Editor’s note: During this football season, the Tulsa World will serialize each week the chapters from Tulsa World Staff Writer Jimmie Tramel’s 2014 book “Switzer: The Players’ Coach.” Purchase the book for $9.95 at tulsaworldstore.com.
The urban legend: Before stepping inside the Killeen, Texas, home of recruit Frank Blevins in the 1980s, Barry Switzer rummaged through a garbage can outside and saw empty cans of Pearl Beer.
Later, when Blevins’ father asked Switzer if he would like a beer, the coach is alleged to have said “Only if it’s Pearl Beer, because that’s the only kind I drink.”
Why sift through a trash can to gain an edge in recruiting? Because no coach wins big over the long haul with average players. Or, as Switzer’s friend Eddie Sutton likes to put it, a jackass has never won the Kentucky Derby.
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“There are too many good coaches who are products of good systems,” Switzer once told the Tulsa World. “I am no better and no worse than anybody else. Players win and players lose.”
Switzer indicated he was fortunate to work at a tradition-rich institution which appealed to the best players and assistant coaches.
“Player acquisition is the thing and the good players at Oklahoma did not just fall out of the sky,” he said. “I have a lot to do with recruiting. I enjoy selling our program. I think I am good at it.”
That’s an understatement.
Said former player Greg Roberts: “He’s a hell of a salesman.”
Roberts got sold on a school and a position change. He was a linebacker when he left Nacogdoches, Texas. He said he was at OU for about 15 minutes before Switzer switched him to the offensive line. “Did you eat your breakfast?” Switzer repeatedly asked Roberts, hoping the linebacker-turned-blocker would gain weight.
“It all worked out good,” Roberts, who won the 1978 Outland Trophy, said. “He knew what he was doing. He knows talent.”
Roberts was part of an epic OU recruiting class in 1975. There were 19 players on the Dallas Times-Herald’s Texas blue-chip list that year and 13 signed with the Sooners. If that had happened in the Scout and Rivals era, the Internet would have gone supernova.
Running back Kenny King of Clarendon, Texas, was in the signing day class of ‘75. His father wanted him to go to Texas A&M. He signed with OU. Then he played in a Texas high school all-star game in Fort Worth and shared a field with the likes of Roberts, Thomas Lott, Billy Sims, George Cumby, Bud Hebert, Phil Tabor, Paul Tabor and Uwe von Schamann.
King couldn’t help but notice the obvious.
“All of these guys are now going to the University of Oklahoma,” he said. “I made the right choice.”
Switzer made a living out of cherry-picking fertile recruiting grounds in Texas and bringing back “converts” to the Oklahoma side of the Red River. Texans, of course, cried foul. One reason he was able to do it is because he is who he is.
Said former player Jim Riley, “Somebody once asked me did I ever want to go into college coaching? And I said ‘hell, no.’ You have to kiss the butts of those 16-year-old and 17-year-old players? No, thank you. I ain’t doing that. But Barry had a way with them. They just fell in love with him, all of them.”
Toss out the usual words: Charisma. Personality. Swagger. Marcus Dupree, who was such a superstar high school player that a book was written about his recruitment, loved hearing Switzer talk about hanging half a hundred points on opponents.
And Switzer’s background permitted him to be a chameleon. Drop him in any environment and …
“He just blends in,” Roberts said. “He’s just one of the guys. You feel comfortable around him.”
Andre Johnson, a recruit Switzer plucked out of Houston in the 1980s, said, “Most people who are very successful like him can’t go into the inner city and communicate with kids from the inner city. He can go to River Oaks, which is a real well-to do area (in Houston), probably one of the most affluent areas in the country, and communicate with anybody and then he can go to the Third Ward, which is considered the hood, and communicate with anybody. He’s just that kind of guy.”
Switzer sat on the floor and ate barbecue during a recruiting visit to Lott’s home in San Antonio. Said Lott, “We were like ‘you can sit at the table.’ And he said ‘no, no, I’ll sit down here.’ … That’s how comfortable he was. My mother didn’t see it that way. She thought he was way too smooth, or as they used to say back then, slick. You know what I mean? She was used to those slick guys and she thought he was one of those. She wasn’t real sold on him at the beginning.”
Switzer pulled out all the stops in pursuing Sims. Switzer dispatched assistant coach Bill Shimek to stake out Sims in Hooks, Texas. Sims said Shimek spent 77 days in Hooks and was made an honorary citizen.
“We were like a pro team,” former assistant coach Larry Lacewell said. “We stuck a couple of guys out on the road in the fall almost full-time.”
Sims spent childhood years in St. Louis. He said inner city kids played baseball (“we didn’t even think about football”) at that time and Cardinal baseball players like Bob Gibson were his heroes.
When Sims moved to Hooks to live with grandparents, he discovered that everyone in Texas plays football.
