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BARRY SWITZER WRITES ABOUT HIMSELF
Rick Telander
September 24, 1990
"Mea culpa" is plainly not the thrust of these memoirs by the controversial coach
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September 24, 1990

Barry Switzer Writes About Himself

"Mea culpa" is plainly not the thrust of these memoirs by the controversial coach

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When Barry Switzer resigned under duress as Oklahoma's football coach 15 months ago, he left with some hefty baggage strapped to his back: a 16-year 157-29-4 record (his .837 winning percentage is the fourth highest of any coach in Division I history); three national championships (1974, 1975 and 1985); 21 consensus All-Americas during his tenure; and credit for igniting the prairie-fire Sooner wishbone attack that scorched opponents like a wind from hell.

But in spite of his accomplishments he left Oklahoma under a cloud as big as a Panhandle thunderhead. While Switzer was at Oklahoma, the Sooners were twice put on NCAA probation for rules violations, and over the years the team came to be seen as a motorcycle gang in cleats Among others, the Sooners featured running back Joe Washington in his silver game shoes, quarterback Thomas Lott in a pirate's bandanna, and steroid-inflated linebacker Brian Bosworth sporting a techno-punk Mohawk and a NATIONAL COMMUNISTS AGAINST ATHLETES T-Shirt The coach himself was seen partying too often, smoking on the sideline and giving his players second, third—heck, fourth—chances as long as they helped him feed the " Oklahoma Football Monster."

Finally, in a 32-day period in early 1989 during which various Sooner players were arrested for rape (one was later acquitted), shooting with intent to injure and selling cocaine, Switzer's victories abruptly faded into the background. Who was responsible for this chaos? In need of a fall guy, Oklahoma's great monster coughed and spat out the man who has treated it so well. The bootlegger's boy from Crossett, Ark., was finally experiencing the consequences of playing fast and loose with big-time college football one of the meanest machines around.

In his book, Bootlegger's Boy ( William Morrow & Co., $19.95), Switzer, with the help of co-author Bud Shrake, spends roughly equal time explaining why he was a good coach and why he is not guilty of all the nasty things he has been accused of. Regarding the first matter, he says he followed three axioms: run the wishbone offense, recruit blacks at all positions and raid Texas. As to the second, he was the victim of a system that espoused integrity and education but cared mostly about wins. After the Sooners went 7-4-1, 8-4, and 8-4 from 1981 to 1983, Oklahoma president Bill Banowsky suggested to Switzer that the university's regents might want to fire the coach if he ever again lost four games in a season. "But, Barry," Switzer quotes Banowsky as adding, "if you win the national championship, the regents won't fire you even if we catch you smoking dope."

Switzer's excuses lack balance. It seems everybody from the "fiction writers" (his term for "unfriendly" sportswriters, including several from this magazine) to the NCAA to one of his quarterbacks, Charles Thompson (now serving time for conspiracy to distribute cocaine, with his own book due to be published soon), has been out to get him. Paranoia tinkles throughout this book like wind chimes, although considering Switzer's background, readers shouldn't be surprised. Indeed, if his defense of his mistakes is self-serving and his tales of Sooner conquests are ultimately tedious, his stories about his childhood are page turners, macabre tales that could have come out of an earlier century.

The first of two sons of a mercurial, drunken bootlegger and his tormented, pill-popping wife, Switzer grew up in a house that had no electricity, phone or gas. He was such an outcast that even as a star high school athlete he had to have other boys pick up his dates and take them home. He was friends with the poor blacks who lived nearby and bought untaxed booze from his dad; his identification with them would eventually make him the greatest recruiter of black athletes in college football history.

One day Switzer, then 21, refused to kiss his mother. Moments later, she took a pistol and killed herself. Some years later his father was shot by a mistress, who then tried to drive him to the hospital but crashed her auto and killed them both.

Switzer writes that psychologists have told him he was raised in a "totally dysfunctional environment," and one has to admire the success, however tainted, of a man who has risen above such difficulties. But one also wonders to what extent that environment still holds Switzer, and what effect it has had through the years on college football.

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