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.
It’s 1966. Quarterback Bobby Warmack is among University of Oklahoma football players at South Base, a Naval training center, to participate in new head coach Jim Mackenzie’s offseason conditioning program.
Warmack surveyed the scene at his first fourth quarter class (that was the name of the conditioning program) and noticed trash cans with black plastic liners had been placed around the perimeter of the workout area.
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“We were thinking ‘what’s this for?’ Are they going to serve cookies and whatnot after practice and we were going to throw the paper and cups in the trash cans?” Warmack recalled.
“Well, after 15 or 20 minutes of that fourth quarter class, we found out pretty quick what those trash cans were for. People were upchucking their lunch and so forth. It wasn’t uncommon for everybody to do that. Only the skinny ones like me, who didn’t have anything to throw up, wouldn’t throw up anything.”
Mackenzie will be remembered for bringing two things to OU: Toughness and Barry Switzer.
Former player Jim Riley said the Sooners (3-7 the previous season) had gotten a little soft under the previous regime and needed what Mackenzie brought to the table. Warmack said players got put through hell.
Larry Lacewell, who joined the OU coaching staff when Mackenzie was hired, said the fourth quarter class was the closest thing to a concentration camp you could imagine.
“The biggest deal was to see how many players could lose weight and we gutted them,” Lacewell said. “It was horrible. Players went through torture. I really mean that.”
Switzer called it “stalag 13” and later apologized for what players endured. The Sooners went station to station for an assortment of drills (Warmack wondered if the creators of the fourth quarter class got the idea from a Marine boot camp), hustling from one place to the next at every whistle.
“It was about 35 minutes of that, and then we went through 20 or 25 minutes of agility drills,” he said. “And they would take you outside where they didn’t know there was a goathead patch, a sticker patch, and we would do shoulder rolls and (circle crab drills) and you would have black speckles of broken goatheads in your hands and stuck in your back. At the end of the practice, our tongues were so thick that we couldn’t even talk because we had been worked out so hard.”
Former player Mike Harper said Mackenzie delivered this message before the first fourth quarter class: “Guys, there are about 144 of you here. There are going to be about 45 or so of you left by the time we are through and I don’t really care which ones they are.”
Harper said players started “falling out” like flies.
“We had some really good players that left, but they just didn’t have, I guess, the heart that Mackenzie wanted them to have,” he said. “He didn’t want anybody quitting on him and he said if you can get through this, you are not going to quit. We might get beat pretty bad, but you are going to be out there trying.”
Mackenzie had played for Bear Bryant at Kentucky. Bryant later coached at Texas A&M and his grueling “Junction Boys” conditioning program in 1954 is legendary in college football lore.
Pat James, who was Mackenzie’s defensive coordinator at OU, had been at Texas A&M during the Junction Boys experience.
Merv Johnson met Mackenzie at a different school. Said Johnson, “He was my line coach my senior year at Missouri and I hated him. He was the toughest, meanest coach and it was definitely new to us. He was not long out of college and I think he tried to maybe coach like he thought Bear Bryant coached.”
Johnson and Mackenzie became staffmates under Frank Broyles at Arkansas. Johnson said Mackenzie “totally changed” in Fayetteville.
“He was smart enough to realize you don’t try to copy somebody else,” Johnson said. “You take what you learned from other coaches and add it to your personality. Jim was a great guy.”
Tulsa World columnist Bill Connors wrote that Mackenzie had become an older brother-type hero to Switzer during their years together at Arkansas. And Switzer made no secret that he wanted tag along if Mackenzie became a head coach.
“I could sit in a room with 11 other coaches and Jim Mackenzie would say something and it would be the same thing which was going through my mind,” Switzer once told the Tulsa World. “I really believed in him and his convictions.”
Mackenzie, of course, got the OU job. Switzer hesitated before accepting an offer to join him in Norman. Mackenzie needed a decision. Around Christmas of 1965, Switzer rang Broyles’ doorbell.
“I dreaded to tell Frank I was leaving,” Switzer recalled in 1977. “I was relieved when he approved. He agreed with Jim it would be good for me to coach somewhere else.”