“So I didn’t really start playing football until I was in the 10th grade,” he said. “I started off as a linebacker. I saw this guy running with the ball and 11 guys were trying to kill him. I said ‘that can’t be fun.’ So I played linebacker and I was third-string running back.”
The first- and second-string running backs (one was Sims’ cousin) got hurt. Guess who got promoted?
“He put me in there and I was scared,” Sims said. “I thought about that guy with the ball (getting killed) so I just made people miss and I got pretty good at it and the rest is history.”
Sims dodged enough tacklers to rush for 7,738 yards during his high school career. He was motivated by more than self-preservation.
“The thing was, if I got over 100 yards in a football game, I would get a chicken fried steak,” he said. “I still hold the (Texas state) record — 38 straight games with (at least) 100 yards. They thought I was running for the record. I was running for that chicken fried damn steak.”
Problem for Switzer: Sims was bound for Baylor. It was a Baptist school. Sims came from a Baptist family. His grandmother loved Baylor coach Grant Teaff. Sims was going to become a Bear to make grandma happy.
Sims said his high school baseball coach was from Durant and talked him into taking a recruiting visit to Oklahoma, even though he was committed to Baylor. What can it hurt to take a free trip? And they have chicken fried steak there.
“I met Bud Wilkinson and I met Greg Pruitt and I saw Joe Washington and Steve Davis and Tinker Owens and the Selmon Brothers and all these guys,” Sims said. “And I didn’t realize they had all these Texas players on the team — some of them I knew about in high school — because they were on probation. Nobody saw them on TV.”
Sims said this will tell you what kind of salesman Switzer was: Switzer said something along the lines of “I know you are headed to Baylor, but before you go back home, I want you to meet my family.”
Sure. What harm can come of that?
When Sims arrives at Switzer’s house, all three of the coach’s children were wearing No. 20 jerseys. Switzer told Sims they were already selling his jerseys in Norman.
“Wow! Really coach?” Sims said, not knowing any better. “Then they all turn around and they have got ‘Sims’ on the back of the jerseys. That was impressive.”
While Sims was tearing up east Texas, King was a small-town whiz in west Texas. King said he got discovered in Clarendon because a sports writer publicized his exploits in the Amarillo newspaper.
Switzer flew to Clarendon on a small airplane to pick up King and they flew back to Norman together.
“It was the first time I had ever been in a plane and now I’m in this little two-engine thing and I don’t know what the heck I’m doing up there,” King said.
“I’m in the co-pilot seat and coach Switzer is back there and he is talking. You know how coach gets to going when he is talking. He says ‘Kenny King, take the wheel, take the wheel.’ I said ‘I’m not touching that wheel.’ And the pilot is like, ‘no, no, you will be fine. We’re not going to die.’ So I take the wheel and all of a sudden we are doing this little dip and I’m like ‘oh God, we’re going to die.’ ”
King, of course, survived the trip and, during a visit to Switzer’s office, was wowed by a tradition-thick sales pitch. Then came a “horrible” visit to Texas and King became more convinced that OU was the place for him.
Leaving nothing to chance, Switzer stayed at the Western Skies Hotel in Clarendon the night before signing day and went to the pool hall to shoot pool with the locals. Maybe the townsfolk were awed by a big-time coach showing up at the pool hall, but the fact of the matter is he was back in his natural habitat, like Crossett all over again.
“To have the head coach at the University of Oklahoma come to Clarendon, Texas, and spend the night to sign me, I felt like I was important,” King said.
King said he was looking for two things in a school. He wanted an opportunity to “just fit into an organization.” And he was looking for a non-prejudiced environment. He said a majority of his friends in high school were white, but he had seen enough racism to know that he wanted to get away from it.
“When I went to Oklahoma, they took me to a club called the Blue Onion or something,” King said. “And when I walked in, there were Indian players, there were white players, there were Hispanic players, there were black players. I said right then and there that if they party together off the field, they will play like champions on the field together and that’s exactly what it was like.”
Those close to Switzer will tell you he is not given enough credit for knocking down the color barriers which were still prevalent. College football was integrated by the time Switzer arrived at OU as an assistant coach, but many programs hesitated to usher in change or seemed bound by an unspoken quota system.
“His real and lasting contribution as a coach, when he became a head coach in 1973, Barry made it clear to everyone that we were going to play the best players,” former coach and athletic director Donnie Duncan told the Tulsa World in 2007. “It didn’t make any difference who they were or where they came from or how much money they had or their family had. The opportunities to kids who needed opportunities got them and did great things because of Barry’s heart. That will be his legacy. He changed lives and futures with the kids he touched.”
Some white coaches at that time had never spent meaningful time around African-Americans. Lacewell said the opposite was true in regard to himself and Switzer.
“That was the thing I loved about coach Switzer,” Thomas Lott said. “He was fortunate enough to live in an environment where he got to know how black players were just the same as white players when it came to what they wanted in life and they just need to be put in the right atmosphere and in the right environment and he was able to do that for them.”
