Switzer at 75: Former Sooner coach reflects on a colorful life and career
BY BILL HAISTEN World Sports Writer
Sunday, September 30, 2012
10/01/12 at 9:20 AM
Barry Switzer website: Watch a video, see slideshows and more about Barry Switzer’s 16-season tenure as OU football coach.
NORMAN - Looking into a video camera, Barry Switzer took his cue and began to speak.
"My birthday is Oct. 5. I will be 55 years of age - plus 20. I feel (55). I expect to live a long time. ... I've got another 20 left in me. I plan to live them good."
During a lengthy Tulsa World interview in 2009 - commemorating the 20th anniversary of his resignation from the University of Oklahoma's football head-coaching position - Switzer looked tired, lacked energy and had constant hip pain.
Now, a few days before his 75th birthday and a few months removed from hip-replacement surgery, his face looks younger, his movements are more fluid and his energy has been restored.
"I was walking a mile one week after the operation. It was no problem," Switzer said. "(Before the replacement), I couldn't walk more than a couple of hundred yards before I had to sit down. The doctor said it should have been replaced 20 years ago."
Asked whether he feels better at 75 than he did at 65, Switzer replied, "Sure, no question about it. I look better, too - don't I?"
Having resigned from his position as the Dallas Cowboys' coach following the 1997 season, Switzer now has been out of football (15 years) for nearly the same amount of time that he coached the Sooners (16 years) and drove them to three national championships.
Lunch first, interview later
In advance of Switzer's milestone birthday, a World reporter and photographer traveled to Norman for an interview. Switzer's greeting: "Let's go eat."
Switzer loaded his guests into his Mercedes-Benz and made the short drive to the Midway Market and Deli, established in 1955 and located a few blocks from his home on the southwest edge of the OU campus.
He hasn't coached in this state since 1988, but Switzer's popularity doesn't seem to have dulled. "He is the kind of guy who would make a good best friend," former Sooner quarterback J.C. Watts said.
Switzer says he is embarrassed by his nickname - "The King" - but he is treated as such when he enters the Midway deli. Before he gets seated at a table, he is approached by seven people.
When Switzer gets around to ordering lunch, he, appropriately enough, requests a sandwich called "The Coach." His order is taken by a young woman who not only is a deli employee but a member of the OU cheer squad.
"The food here is fresh and good," Switzer says. "The cookies are outstanding." He then turns toward the counter and calls out, "Are you all out of the maple pecan cookies, Bob?"
When a tray of cookies is brought to the table, only one of the treats is maple pecan.
"That maple pecan is good, I'm telling you," Switzer says. "Y'all ought to arm-wrestle for it. I don't want it. I don't need it. I'm losing weight."
Let the record show that after he finished his sandwich, Switzer did eat half of the maple pecan cookie. His weight today is 215 pounds. As a University of Arkansas senior center and linebacker 52 years ago, his weight was 205.
Remembering Frank Switzer
Switzer already has lived 10 years longer than his father, Frank Switzer.
"I've got good genes. My daddy was good-looking," Barry Switzer says. "(In 1972), he got shot by a 28-year-old woman - his girlfriend - when he was 64. If he hadn't gotten shot, he'd be alive today.
"He was jogging during the '50s before anyone else was doing it. He had an old pair of black Converse high-tops and he jogged down the gravel roads. Never overweight."
During the World War II years and beyond, Barry Switzer says, six black families were employed by Frank Switzer in his bootlegging enterprise - selling untaxed liquor in a dry Arkansas county. Frank's nanny had been a black woman, Irma Reynolds. She also was Barry Switzer's nanny. During the last 20 years of her life, she was supported by Barry Switzer. When she died in 2000 at the age of 104, Switzer delivered the eulogy.
Switzer's father died a few months before Barry became, at 35, OU's head coach. His mother, Mary Louise Switzer, died 13 years earlier of a self-inflicted gunshot.
Frank Switzer, Barry says, was "a man's man. A gambler. Always carried a gun on him. My mother was the valedictorian of her class. My daddy was very smart. Remember Rhett Butler from 'Gone With the Wind'? That was my daddy."
Though forever branded "a bootlegger and a rogue," Barry Switzer says, Frank Switzer funded the college education of underprivileged black students from the Crossett, Ark., area - students whose families were denied bank loans.
