thought his great gaffe—a nationally televised fumble on Nebraska's three-yard line with 3:27 left in the Sooners' only defeat of the year, a boner that probably cost Oklahoma its sixth national championship—would lose him votes.
Looking through the scrapbook his wife, Brenda, put together this summer, Sims brightened after he turned the page that held the picture of the fumble. There, in a 10-year-old's scrawl, was a note, "Dear Billy Sims. Even though we lost to Nebraska you are still the greatest back in America. Love, Greg Switzer. Vote Billy for Hisman [sic]."
It was not long after he brought the trophy from New York to Norman that Sims met White for the first time, at a dinner thrown by the Columbus (Ohio) Touchdown Club. From the podium Sims spoke of his myriad achievements. He said he was happy about winning the Heisman, but admitted there was something his rival had done that he had not yet accomplished. "I wish I could score like he did," said Sims, nodding toward White, "without the football."