NORMAN, Okla. – You never know who you might see at Switzer Wine and Spirits here on West Lindsey Street. You might even run into the owner himself.
“I’m around all the time,” said Barry Switzer, whose name one might recognize for coaching the Oklahoma Sooners, or the Dallas Cowboys. “Everybody knows me here.”
Actually, most everybody everywhere knows who Switzer is, or at least those who have any knowledge or interest in sports. And he is around the Oklahoma program a lot, but not in a hands-on way, I’m told. He just remains a very interested fan who happens to live only a half-mile away from campus and, based on his past accomplishments at the school, tends to get unfettered access.
So, one is liable to run into him any time, like I did upon stepping into Oklahoma’s Memorial Stadium for the first time on Thursday. I was headed into the Red Room for a Rose Bowl news conference involving Oklahoma players. About 50 feet inside Gate 1, here comes Switzer in a blue plaid sports jacket, headed the other direction. He said he simply was trying to find another way around the practice fields.
“I usually just walk right across them, but the gate was locked [Thursday],” he said.
Shocked he didn’t have a key.
As for the small, nondescript package store bearing his name down the street, Switzer confirmed that it belongs to him.
“Yeah, I bought that a long time ago,” said Switzer, who coached the Sooners to three national championships between 1973 and ’88 and the Cowboys to a Super Bowl. “I bought it for a reason. It’s the only commercial street corner in that area around the university. Everything else there is residential. I can do anything with that property. It’s two lots. I could build a convenience store, a neat little restaurant that would fit right there on campus. It’s right there around all the fraternities and sororities.”
Good money-maker, for sure. But does he ever actually go in?
“Well, yeah, if I want a bottle of pinot noir or something I do,” he said with a laugh.
Fitting for the son of a bootlegger.
The interest around here is not on the Sooners of Switzer, however. It’s on the Sooners of Lincoln Riley. He is the first-year head coach and longtime offensive coordinator who was handed the keys to Oklahoma’s program after Bob Stoops suddenly stepped down last summer.
You could say Riley has handled that ride well, seeing how Oklahoma won the Big 12 championship, is ranked No. 2 and is in the College Football Playoffs. The Sooners will meet No. 3 Georgia (12-1) in the Rose Bowl semifinal on New Year’s Day.
Amazingly, it is the first time the storied football programs will play. It also will be only the second time each school has played in the Rose Bowl. The Sooners played there in 2003 and defeated Washington State. The Bulldogs haven’t played there since Charley Trippi led them to a 9-0 win over UCLA on Jan. 1, 1943, to claim the national championship for the 1942 season.
Speaking with the Sooners players and coaches this week in Norman, there is no shortage of admiration and respect for Georgia, champion of the SEC. To a man, everybody in the Oklahoma camp spoke glowingly of the Bulldogs and the challenge that will await them in the New Year’s Day matchup.
“Georgia’s a tremendous, tremendous football team,” said Riley, at 34 the youngest FBS head coach in the country. “Clearly when you get to this point everybody’s pretty good. They certainly are. … It ought to be a great challenge for us, and we’re looking forward to it.”
Of the Bulldogs defense, Oklahoma’s Mark Andrews, winner of the John Mackey Award as the nation’s best tight end, said: “They’re a fast, physical defense that is going to fly around. Obviously, they’ve got some very good players on that side of the ball, and they’re very well coached. We haven’t done too much game-planning in terms of schemes and what we’re going to do. But I’m sure we’ll get after it and get something good for them.”
Of the Bulldogs offense, senior defensive end Ogbonnia “Obo” Okoronkwo, one of four Oklahoma players named All-Americans this season, said: “Very physical. They’re going to try to outwill you and challenge you. The challenge is just not getting enough bodies on bodies in the run game. They seem to find a way to get an extra guy in there. They can pass the ball, too, so it’s a lot of things.”
Oklahoma fans aren’t quite as respectful.
Like Athens, Ga., Norman, Okla., is a small town built around the university. A little over 120,000 people live here, including a fall enrollment of 28,541 students. And all of them love their Sooners.
Friday featured fall semester graduation, and there was a big men’s basketball game scheduled for Saturday afternoon against Wichita State. So there were a lot of people milling around the city, particularly in the area known as Historic Campus Corner. There you can find several landmark food and beverage destinations such as O’Connell’s Irish Pub on Asp Avenue and Othello’s Italian Restaurant on Buchanan, which Switzer liked to frequent before a fire earlier this year put it out of business until recently.
There’s also Louie’s and Louie’s Too, sister grill-and-pubs sitting side-by-side on West Boyd right across from the famous Parrington Oval on North Campus. Stoops is one of the owners of the joint, named after an uncle, and it’s a popular game-day hangout.
Inside, the confidence is running high for the Sooners.
“I think it’s a great matchup for us,” said Brendan Klein, an IT specialist and Oklahoma grad sitting at the bar in Louie’s on Friday afternoon. “I think SEC teams have a hard time with spread offenses like we run. It will be interesting to see an offense of our caliber go against a respected SEC defense like Georgia has.”
Sheppard McConnell, Klein’s buddy, was in the Oklahoma marching band when the Sooners last traveled to the Rose Bowl in 2003. He, too, believes his team drew the easier of the semifinalists.
“They have a young quarterback, a freshman I think,” McConnell said of Georgia’s Jake Fromm. “I think we’re going to get after those running backs and make that kid throw the ball. Let’s see how he does 2,000 miles from home.”
That’s how Switzer sees it, too. Nobody appreciates a good run game more than he does. He stockpiled NFL-caliber backs like cordwood when he had the Sooners running the triple option in the 1970s and ’80s.
But Switzer has come to appreciate the way Oklahoma throws the ball around and scores points with Riley’s fast-moving spread offense and its Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback.
“Baker Mayfield is for real,” said Switzer, who is 80 now but feeling “good as ever” and looking fit. “He’s a great player and a great competitor. Great arm, quick release, great velocity. His receivers are great speed guys, has a big tight end that’s a big target, scrambles well enough to be concerned about him. And we’ve got three or four backs, too.”
Switzer is a little less confident about the Sooners defense.
“Well, the Big 12 is different,” he said with a bit of a sigh. “You can score half a hundred on someone and still get your ass beat, as OSU can tell you. They score 52 on us and get beat. The worst coaching job in football is a defensive coordinator in the Big 12.”
Like a lot of other folks, Switzer is somewhat mystified that Oklahoma and Georgia never have played in football. He was sure they would run into each other back in the 1970s and ’80s when both schools were heading to big bowls almost every year and he and his good friend Vince Dooley were winning conference championships.
Switzer said they never discussed playing in the regular season because the Sooners were playing Texas every year back then as a nonconference opponent, as well as Pitt and either UCLA or USC. But he wishes they could have.
“I know Vince well,” he said. “He and I retired the same year. We both left in ’88. I think a lot of Vince and Barbara. We’ve been to a lot of places through the years with the Nike family. They’re a wonderful couple and really have a lot of respect for them on and off the field.”
That said, Switzer has to call this one for his Sooners. He believes it is Oklahoma and not UGA that will advance to the national title tilt in Atlanta. The Bulldogs won’t be able to score with them, he predicts.
“Georgia’s defense is really good; I know that,” he said. “But a lot of those guys aren’t going to be able to play. They’re gonna have to put six and seven defensive backs and some hybrids out there. Their guys better be able to cover in space because Oklahoma’s going to spread ’em out and get the ball out.”
If that proves true, Switzer might just have him some pinot. Word is he knows where to find some.