The Oklahoma Sooners refuse to be quarrelsome on these late, somnolent, red-dust afternoons. Reserve quarterback Charles Thompson chases down starter Jamelle Holieway and flings water in his face, while three offensive linemen do a dainty imitation of the Crimson and White girls cheer. As Barry Switzer laughs in a most uncoachlike way and practice collapses around him, it is evident that the Sooners like each other very, very much, even if nobody else does.
All the while at Oklahoma, the NCAA is greatly interested in potential violations, a Texas newspaper has reported allegations of cash payments to players, and a secretary named Shirley is prominently mentioned. Barry Switzer has turned 50, which is perhaps the most shocking news of all, while the No. 1-ranked Sooners remain unbeaten at 7-0 and blithely seek yet another national championship.
“People say we’re just a bunch of dudes wearing a lot of gold,” linebacker Dante Jones said. “We are. But you can’t say the atmosphere is stuffy.”
Rather, the atmosphere is that of a ruthlessly successful program that has won six national championships since 1950, a team regarded by some as too criminally good to be clean. Although the Sooners have not been on probation since 1973, there are signs that this will not be an altogether easy season. Despite the Sooners’ nonchalance as they pursue a second national title in three years, the NCAA continues to pursue its preliminary investigation in Norman.
Two weeks ago, the Dallas Morning News reported that Sooner recruiting coordinator and secretary Shirley Vaughan operated a system by which players received cash payments from the scalping of complimentary tickets, and that some received preferential car loans from a local bank. While denying the crux of the story, Switzer acknowledges that the NCAA has been conducting an unrelated preliminary inquiry into his program and that some minor infractions might be found.
Switzer said “it is naive” to deny that some players may have sold complimentary tickets to obtain cash before 1985, when the NCAA instituted a gate-pass system to prevent scalping. He also said he has told the NCAA that he provided improper transportation to a recruit he recently signed. But Switzer denied there was an orchestrated effort through Vaughan to give athletes special benefits in violation of NCAA rules.
“There is no illegal recruiting machine. That does not exist at OU,” Switzer said. “If there was, our ass would have been in trouble long ago.”
The parking lot at Bud Wilkinson House, the red brick Oklahoma athletic dormitory, has been one of the most wondered about landmarks in college football, a supposed mecca of the Mercedes Benz, BMW and Corvette. Instead, while there is the occasional luxury vehicle, it is primarily populated by Chevrolets.
“I think you’ll find it looks like most others,” said faculty representative Dan Gibbens, a professor of law in charge of overseeing Oklahoma’s athletic propriety.
Yet every time Oklahoma lures extraordinary talent, all eyes turn toward that asphalt square. This season, for instance, there are 37 players from Texas on the roster, the Sooners regularly swooping across the Red River and romancing away some of the premier recruits. There also are swift quarterbacks from California and mountain-bred linemen from Colorado, all of whom make up one of the most diverse and impressive lists of national talent.
Senior Keith Jackson, the 6-foot-3, 245-pound all-America tight end, came out of Little Rock, Ark., and incensed Razorbacks when he declared for Oklahoma. The widely held assumption was that he had gotten a deal that caused him to betray his home state. One morning he opened his mailbox and found a rat.
“People said I must have gotten something,” Jackson said. " . . . I tell them, come on down here your own self and see.”
Many have done that and come up with nothing, according to Oklahoma officials, who maintain the scrutiny the Sooners have come under from all quarters has caused them to be increasingly more careful, and clean. Switzer said, “We look, too, and we don’t turn our backs.”
For instance, Gibbens insisted a system of car checks be run, requiring players to fill out forms listing the vehicle registrations and any payments they are making. In some instances players have been told to get rid of their cars because of questionable loans, he said.
“The lights have been on us for more than 15 years,” Gibbens said. “There has been a suspicion for as long as I can remember that our people are getting car deals. And I think even among the players there is some talk about other ones who might be getting deals.”
At Oklahoma, as elsewhere, there is no sure safeguard against outside interference from zealot boosters eager to indulge players. Gibbens said he is “reasonably confident” of Oklahoma’s system, but he added, “I don’t think we’re ever sure we don’t have people getting loans because of their athletic ability or because a booster wants to do a kid a favor.”
Such deals are the subject of the report in the Dallas Morning News. The paper interviewed 22 players who have left the program since 1980, and cited eight who said they either received cash from ticket scalping or benefited from loans at a local bank without the customary credit check or collateral.
Vaughan was named as handling the ticket scalping, while American Exchange Bank under president Jack E. Black is said to have extended car loans that could be construed as preferential to athletes. In some cases, said the paper, the loans were issued on a “balloon” payment basis once a year to correspond with the scalping payments each August.
Two players who were quoted have denied making the reported statements. Former receiver Buster Rhymes, now with the Minnesota Vikings, has denied making comments in a tape-recorded interview with the paper in which he said Vaughan provided money that would “tide you over for a good while.” Also, former defensive back Tony Rayburn, cited by the paper as having received a loan from Black for a car without collateral, now says that his parents co-signed on the loan for his Trans Am.