"Daddy sent a bunch of kids to school," Switzer said. "When I would go watch my son Doug play football at Arkansas-Pine Bluff (where he was a white quarterback on an otherwise all-black team), people would come up and say, 'I'm one of Mr. Frank's boys' or 'I'm one of Mr. Frank's girls.'
"These people went on to become high school principals or have good careers, and it was because my daddy helped send them to college in the '50s."
"My daddy was a devout atheist," Switzer added. "People want to use labels and say that an atheist doesn't have morals or a heart. Bull(bleep). You can be an atheist and have great character and your word is your bond."
In 1957, nine black students attracted national attention by enrolling in Little Rock's previously racially segregated Central High School. The Arkansas governor attempted to prevent the students from enrolling. In a University of Arkansas athletic dorm, several white players - including Switzer - watched news coverage of the event.
"I was a sophomore, sitting there and watching it on black-and-white television," Switzer recalls. "I heard one guy say, 'Hell, don't (the black students) have a school of their own?' I said, 'I always wondered why they couldn't go to school with us.' I was looking straight ahead at the TV. All of a sudden, those guys I played ball with, they leaned forward and looked at me. It was the first time I'd seen that look on their faces. It was the first time they'd heard me make a comment like that."
In "Bootlegger's Boy," his 1990 autobiography, Switzer wrote: "Other than my big collie dog, Major, black kids were my best friends."
From whiskey to wine
While Frank Switzer sold whiskey to "the church deacons who sent their maids out to our place," Barry Switzer says, the former Sooner coach now is in the business of making wine.
Produced in Napa Valley, Calif., a bottle of Switzer Family Vineyards cabernet sauvignon sells for $59. In April, Tulsa World Scene writer Scott Cherry described the Switzer wines as "full-bodied cabs with blackberry and cherry flavors that finish with hints of caramel and chocolate. They are mostly cabernet sauvignon with just a hint of petit verdot and cabernet franc."
"We produce enough wine to sell in Dallas, Oklahoma and Arkansas," Switzer explained.
Branded on each label is a message from the coach: "I think there is something special about our wine. I know, since I happen to be a bootlegger's boy."
A charismatic figure
Nearly 15 years since his departure from the Cowboys, Switzer remains a regular guest on Dallas-Fort Worth sports-talk radio shows.
In Oklahoma, Switzer is an approachable superstar. While someone might be shy about rushing to embrace Bob Stoops, Switzer gets kisses and handshakes every time he leaves the house.
"People have never been afraid to approach Barry Switzer," said Donnie Duncan, a former Switzer assistant who was OU's athletic director when Switzer resigned in 1989. "He's down to earth and he's accessible and charming. If you actually get to know him, you can't help but like him."
Said Joe Washington, a former OU All-American halfback and now a special assistant in the OU athletic director's office: "One of the greatest benefits of being back here in Norman is that I get to see and talk with coach Switzer as much as I want to."
Because of his 40-year status as the honorary head coach of the Oklahoma Special Olympics, there are fans of Switzer who may not even be fans of football. In all that time - since the summer of 1973 - Switzer has never failed to attend the opening ceremony.
The head coach's salary: $24,000
As Oklahoma's offensive coordinator during the 1971 and 1972 seasons - after he had completely changed the program's culture by converting the offense to the wishbone option attack - Switzer made $12,000.
"When I came here (in 1966)," he recalls, "I was making $6,000."
When promoted to head coach in January 1973, he was raised to $24,000. With a wife and three kids, he built a 4,400-square-foot home for $90,000.
"If we went to a bowl game, we got an extra month's salary," he said.
Before he was promoted as the successor to Chuck Fairbanks, Switzer says, OU officials offered the Sooner job to Georgia's Vince Dooley and Florida's Doug Dickey.
"Thank goodness, they couldn't get them," Switzer says. "(OU's) facilities were so damn poor. The facilities were terrible when I got here."
It was announced that Switzer had been given a four-year contract. In reality, he says now, it was a one-year contract. "A nine-month contract, really," he said.
"You had to call it a four-year deal for recruiting purposes," Switzer explained. "They were taking a gamble on me. If Jack Santee hadn't been a regent at the University of Oklahoma, I never would have been the head football coach. (During a meeting involving university officials and Switzer), no one said a word for 2 1/2 hours except for Jack Santee and me.
