Five months ago in Philadelphia, Miss., Marcus Dupree's uncle Curly Connors was sipping a soft drink behind the counter of the small convenience store he runs. He carefully put the bottle down on a countertop scratched by years of dimes and quarters sliding across it, looked up and said of his nephew, "He's the kind of kid that if things don't go right, he'll up and leave. I hope that folks at Oklahoma understand that. And if that happens, I know people will say he's a quitter."
Last week, with things not going right, on the field or in the classroom, Dupree up and left. People said he was a quitter. The folks at Oklahoma didn't understand. Everybody was pointing the finger at everyone else, with the biggest load of blame being dumped on the beleaguered Sooner coach, Barry Switzer. "I'm disgusted," said Switzer last Thursday. "It's inconceivable to me that a football player of his stature at a major college would take a week of vacation in the middle of the season." A week? It might be forever.
While football players gravitate to unhappiness as regularly as coaches gravitate to paranoia, what sets the Dupree case apart is that he was—and maybe still is—the finest amateur player in the country. Trouble is, Dupree, a 233-pound sensational-when-he-wants-to-be running back who has only permitted glimpses of what he might be, is, according to Switzer, fat, lazy, undisciplined, unmotivated, selfish, indifferent, immature and lacking in mental toughness. In private, Switzer isn't so gentle.
Last week's events were bizarre. Torn ligaments we can understand; shoulder separations we can understand; even drugs we can understand, sort of. Dupree we can't understand. His disenchantment with Oklahoma became apparent last spring when he told SI [June 20] of his strained relationship with Switzer. This latest manifestation of his unhappiness started on Oct. 8 following his poor performance—14 carries for 50 yards—in the Sooners' 28-16 loss to Texas in Dallas. After the game Dupree asked for and received routine permission to go home to Mississippi before returning to the Oklahoma campus on Monday. He got the part about going home right; it was the coming back to school aspect of the deal that gave him trouble and caused the furor. Said the idolized and mediablitzed Dupree last Thursday, "You can have all the fame in the world and not be happy. Happiness is more important than anything. And I'm not happy."
Where Dupree will end up remained uncertain as of Monday. He may well return to Oklahoma, although if he does, he'll have a very big mountain to climb in the minds of his teammates. Strong Safety Keith Stanberry was blunt: "I'm disappointed in the type of person Marcus is." Dupree also could wind up at Mississippi State, Alabama or Southern Mississippi. If he goes to any Division I school besides Oklahoma, he won't be eligible to play until 1985. Dupree says he might even attend a small school like Millsaps in Jackson, Miss, or Mississippi College in Clinton. Maybe he'll just go off in the woods and eat fruits and nuts.
Dupree, 19, who led the Sooners in rushing last year as a freshman with 905 yards but had gained only 369 in five games this season, was on the brink of returning to Norman last Friday evening. He was prepared to swallow his medicine, which he knew would be indescribably bitter when mixed with his ego, and assume a new attitude. But then he heard Switzer say of his leaving the team, "This might even help us."
That tore it up for Dupree, who for months had been chafing under a drumbeat of criticism from Switzer. That a lot of Switzer's observations were correct is immaterial; that they made Dupree mad is very material. Further, Dupree was miffed that Switzer never seemed to believe him when he said he had a pulled hamstring, knee injuries, asthma, virus, car trouble, alarm clock malfunctions. Dupree's best friend, Ken Fairley, 29, a counselor at Southern Mississippi, says, "Marcus felt like Switzer blamed him for the Fiesta Bowl loss [to Arizona State last January] and now for the Texas loss. There was no line of communication between Marcus and Switzer." Counters Switzer on being the fall guy, "He's got to make an excuse for quitting, doesn't he? If we were undefeated and he were leading the nation in rushing, do you think he would have quit?"
Switzer's most crucial mistake was inconsistency. Following the Fiesta defeat, during which Dupree ran for 239 yards, Switzer criticized him for being out of shape. The next month Switzer said, "Marcus Dupree is the greatest football player in America. He's better than Herschel Walker." In 1982 Switzer dropped his beloved wishbone offense and installed an I formation to give Dupree at least three times as many chances a game to run with the ball. Last spring Switzer said, "Dupree is lazy. It's all come too easy." A book and several songs have been written about Dupree. He spoke of winning the Heisman, and Switzer said, "Attaboy." Talk about confusing signals.
Also, Switzer in his exasperation says things about Dupree that are unfair and even downright inaccurate. For example: "He really hasn't practiced since he came here." Wrong. While Dupree missed workouts with injuries and always viewed practice with the same enthusiasm he would a wart on the tip of his nose, he'd come around enormously on that score. According to assistant coaches, Dupree this fall not only had been practicing with an enthusiasm heretofore foreign to him but also was leading the yelling and carrying on during workouts and was making a conscientious effort to get along with his teammates. Before the Texas game, in spite of a nagging knee injury that was depressing him—and reducing his effectiveness—Dupree had his best week of all and even seemed to be emerging as one of the team leaders.
Now the difficulties threaten to knock the wheels off the Sooners' wagon. On Saturday, Dupree-distracted Oklahoma needed a miracle finish to overcome seven turnovers, a school-record 15 penalties for 145 yards and a 20-3 deficit to whip its normally docile sister school, Oklahoma State, 21-20 in Stillwater. (The Cowboys have defeated the Sooners only once since 1966.) The victory was set up by Tim Lashar's onside kick that was recovered by Oklahoma's Scott Case with 2:50 to play. Lashar, however, was supposed to hit the ball deep. Everybody was told that except Lashar. Thanks, luck. Then, one minute, 34 seconds later, he booted a decisive 46-yard field goal. This finally shushed the rowdy Cowboy fans, who had posted several signs in honor of Dupree's disappearance, including BARRY, IT'S 1:30 DO YOU KNOW WHERE YOUR PLAYERS ARE? The scoreboard even flashed such messages as OSU WELCOMES SOUTHERN MISSISSIPPI RECRUITING COORDINATOR.