Said Johnson, “Coach Broyles didn’t want Jim to take any coaches, really. Jim thought so much of Barry and he was young and allowed him to do that.”
Switzer was hired at a salary of $12,300. The Tulsa World once wrote that (perhaps due to a modest salary and lack of job security in the coaching profession), Switzer did not buy a house or permit his wife to buy a color television set until the midpoint of a 10-1 campaign in 1967.
Mackenzie, the Big Eight’s coach of the year in 1966, didn’t survive long enough to see the 1967 season.
In April of 1967, after a 6-4 rookie season that included OU’s first victory over Texas since 1957, Mackenzie flew to visit quarterback recruit Monty Johnson in Amarillo, Texas.
Mackenzie experienced chest discomfort during the flight home but seemed fine. Mackenzie and OU assistant Galen Hall lived across the street from each other. A little after midnight, Mackenzie’s 12-year-old daughter awakened Hall with the news that something was wrong with her father. Mackenzie had suffered a fatal heart attack. He was 37.
Mackenzie had weight issues. He would go on a crash diet and crash the other way after the diet ran its course. To go from one extreme to another wasn’t healthy. And Mackenzie was a heavy smoker, as were many people in that era. But his death at such a young age was a horrible shock.
Connors wrote that Mackenzie’s death “almost crushed” Switzer.
“Jim Mackenzie was a father figure to coach Switzer,” Harper said. “He loved the guy.”
“Barry thought that Jim hung the moon,” Warmack said. “He was just simply devastated, as everyone was, but particular Barry was because of his background with Mackenzie.”
Years later, Switzer told the Tulsa World this: “Jim’s death was a low point for me. I never thought it had been a mistake to come to Oklahoma. But for a few days I thought my timing might have been bad. We didn’t know who would be the new coach, or if any of us had jobs.”
OU assistant coaches served as pallbearers at a memorial service in Gary, Indiana, where Mackenzie was born. The assistants were at a Holiday Inn in Gary when Chuck Fairbanks was informed by telephone that OU was promoting him to head coach. Though still in a period better suited for grieving, the staff could at least breathe a sigh of relief.
“They only gave Chuck an eight-month contract,” Switzer told the Tulsa World years later. “But, to us, that was better than nothing.”
Harper said Mackenzie could have been at OU “as long as he wanted to be there” if he had lived longer. But, in a short amount of time, he built a foundation for success, according to Warmack.
One of the reasons Switzer followed Mackenzie to Norman is because he preferred to coach defense. Mackenzie was going to give him the opportunity.
Switzer coached the offensive line in Mackenzie’s lone season and was transitioning to linebackers coach. Fairbanks immediately promoted Switzer to offensive coordinator. Connors wrote that it wasn’t what Switzer wanted or what Broyles or Mackenzie had ever envisioned for Switzer.
“It was what Chuck wanted,” Switzer said.
In his third season as offensive coordinator, Switzer called plays for a Heisman Trophy winner, Steve Owens. In Switzer’s fourth season as an offensive coordinator, he gambled his future on a wishbone.
OU lost four games in each of the 1968 and 1969 seasons. Three of the losses in ‘69 were by 30 or more points. Coaches worried they might soon be looking for other jobs — and they wouldn’t have Owens to saddle up and ride in 1970.
“They recruited somewhere between 45 and 50 guys in my freshman class,” former offensive lineman Terry Webb said. “The coaches were out scouring everywhere. They were trying to get something going because they all figured they were going to be gone.”
Minus Owens, OU switched to a veer offense. In the third game of the season, the Sooners laid an egg in a 23-14 loss to Oregon State.
“As inexperienced as we were, I knew we had better athletes than Oregon State and should beat them,” Switzer said. “Yet, they made us look awful. I was sick.”
Two days later — Sept. 26, 1970 — survival instinct kicked in and it was decided that OU would junk the veer and take advantage of an open date to install the wishbone. The new offense would be unveiled in a fight-fire-with-fire game against top-ranked Texas, which had ridden the wishbone to a national championship the previous season.
Crazy? “I kind of thought that myself,” former offensive line coach Bill Michael said.
Bold? “I never worried about it being a gamble,” Switzer said, recalling the switch two years later. “I just figured I would be on my knees (unemployed) if we didn’t do it.”
