Oklahoma Sooners' Legend Barry Switzer Talks NIL, the Football Monster, and Booing Quarterbacks
By Mark Schipper
It was Sunday afternoon and I had just lain down when the phone rang. I looked down at the ID screen and there was a vintage photograph of Barry Switzer in his Oklahoma coach’s gear, a deadly serious look on his face, fists akimbo, with his football team marshaled up behind him ready to take the field. There are many phone calls you do not take in the course of a day but this is not one of them.
I stood up and walked toward my writing room and pushed the green button.
“Hi coach Switzer.”
“Hi Mark, how are you doin’ today?”
“I’m great, coach. How about yourself on this Sunday afternoon?”
Coach said he was physically drained because he had been at the Sooners' game late into the previous night. It had been a long game and traffic, as it almost always does in college towns when a massive stadium empties like a flash flood onto the small streets running through campus, had been jammed into a gridlock that lurched along in the dark for hours afterward.
“It’s because it was the first night game of the year, but we sat there and didn’t move for thirty straight minutes,” said the coach.
Inside the ballpark, Oklahoma had beat the West Virginia Mountaineers, 16-13, on a thirty-yard field goal as the clock expired. The win got the Sooners to 1-0 in Big 12 play and 4-0 overall, but it had not been a glorious victory and the mood inside the stadium, amongst certain fans, had turned antagonistic toward the home team.
At one point, following an interception by Spencer Rattler, the Sooners’ nationally famous sophomore quarterback, the student section at a minimum, and possibly a bigger portion of the stadium, began chanting the name of his backup, calling for him to be put into the game. It was an awkward moment noted by everyone from the ABC television crew to the vast hoards of opinion-havers on social media.
After the game everyone said all the textbook things. Both the current coach, Lincoln Riley, and Rattler, declared it didn’t matter to them, they were in the building to win a football game, while everyone else just was there to watch one. Riley said he hoped all the people who booed also watched the final drive, when Rattler led the team down the field to score and win.
Coach Switzer, who had encountered a similar controversy in his own time, reacted like an old coach as he watched and listened from his suite at Memorial Stadium. Back in 1974 and 1975, when Oklahoma was winning back-to-back national titles, Steve Davis had been the star quarterback. The Sooners had actually gone unbeaten in 1973 and finished in the top three before the two title teams that followed. The Sooners lost one game during those three seasons.
“And when they booed . . . . I had a quarterback—this really pisses me off I think about it—and I thought about this last night,” said Switzer. “Because the fans are so spoiled and they expect so much more. Here we are, thirty-eight straight games and we hadn’t lost a game, and we lost to a 6-5 Kansas team at home and they booed Steve Davis. And I thought last night I said, you know, how ridiculous it was for them to be booing Rattler then, and especially Steve Davis back in 1975.”
Like Riley, the current head coach, who made it clear the players are on a different mission than the fans, Switzer had the same message for his starting quarterback during the earlier incident.
“I put my arm around him and I told Steve, ‘Don’t pay attention to any of them. I said they’re like molecules in the universe, there’s billions and trillions of them and they’re insignificant to you. They don’t know what goes into all this. They don’t know what the problems are, and they’re not involved in any of this, they’re just spectators,’” said Switzer. “So, anyway, those are the thoughts I had come to me.”
When asked if the new Name, Image, and Likeness rules, and the way high-profile players like Rattler are now being compensated—in cash, cars, and products—for their efforts in college football, had anything to do with the booing, Switzer could not say either way.
“I don't know, the NIL may have put even more pressure on this. I didn't hear anybody mention anything about it but the more it comes present and the more said, obviously, it will be thrown in there as one of the reasons they ought to play better and perform better, that they're paid and expected to play like a pro,” he said.
But on a fundamental level Switzer sees the University of Oklahoma as being as responsible for the new NIL era as any other program in the country. When Oklahoma’s lawsuit against the NCAA reached a climax in the Supreme Court of the United States back in 1982, the NCAA was hammered with a 7-2 loss that opened the gates for schools and leagues to sign their own television deals. After thirty years of dictatorial control over television, the NCAA lost all of its authority to regulate that ultra-lucrative marketplace and the amount of money schools could generate from their athletic programs, particularly football.
“That allowed for the proliferation of college football in all three divisions and both men’s and women’s sports,” said Switzer. “Well, that all of sudden changed the money picture dramatically for schools. You can be on TV every week, and coaches are paid tremendous amounts of salary, so because of this, you know, the money in college athletics just changed everything. It was the biggest turning point, and had the biggest effect, on college football. It’s harmed the NCAA and their control. Their control has diminished rapidly. The game has gone past the NCAA, and the NCAA has become more insignificant in the scheme of things. And now a third party, this NIL, can go into kids’ homes with the coaches. The old NCAA never would have allowed it to happen and it goes back to that lawsuit.”
Coach Switzer talked also about what he always called the “Oklahoma Football Monster” brought to life by the quasi-mythical head coach Bud Wilkinson, who won three national titles in Norman in the decades after World War II, and a college-record 47-straight games before being upset by Notre Dame in 1957. Switzer said the job of every head coach after Wilkinson was simple: Feed the monster well, which includes the millions of hyper-engaged fans who follow the team with a religious zeal, or get eaten by that thing you’re supposed to tame.
“And they don’t want hamburger,” said Switzer. “They want steak, and now not so much steaks as Wagyu steaks or whatever the hell you call ‘em. They want nothing but the best. Hamburger’s a damn good hamburger, know what I mean? You like to eat 'em. You get accustomed to it and hell, it's okay. But you feed them steak, well the kind I'm talking about, and hey, you try to give them hamburger, they don't want that. So as we're talking about creating a monster we feed it. And the only way you feed it is with wins and championships and championships and wins.”
But Switzer understood the fans’ perspective, too. He knows how much money they pay to watch and support the team, and how much time they give to the program, and what they’ve been watching has not been up to their previous standards.
“Last night I think the fans were frustrated,” said Switzer. “We didn’t have a hundred yards offense at half time. They controlled the ball and we didn’t run the ball very well, which is where I was disappointed. So fans feel like they have a right to boo. They do it in the pros, they do it in college, and they feel they have the right to do it anytime the team isn’t playing to its capability. And NIL might have a lot to do with it. We’ll probably get more of it.”
***There was a lot more with coach Switzer but all of that will have to wait for later. Please leave your email at the top of the home page and follow the 5th Down journey across the country this fall. At the end of 15 games and a coast-to-coat odyssey there will be an original story about college football and its unique place in American history and culture.
Coach Switzer understands that place and had multiple fascinating insights on the sport he contributed so much to during his days as an athlete and coach.