"When the meeting ended, Jack said, 'We're going to announce you as the new coach tomorrow.' I told them that if we announced a nine-month contract, we wouldn't sign a damn soul. For recruiting, we had to (report) it as being a four-year contract."
Switzer says he didn't feel insulted by the initial one-year contract: "I wasn't worried about it. I told them we would have a great football team and that we'd negotiate again next year."
In 1973, the Sooners were 10-0-1. Because of NCAA probation, they were banned from a bowl game. After the 1973 season, Switzer got a five-year contract with a rollover. It was a perpetual five-year deal. In 1974 and again in 1975, OU won the national championship.
Law school or football?
After completing his Arkansas football career in 1960, and after having served briefly in the Army, Switzer had two options - law school or coaching. He accepted an invitation to join Frank Broyles' Razorback staff.
"If Frank Broyles hadn't been the head coach at the University of Arkansas, I would have been in law school," Switzer said. "Frank talked me into trying the coaching profession. I had come back from the service and was going to enroll in law school. ... My brother made it (through law school). I had a couple of uncles who made it.
"My daddy was a bootlegger. He didn't study law. But his brothers were judges and state representatives and senators - immersed in politics."
The Switzer family
Since 2000, Switzer has been married to former OU gymnastics coach Becky Buwick. Doug Switzer, the youngest of Switzer's three children, resides two blocks from his father's place. Daughter Kathy and her husband are building a home immediately across the street from Switzer's house. The oldest Switzer kid, former Arkansas football player Greg Switzer, is a musician and songwriter in Nashville.
"He does traditional country music and a lot of country swing and some crossover stuff," Barry Switzer reported. "When he was a kid, I was listening to Floyd Cramer, Charley Pride, Ronnie Milsap and Hank Williams. It influenced (Greg). I'd plug in an 8-track and he'd listen to music as he went to sleep."
The perks of being Barry
During the mid-'70s, after he had become a nationally renowned championship coach at Oklahoma, Switzer was invited to participate in a charity golf event at Tulsa's Southern Hills Country Club. He played in a group with Bob Hope and Oral Roberts.
"I remember Bob Hope had a good-looking gal driving him around," Switzer said.
One Thursday night in 1995, during what would become a Super Bowl championship season, Switzer was seated with friends in the library bar at Dallas' Warwick Melrose Hotel. The bartender summoned Switzer, explaining that the coach had received a telephone call. Switzer was instructed to call the White House. After submitting his Social Security number to someone on the other end, he was connected with another Arkansas native - then-President Bill Clinton.
"The people there were freaking out - 'you're talking to Bill Clinton?' " Switzer recalled with a laugh. "(Clinton) was in the White House and he was by himself. It was football season and he wanted to know if we were going to win the Super Bowl. He wanted to talk football. So we talked for about 20 minutes and I told him we were going to win it - and we did win it.
"It was funny. There are 300 million people in the United States, and he tells the Secret Service that he wants to talk to me. When he was inaugurated (in 1993), he sent me an invitation and I went. I sat on the third row, right up there with the U.S. senators and all. Great seats. (Clinton) wasn't more than 25 yards from me."
Bud, Barry and Bob
Because they collectively were responsible for 33 of Oklahoma's 43 conference titles and for all seven national championships, Bud Wilkinson, Barry Switzer and Bob Stoops are permanently linked.
Stoops is 16 wins shy of tying Switzer's program record of 157 victories, but Switzer's winning percentage of .837 remains OU's best. Wilkinson's was .826, while the Stoops percentage is .801.
OU's Barry Switzer Center, completed in 1999, contains the football operations and locker room. A Switzer statue, located immediately east of Memorial Stadium, was unveiled last year.
"We all added to it. We all made our mark on the program," Switzer said. "We are fortunate - all of us - to have coached at Oklahoma. It's one of the great programs in America."
Next for Switzer: Movie of 'The Bootlegger's Boy'
The Switzer file: 75 facts about Barry Switzer
Original Print Headline: Switzer at 75
Bill Haisten 918-581-8397
Barry Switzer sits behind his desk during an interview at his home in Norman earlier this month. The legendary former coach will be 75 on Friday. JOHN CLANTON / Tulsa World
Barry Switzer talks with Rusty Sullivan, a county commissioner in Cleveland County at a Norman deli. JOHN CLANTON / Tulsa World
Barry Switzer talks with the owner of a Norman deli during lunch earlier this month. JOHN CLANTON / Tulsa World