Defensive coaches Pat James and Larry Lacewell had been chirping about how hard the wishbone was to defend and they went so far as to suggest to offensive coaches, on multiple occasions, that they were idiots for not running the ‘bone.
Said Lacewell: “Well, sure enough, they walk in the room one day on an open date and said ‘we’re doing it.’ We thought ‘oh my God. Don’t do that. You’re crazy.’ Anyway we went to it and it became history.”
Security was tight at practices and players were told to say nothing about the surprise which awaited Texas.
Cloak and dagger tactics continued until kickoff. Greg Pruitt said OU did not rehearse wishbone plays in pre-game warmups. He said he wore jersey No. 83 during warmups. When he emerged from the locker room for the start of the game, he changed to jersey No. 30.
That’s because Pruitt changed positions from receiver to halfback when OU switched offenses. The switch disappointed him.
“I had worked hard to be a starter,” he said. “I started as a receiver and then when they switched me to a running back, I went to backup running back to Everett Marshall and they said the reason was they were trying to get me the ball more. I was trying to figure out how do they get me the ball more when I’m standing on the sideline?”
Jack Mildren also was reluctant to embrace the change in offenses, but his running ability made him an ideal wishbone quarterback. “Jack was the best,” Pruitt said. “At the point of attack he would turn and challenge the defense. Now, when you flip the ball, the defense has got to hesitate and start again. For us, we were fast enough that the split second they hesitate was enough to turn the corner.”
If this was a Hollywood tale, Pruitt and Mildren would have sparked an ambush of Texas in the wishbone’s maiden voyage. That didn’t happen.
“We took the ball and went about 80 yards early in the game and proceeded to get beat bad,” Lacewell said, referring to a 41-9 loss in which OU suffered five turnovers. “But you could see what was there. There was a guy that was a federal judge named Frank Seay from Seminole and he called me after the Texas game and said ‘are you all crazy? I said ‘Frank, we are on our way.’ And he said ‘yeah, you are on your way back to Arkansas.’”
OU upset 13th-ranked Colorado the following week, but got booed in a home loss to Kansas State. Sooner coaches perhaps were a sliver away from being fired when Iowa State jumped to a 21-0 first-quarter lead in the seventh game of the season. The Sooners rallied for a 29-28 victory, getting the winning points on Pruitt’s two-point conversion run with 2:24 left.
Before that game, OU had lost seven of its last 14 games. From that game through the next five seasons, the Sooners went 58-4-2. Webb said the wishbone was the key which led to everything.
“We did it unlike anybody else had ever done it before,” he said. “People had never seen that kind of speed out of the wishbone. It had been more of a power game, the way Alabama and Texas had been running it.”
Pruitt said football is supposed to be a cat-and-mouse game. Offenses never want to tip their hand. But the Sooners made it known they were going to run and most of the time opponents still couldn’t stop them.
“Oklahoma was always recruiting speed at the skill positions,” Pruitt said. “And the wishbone, if you look at it on paper, when you put X’s and O’s on there, it doesn’t look like it’s going to be as effective as when they actually run it and that’s because you have no idea how fast the X is that’s covering the O.
“But when the X runs 4.6 and the O runs 4.4, there is a huge difference. And usually the people we played for the first time actually found that out after the flip of the coin and after we pitched the first pitch. Now it’s too late.”
Pruitt said OU got better at the wishbone in 1971. That’s a modest way of putting it. No college football team has rushed for more yards in a season before or since.
“It was the most incredible thing I ever witnessed,” Lacewell said.
Chuck Fairbanks told the Tulsa World in 1972 that OU assistants did not sleep much or see much of their families when they rushed to install the wishbone in 1970. Coaches had to learn the offense (and Texas was the only college using it) before they could teach it to players.
“Barry Switzer is the hardest-working sonafagun I’ve ever seen,” Lacewell told the Tulsa World. “That poor guy must have worn out half a dozen projectors studying film. He had to do it all the hard way and he did a great job of teaching our kids.”
OU’s success with the wishbone made Switzer one of the nation’s hottest head coaching prospects. He didn’t have to leave town to get a job.