Former offensive lineman Terry Webb said players used to refer to Switzer as OU’s first black head coach. Explanation? “It’s just because he was just Barry,” Webb said. “I can’t think of any better way to put it. If you know him, you know what I’m talking about. If you don’t, you never will.”
Lott became OU’s first black starting quarterback in 1976. He said one of the things which totally blew his mind when he arrived in Norman was the number of black players.
“I thought I must have made a wrong turn and went to Grambling because there were so many of us there,” he said.
Switzer allowed his recruits to be individuals. Joe Washington wore silver shoes. Lott’s trademark was a bandana which flowed out of his helmet.
“That was during a changing time in our country,” Lott said, referring to the transition from the 1960s to the 1970s. “We happened to be a part of that. I was able to be a part of that. Here I am, a black quarterback when there were maybe four in the country and not only was I embraced by the black community which backed me. But the thing that I am proud of also is the white people backed me too. They started to see that here is somebody that is black that we can relate to. Because of my background and the people I grew up around, I carried myself a certain way and they could also relate to me, so I was able to bring a group of people who had probably never been around black people to understand and want to follow this university because they are saying we have a little of both, black and white, and we are working together and everybody has a common goal of the university being the best it can be.”
Defensive tackle Reggie Kinlaw was not one of the Texas recruits Switzer “stole” from Texas. Kinlaw, who is from Miami, Fla., admired the Selmon Brothers from afar.
“I said I’m going to be like those guys,” Kinlaw said. “And Barry helped get me there.”
Kinlaw said Switzer had a knack for saying things which would happen — eventually if not immediately.
“As he stood up on top of the tower and watched practice, he called me a jackass freshman,” Kinlaw said. “He said ‘jackass freshman Reggie Kinlaw, if you practice like that every day, you will be a two-time All-American.’ And it came true.”
Kinlaw said players liked to “blast” Bar-Kays and O’Jays music before games. An assistant coach once walked over and ordered the volume to be turned down. “Barry politely walked over there and turned it back up and said ‘hey, let them enjoy the music.’ He is a players’ coach.”
That’s plural, as in players.
“We had a lot of talent, man,” Kinlaw said. “I just was blessed to get there at the right time. The year I came in we had Billy and Thomas and Kenny King and Greg Roberts and Daryl Hunt and George Cumby — all these guys from Texas.”
Lott said the talent level was incredible.
“I was eight deep on the depth chart when I got there and there were two guys behind me. There was no scholarship (limit prior to 1973). When you are talking about eight deep, we are talking about quarterback, fullback, both halfbacks. And everybody was All-State, All-City, All-American, All-Confererence. They were all something from wherever they came from.”
Switzer promised Sims he would earn a degree (which he did) and win a Heisman Trophy (which he did) if he came to Oklahoma.
“Of course he told Kenny King and Thomas Lott and all these other people the same damn story,” Sims said, laughing.
Sims, who won the Heisman Trophy in 1978 and was runner-up in 1979, said he thinks anybody in OU’s backfield during that era could have won a Heisman because the Sooners were just that good.
“Probably the best thing to ever happen for me was to come to Oklahoma,” he said. “What I know now, because I didn’t know it back then, is you surround yourself with other great players, just like in business, and you give yourself a chance to be successful.”
Sims said there were so many great players that you hoped someone would get hurt in practice just so you would get an opportunity.
“That’s how stacked we were,” he said. “You had guys there that could have been starting at other universities. They all wanted to come to Oklahoma because of one guy.”
Said Webb: “That’s what a lot of people — even the administration — didn’t realize is people came there to play for Barry. They didn’t come there to play for the University of Oklahoma. The Internet isn’t like it is now. The (OU) brand wasn’t necessarily known that well outside. We had heard of Bud Wilkinson, but we were all young country boys. You got there and you played for Barry. That’s what we knew. You would have run through a wall for the man.”
About that Pearl Beer story: Blevins said OU assistant coach Gary Gibbs had made a home visit before Switzer. Gibbs was offered a Pearl Beer. It’s possible that Switzer rummaged through a trash can or saw a trash can overflowing with Pearl Beer cans. But Blevins suspects Gibbs tipped off Switzer that he would be offered “nasty” beer during the home visit.
“My dad was a big Pearl Beer drinker,” Blevins said. “I don’t know if he bought it because he liked it or he knew that me and my sister wouldn’t drink it.”
Switzer, who has gotten ample mileage out of the story over the years, ran into Blevins in New Orleans decades later and greeted the former player by saying “they don’t have any Pearl Beer here.”
Switzer didn’t miss many tricks.
Said Blevins about his recruitment: “Just the little things he would do … I’m sure he did a lot of mothers this way, but he called my mom on her birthday.”
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