Sullivan: Sifting Through the Memories of Coach Barry Switzer

I never planned on becoming a writer, a journalist, whatever it is that I am. It just sort of, kind of, happened. So there I am, somehow writing a profile, a feature story, for The Boston Globe, as a senior in college. The old-school, gruff copy editor calls me to his desk, and the guy had always been good to me. He wanted to see me succeed for whatever reason. I'll never forget his words:

"There's more fluff in this piece than a jar of marshmallow."

Funny line. I was crushed, though. I poured my everything into that story. The problem, he said, was that it was clear how much I liked the person I was writing about. I didn't understand the criticism. What was the problem? He lectured me on not having bias, something I had heard in journalism classes and thought was absurd. How can anyone not have bias?

Anyway, I only share this story here and now because this is a story about Barry Switzer. And I love Barry Switzer, who turned 80 years young last week. I know he's not perfect, and we couldn't come from more different backgrounds, but in terms of what I do, in terms of the thousands of people I've interviewed and written about in my life, there is no one more honest and genuine than Switzer.

My grandmother kind of reached that point in her life, I guess in her mid-70s, when she just said exactly what she wanted. If someone was rude to her, she would say so. If someone were patronizing her, she would call them out. She smoked where she wanted to, she swore when and where she wanted to, the rest of the world be damned.

Switzer reached that point a few hours after being born. At least in my mind. So this is me being as completely honest as humanly possible: After watching another great game this past weekend between Texas and Oklahoma, The Red River Rivalry, I'm going to write about Switzer, my half-a-dozen interviews with him over the years, including the most recent at his house in Norman this past June, his memories of coaching the Cowboys, and his nearly six-decade relationship with Cowboys owner Jerry Jones. If there's bias in this story so be it. I'm not going to lie, when it comes to Switzer, I'm in the marshmallow jar.

The first time we spoke was early-March 2010. I never covered him during his coaching days, he was winning his second national title at Oklahoma when I was born and raised the Lombardi Trophy with the Cowboys during my junior year of college. We spoke for an hour, maybe a little longer, and honestly, I only asked a few questions. Switzer doesn't really need the reporter. He knows the drill.

Two days later, Switzer called me. He was driving from Norman, Okla., to Arlington, Texas, for the Manny Pacquiao fight. Guessing it was a three-hour drive, and we talked the entire time. He wanted to clarify a few of his remarks, add a few more, and in the midst of our chat, I told him that he was the voice of my all-time favorite quote.

There was a pause on the line, which never happens with Switzer, and after a few seconds he says, "What's that?"

I said, "Some people are born on third base and go through life thinking they hit a triple."

Switzer replied, "Yeah, that is so true. No one has any idea how hard my life was. Yeah, I wrote the book (Bootlegger's Boy), they know my mother shot herself and died in my arms, but you weren't there. I'm one of those who legged out that triple."

This past June, when working on my six-part series on the life of Jerry Jones, there were many interviews and a five-day road trip – to Little Rock, to Fayetteville, to Norman, the latter to interview Switzer at his home, some 20 years after he had coached his final football game, a 20-7 loss to the Giants on Dec. 21, 1997.

To this day, Switzer has the highest winning percentage of any college football coach. He's also one of three to have won a national title and a Super Bowl. And while some may disagree, I've always thought Switzer deserved more credit than he received for his 40-24 four-year run with the Cowboys. That wasn't an easy gig to step into, and the team was losing premium free agents each and every season of his tenure. If not for a missed pass interference call, he could have won a pair of Lombardi Trophies.

There is really no way of explaining how much of a presence, how much of a legend, Switzer is in Norman. His house sits right there more or less on campus, his daughter's family across the street, his son a few houses down. I attended the Texas-OU game a few years ago, and during each television break they show legends from the rivalry on the big screen. Easily the loudest applause of the day was when they showed Switzer. I was away from my seat later in the game when I heard a similar response and raced back to see who was on the screen. By accident, they had showed Switzer again. Even the Texas fans were applauding.

During my visit in June, what stood out more than anything was Switzer's recall, especially with high schools. No matter who was mentioned, Switzer immediately would mention what high school and the year they graduated, from Gene Jones, to former players to even Scottie Pippen. Why would Switzer know what high school Pippen went to and the year he graduated?

We talked for about an hour, and while I used some of his quotes for my six-part series on Jerry Jones in August, I wanted to share some now.

On the NFC Championship loss to San Francisco on Jan. 15, 1995: "I've never been that proud of a team. They were such competitors. They wanted to win so badly. Whether you are on a scholarship or making $10 million a year, they are all competitors, they all want to win. That's why they play at that level, that's why they advanced to that level. They are the best of the best and they are going to lay it on the line. And they did. They gave me everything that day. We were down 21-0 and we know whoever wins that game is winning the Super Bowl. Either team is dropping half a hundred on the Chargers in the Super Bowl. I have often said what does coaching have to do with that once the game starts. I told them, don't fumble, don't throw interceptions, don't make mistakes and we will win this damn thing."

On winning Super Bowl XXX: "I was so happy for Jerry when we won it the next year. It took the pressure off Jerry, it really did. I told (longtime friend and then scouting director) Larry Lacewell before the game, I said, 'Larry, I never worry about any ballgame, you know, winning or losing. Heck, I know coaches. People worry about pressure. Coaches don't worry about pressure. They live with it all their life. They are not going to execute you. You know, you get fired. So what?

"Wade Phillips has the greatest line about coaches. He said he'd be worried if they just fired bad coaches. They fire good coaches, too. Anyway, I never worried about it, but I really felt like, God Almighty, this released me from the pressure that Jerry was under. That we won the Super Bowl."

On leaving the Cowboys after four seasons: "I honestly wanted to quit after we won the Super Bowl and I should have. Lacewell talked me out of it. He said, 'Jerry put his butt on the line when he brought you in.' And he was right, so I stayed.

"Two seasons later, we called it the Last Supper. We were in Cincinnati and Jerry was talking about the next season. And he's all enthusiastic like he is, and Stephen is there, and I look at them and say, "The first thing you're going to do is fire my ass if we lose tomorrow. You ought to have seen the looks on their faces. I meant it, too. We lost the next day and finished 6-10. I left and went back to Oklahoma with one of the greatest experiences of my life being that time with the Cowboys."

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