Barry Switzer looked like a man who had just been pulled from the wreckage of his own life. He had slept about five hours in the previous 72. He was sitting last Thursday night in Othello's restaurant in Norman, Okla., a low building radiating five shades of neon. Othello's is the home of the Table of Truth, a red Leatherette booth in which Switzer has dined nearly every night for 10 years. A tiny brass plaque sits on the wall of the booth, placed there in Switzer's honor. It Says, OLD COACHES NEVER DIE, THEY JUST FORGET THE SCORE.
Switzer had driven three hours from Dallas at the end of his first full day as the Dallas Cowboys' coach. At Othello's a party of 30 was gathered around a banquet table for a lobster dinner prepared by the restaurant's owner and Switzer's good friend, Pasquale Benso. Surrounding Switzer were family and friends wearing T-shirts in Cowboy blue and gray. BARRY'S BACK, they read.
That's right. Switzer, 56, the banished king of college football, the guy with the image tarnished nearly black, is the new conservator of America's Team. During the March 30 news conference at the Cowboys' Valley Ranch complex announcing his appointment, Switzer held forth like a carnival barker. But a moment after the session ended he stood in a hallway, seemingly dazed by the week's events. "I feel like I just won the lottery," he said. "Pinch me."
The day before, Cowboy owner Jerry Jones had accepted the resignation of Jimmy Johnson, the coach who had guided his team to two straight Super Bowl wins, and replaced him with Switzer (following story). Out of coaching since his forced resignation from Oklahoma in 1989, Switzer suddenly had a five-year contract worth a reported $1 million annually to take a job that few thought he could handle. This was a man whose coaching prospects had appeared to be nonexistent. To NCAA schools he is a pariah for having presided over one of the college game's most unsavory programs, and his favored brand of offense, the wishbone, made him ill suited to coach a pro team. "I know people doubt it," Switzer says. "But let me tell you, I can do this."
Switzer went right to work, striding the halls of the Cowboys' office complex, doing his best to win over the skeptics with his considerable charm. Switzer assured all within earshot that the Dallas offense would rest in the hands of new coordinator Ernie Zampese, Johnson's last hire. Switzer ran into All-Pro wideout Michael Irvin, who in the wake of Johnson's resignation had declared that he wouldn't play for Switzer. "Hey, Michael, who you going to play for?" Switzer boomed, grabbing Irvin's hand. "Don't worry, I won't make you throw any of those crackback blocks. I'll get you the ball." Irvin, disarmed, winked at Switzer and promised to come by to get acquainted.
The trouble with getting to know Switzer is that there are at least two of him. His penchant for self-destructive behavior is matched by a genius for survival. Switzer has been accused of many things and has done quite a few of them.
The son of a Crossett, Ark., bootlegger who did time in prison and a mother who committed suicide in 1972, Switzer got to the University of Arkansas on a football scholarship. Though he had never been a head coach, he succeeded Chuck Fairbanks at Oklahoma in 1973 and went on to win three national championships, amassing 157 victories in 16 seasons. While the Big Eight slowly integrated its teams in the mid- and late '60s, Switzer eagerly recruited black players, and he gave several blacks an opportunity to coach as his assistants. At the same time he thumbed his nose at the NCAA, an organization he considered insensitive in its treatment of athletes, especially those from poor backgrounds, and his program was regarded as one of college football's outlaws.
"The best team money could buy, right?" Switzer says, groaning and laughing at the same time. "Look, I never bought players. It didn't work that way. I took care of them when they were there and so did my assistant coaches, probably. I had a hard time saying no to players. But I never bought them. I didn't have to."
Switzer survived a brush with the Securities and Exchange Commission, which in 1983 investigated, and subsequently exonerated, him in connection with an insider-trading scheme. However, Switzer resigned as the Sooners' coach in June '89 after a series of events that included a shooting and a gang rape in the athletic dormitory and the arrest of his starting quarterback, Charles Thompson, for selling cocaine. Six months earlier the program had been placed on probation for violations that included players' receiving cars and cash.
Though reviled by his critics, Switzer has inspired loyalty in most of his former players and associates, among them Cowboy quarterback Troy Aikman, who started for Switzer at Oklahoma in 1985 before breaking his ankle against Johnson's Miami Hurricanes in the season's fourth game. Later that year Aikman and Switzer agreed that, as a dropback passer, Aikman was miscast at Oklahoma, and Switzer called UCLA coach Terry Donahue on the quarterback's behalf. Last week Aikman was a valuable public ally for his past and present coach. "I feel like I'm stuck in Groundhog Day," he said.