Switzer calls the loan report “ridiculous,” and Black claims that his bank, which was liquidated earlier this year, routinely favored the university trade and extended numerous loans to other promising students without credit. He said Sooners football players with expectations of being drafted were considered safe loans, and also denied handling any of them personally. The balloon payments were timed for August not because of improper cash coming in, but because that was when students received their summer-job money, he said.
“We could read and get some idea of who was going high in the draft,” Black said. “They were not much of a risk. It was just economics to us. We tried to cater to all students.”
Rayburn sums up Oklahoma’s argument: “If you just stereotype people on their backgrounds, then you might say, how’d he get that car? But you don’t know. It’s just an opinion and its easy to misconceive.”
Oklahomans argue that misconception may also apply to Vaughan, the 50-year-old administrator who has been with the program since 1972, was named coordinator in 1979, and is known to players as “Mrs. Shirley.” Her duties range from finding an airplane for Switzer’s recruiting trips, to overseeing the secretaries. She also was in charge of distributing the complimentary tickets that allegedly yielded some players as much as $4,000 a season.
Gibbens said that in monitoring the program he probably deals with Vaughan more than any other member of the staff, and has on occasion received information about infractions from her. Rayburn describes her as “the backbone of the office.”
Switzer said: “She has a vast knowledge of the program, a Rolodex in her head.” Gibbens calls her “house mother.” Vaughan has not commented on the advice of Athletic Director Donnie Duncan, but both Switzer and Gibbens have spoken with her and say she has denied helping players scalp their complimentary tickets.
“She says she didn’t do it, and that’s good enough for me,” Switzer said.
About half of all NCAA preliminary inquiries turn into official investigations, the process from which probation results. What Oklahoma hopes is that the NCAA inquiry ends with a few unconnected violations, like Switzer giving the recruit a lift from his high school to home.
“These are not felonies,” Switzer said. “They aren’t the things you’re sent to the electric chair for. There’s a hell of a difference between giving a kid transportation for a mile, and handing him a car.”
Of the unidentified recruit, Switzer said: “We signed him. But that wasn’t why we got him.”
To play football for the Sooners is to eat a steak dinner every Wednesday, to enjoy air travel and to be reasonably sure of a postseason trip to some exotic place. Players wear what they want, act as they please and they say exactly what they think. To outsiders, this resembles anarchy, to prospective players it is utterly glamorous, and it is why Oklahoma claims it doesn’t need to cheat.
“We say, ‘Come here and win or go somewhere else and we’ll beat you,’ ” said linebacker Jones. “It’s join us or get beat.”
There is also considerable evidence that the Sooners aren’t nearly as undisciplined as they seem. An undisciplined team doesn’t average 49 points a game, while allowing opponents six, as the Sooners are doing with the No. 1-ranked offense and defense in the country. Of the last 47 seniors, 43 have gotten degrees. Jackson will get his a half-year early in December, but he likes to perpetuate the blackguard image anyway. “I kind of like the idea people don’t think we’re good guys,” he said.
The Sooners adopt their attitude in part from Switzer--they are showy, mouthy and when they win Switzer orders them the biggest, gaudiest championship rings available. Switzer himself is the winningest and most persistently controversial active coach in college football, who will tie Wilkinson’s record for career victories at Oklahoma with 145 against Kansas this weekend. He wants to coach another 15 years, would like to win five national championships as Bear Bryant did, and probably will if his adversaries don’t get him first.
If Switzer seems unconcerned by the latest flurry, it is because he has stared down far more trouble than this. He practically won a national championship on probation, taking over the program at the start of the two-year probation in 1973 and promptly acquiring back-to-back national titles in ’74 and ’75. His job seemed threatened after he lost four games a season from 1981-1983 and became embroiled in an insider stock controversy, of which he was eventually cleared. The Board of Regents made their displeasure known and Switzer replied by winning the Orange Bowl in 1984, his third national championship in 1985, and finishing No. 3 last season.
“I’ll have to remind them of that next time we’re in a down cycle,” said Switzer, whose record at Oklahoma is 144-24-4.
None of that trouble compares to his childhood in Crossett, Ark. His father was sent to a penitentiary for bootlegging and his mother committed suicide. Switzer received an appointment to the Naval Academy but opted for a football scholarship at Arkansas instead. In light of that background, the current NCAA inquiry “does not rate,” he said.
“I always figured there were worse things in my past than anything in my future,” he said. “But if there are, I’ll get through those, too. I don’t sit around and worry about it.”
Nor do the Sooners, who persist in their curious mixture of recalcitrant humor and arrogance. When Switzer turned 50 on Oct. 5, they decorated his office in black crepe.
“We’re very relaxed,” said Holieway, tossing his head and displaying the most divine earring. He stripped off his warmup jacket. “Hey coach,” he hollered at Switzer. “Throw this in my locker.” The jacket hit a grinning Switzer in the chest. “You see?” Holieway yawned. “Very relaxed.”
Clearly, the Sooners are not about to change.