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Rick Telander
February 27, 1989
Oklahoma has paid the price for the anything-goes attitude that coach Barry Switzer has allowed to take root
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February 27, 1989

You Reap What You Sow

Oklahoma has paid the price for the anything-goes attitude that coach Barry Switzer has allowed to take root

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On the afternoon of Feb. 10, Oklahoma quarterback Charles Thompson hobbled out of the Sooners' football office and headed toward his car, which was double-parked across from Bud Wilkinson House, the athletic dormitory on Jenkins Avenue in Norman. Thompson was limping because he was wearing a cast on his lower right leg: He fractured his tibia and fibula on the final play of the Nebraska game on Nov. 19. He opened the door to his black Nissan 300-ZX, with the smoked windows, the KING CHARLES VI vanity plate and the dice hanging from the rearview mirror, and paused to look at the swarm of reporters and photographers on the dorm lawn across the street.

Only a few hours earlier three of Thompson's teammates, sophomore running back Glen Bell, sophomore offensive tackle Nigel Clay and junior tight end Bernard Hall, had been arraigned for allegedly gang-raping a woman on Jan. 21 in the Wilkinson dorm. Eight days before that, Thompson's roommate, redshirt freshman cornerback Jerry Parks, had shot sophomore offensive lineman Zarak Peters in the chest after a late-night argument in the dorm. Parks then allegedly aimed the pistol at Thompson, then pointed the weapon at his own head and pulled the trigger, but the gun misfired.

The shooting came one month after the NCAA had placed the Oklahoma football team on three years probation for "major violations," which included offering cash and cars to recruits and giving airline tickets to players. The NCAA Committee on Infractions stated that for "at least several years, the university has failed to exercise appropriate institutional control" over the football program. One more violation in any sport in the next five years and the Sooners program will be temporarily shut down—the so-called death penalty. Now, outside Bud Wilkinson House, the press was waiting for any player who would comment on the sordid mess.

Thompson slid into his car and roared off, free of the reporters and, apparently, of any blame for the Sooners' ills. At 5'10" and 175 pounds, Thompson is tough and whippet-quick. He emerged as a team leader after replacing Jamelle Holieway on Oct. 15 as the starting quarterback in Oklahoma's wildfire wishbone offense. Thompson seemed to have his priorities in order. Earlier that week he had lectured children at a nearby grammar school about the evils of drug use. "Regardless of what anyone has told you about drugs," he told the youngsters, "they're the quickest way to end your life, the quickest way to be in jail."

Three days later the FBI charged Thompson with having sold 17 grams of cocaine for $1,400 to an undercover agent on Jan. 26. The newspaper photographs of Thompson, the Sooners' leading ground-gainer—he rushed for 824 yards and nine touchdowns on 145 carries last fall—dressed in an orange prison suit with his hands cuffed together were nearly as shocking as U.S. attorney Bill Price's announcement that, if convicted, Thompson could receive 20 years in prison and $1 million in fines.

A football program that was already in turmoil now seemed ready to sink into oblivion. Senior running back Don Smitherman, who had steadfastly defended the team and its coaches before Thompson's arrest, felt betrayed. "I'm not naive," said Smitherman. "I don't think everyone is a lamb; I have a good feel for people. Some of the other guys who got into trouble, I could understand. But Charles.... We bestowed trust in him because he had demonstrated himself to be a leader. This knocks my feet out from under me. I mean, who can you have confidence in?"

The answer is no one, at least among those charged with overseeing Oklahoma football. The Sooners' winning tradition on the field has been overshadowed by an ugly atmosphere of lawlessness. Even die-hard fans are beginning to realize that the time has come for someone to be held accountable for the disgrace.

In a news conference following Thompson's arrest, Oklahoma governor Henry Bellmon said he was "thoroughly disgusted" with the football program. But because he appoints the board of regents, he must share blame for the circumstances that disgust him. The regents, who govern the university and who have repeatedly ignored glaring evidence of a program run amok, are culpable as well. So is Sooner athletic director Donnie Duncan. However, the man who must bear the most responsibility is coach Barry Switzer. He brought these athletes to Norman, and he's in almost daily contact with them throughout the school year.

Last week The Daily Oklahoman in Oklahoma City and the Tulsa World urged Switzer to resign. The Oklahoman reprinted part of a column that had asked for Switzer's resignation back in 1982: "The top man of any organization sets the moral tone for his associates.... Switzer has never set the best of examples in his personal life for the young men on the Sooner football team.... Perhaps, it's time for him to move on."

Even former Sooners are beginning to turn against Switzer. On Monday, Jim Owens, cocaptain of the 1949 team, said that that squad would be canceling its 40th reunion in April to express disgust and embarrassment over the recent events in Norman. Owens said he would not attend any reunions on campus "until a drastic change in leadership takes place."

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