“Some people are born on third base and go through life thinking they hit a triple.”
Barry Switzer said that during a 1986 interview with the Kansas City Star. At the time, his Sooners were in the midst of a three-year run in which they won 33 games and lost only three.
Switzer hit many “home runs” during his head coaching career, winning three national championships, 12 Big Eight championships and a Super Bowl.
He was not born on third base.
And he crafted an extraordinary life despite being gut-punched by his mother’s suicide, his father’s murder and the way-too-soon death of mentor Jim Mackenzie.
I’ve seen where Switzer was born and raised because I wrote a book (“Switzer: The Players’ Coach”) about the former University of Oklahoma and Dallas Cowboys coach.
If you write a Switzer book, it’s mandatory to visit Crossett, Arkansas, where Switzer was born in 1937. Where’s Crossett? It’s so close to Louisiana that you can almost straddle a county and a parish at the same time.
First stop? Crossett Public Library. Fingers crossed, you hope the library has a collection of high school yearbooks from Switzer’s era. Bingo.
Switzer was burdened with the stigma of being a “Bootlegger’s Boy” (that was the title of his 25-years-ago autobiography with Bud Shrake), but the number of Switzer photos in yearbooks suggest he was a popular kid.
There’s the football captain with the homecoming queen. There he is modeling rain gear. There he is studying slides while classmates dissect a cat (hopefully for a biology class and hopefully no one still does this). I was shocked by how much Switzer, in his senior class mug shot, resembles Brian Bosworth.
Do people still have Switzer’s back in Crossett? A school official didn’t want yearbook photos to see the light of day unless it was OK with the coach.
Billy Joe Holder, Switzer’s buddy since they were old enough to snatch watermelons, agreed to take visitors from the Tulsa World on a tour of Crossett. The tour included a trip to the old Switzer property on the outskirts of town.
How are you supposed to feel when you visit a place and all you can think about is something horrific once happened there? This was where Switzer’s mother shot herself. Switzer heard the shot and was the first person to find his mother.
One of Switzer’s cousins has a home on the property now. He picked up a turkey from the yard and cradled it while having a conversation with visitors. That brightened the mood, at least until Holder drove his passengers to a cemetery where Switzer’s father is buried. You can’t get there by paved road. Holder was entrusted with a key to the gate.
Conversations with Holder made it clear Switzer doesn’t forget his friends. Holder talked about all the good times he and Switzer have shared. He also said Switzer was trying to find a mutually agreeable date so the old crew could get together and play “moon” (it’s a domino game).
The trip to Crossett was followed by interviews with Switzer’s friends and coaching pals and former players. The idea was to share Switzer’s story from their vantage point. Chapters about phases of Switzer’s life are framed with stories about relationships. According to Switzer, relationships mean everything.
Former players were eager to talk about Switzer because of the impact he made on their lives. (Maybe the least-acknowledged aspect of Switzer’s career is his role in advancing integration in college football.)
Louis Oubre and the late Ricky Bryan were among players “rescued” by Switzer. The list of Sooners who needed a helpful nudge is larger than anyone except Switzer knows. Shelby Bryan spoke on behalf of her husband, who died in 2009.
I wasn’t surprised when interview subjects raved about Switzer’s humanity (emotional and outspoken, he’s the opposite of modern-day “Stepford” coaches) and people skills. Almost every interview subject expressed awe at Switzer’s gift of recall. No matter how many years pass, he’s going to know your name and your hometown and your parents’ names and what you did in this game or that game.
All of the interview subjects educated me (Switzer once was shy? He wore fur coats? He really did that to motivate you?). Former OU player Eddie Hinton and former Sooner assistant coach Larry Lacewell told stories that made me laugh.
Lacewell said talking (and it was easy to believe him) has always been among Switzer’s skills. He once said he thought he was poor until he saw Switzer’s childhood home. It wasn’t third base.
Jimmie Tramel 918 581-8389