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TROUBLED TIMES AT OKLAHOMA : When Football Program’s Dignity Went Out the Window, Its Priorities Did, Too

Times Staff Writer

Don’t believe a word the license plates say here: Oklahoma is not OK. It is embarrassed, confused, angry, bitter and considerably less naive about the inner workings of its once-mighty football program.

Reality operates in strange ways. One day, you’re on top of the college football polls; the next, you’re on probation, as the University of Oklahoma is in the National Collegiate Athletic Assn. for the next three seasons.

Suddenly the Boz is blurting out best-selling tales of gun, steroid and cocaine use at Bud Wilkinson House, the campus athletic dormitory at OU. A fable, you think--until one night a shot rings out from inside the dorm: Cornerback Jerry Parks has aimed a gun at the chest of offensive lineman Zarak Peters--and then, incredibly, pulled the trigger. The bullet came within inches of Peters’ heart.

Peters lives, but the OU football program goes on the critical list. After all, how many slugs to the image can it take?

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Sadly, there is more. An alleged gang-rape of an Oklahoma City woman by three OU players rocks a campus increasingly suspicious of the Sooner system. Add to that the startling arrest of quarterback Charles Thompson on charges of selling cocaine and you have a university searching for answers and, on occasion, scapegoats, of which the list is long and distinguished.

Among those already fitted for nooses are Coach Barry Switzer, Athletic Director Donnie Duncan, the school’s board of regents, Oklahoma Gov. Henry Bellmon, the players and even the win-at-all-costs philosophy that permeates a program such as Oklahoma’s.

In the end, it seems as if you can point a finger in any direction and be at least a little bit right.

Oklahoma’s misfortunes became national news, of course. Thompson made the cover of Sports Illustrated, which would have been a nice addition to the family den had he not been wearing an orange jail jumpsuit and handcuffs. “How Barry Switzer’s Sooners Terrorized Their Campus,” is how SI put it in its headline.

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Editorials demanding Switzer’s removal became the rage throughout the state. Actually, rage became the rage as OU’s loyal fans turned a bright Sooner red while their football program became part of Johnny Carson’s nightly monologue.

“It’s real hard to take,” said Becky Turnbull, chairwoman of the school’s Undergraduate Student Congress. “But there’s not a lot you can say back. You cannot defend (the players’) actions because there are no excuses for what they did.”

These are strange times at OU, which is accustomed to football success and, to a lesser extent, notoriety. But now there is a sense of weariness here, as if breaking NCAA rules is one thing, but committing felonies is a whole other story. Patience has worn thin.

So upset was Wilkinson’s 1949 team, its members canceled a scheduled reunion in protest of the program’s direction, or lack thereof.

Even the diplomatic and gentle Wilkinson, who has long since severed his ties with the university, was perturbed about seeing his name on a dormitory that housed the likes of Thompson, Parks and the alleged rapists--Glenn Bell, Nigel Clay and Bernard Hall.

“It’s something that you’re not in any way pleased to be associated with,” Wilkinson said.

David Swank, interim university president, went so far as to consider firing the popular but problem-plagued Switzer. After all, it was Switzer who had persuaded the now-troubled youths to attend Oklahoma. It was Switzer who was supposed to oversee the program--on the field and in the dorm. And it was Switzer who, after 16 seasons at OU, may have simply worn out his welcome.

But while editorials from Oklahoma City to Tulsa called for Switzer’s resignation, public opinion did not. At last count by Switzer’s secretary, Kay Day, there were about 1,000 letters piled in stacks near her desk. “Pull any stack and I dare you to find a negative one,” she said.

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Among those calling to wish Switzer well were a NASA scientist, a Catholic nun and Reggie Jackson. "(Jackson) said, ‘Don’t resign. Don’t let the you-know-whats get you down,’ ” Day said.

Then, in the March 12 edition of the Sunday Oklahoman, OU fans and former players expressed their support of Switzer with a full-page ad that normally costs $13,500 (newspaper officials wouldn’t reveal what they charged the former players and fans.) The ad ended this way: “If his (Switzer’s) teams have ever brought you cheering to your feet, we invite you to stand with us and stand up for him now.”

Thus, it didn’t come as a big surprise when Swank chose to give Switzer an opportunity to save the OU program.

“I decided that Barry at least was the best person, at this time,” Swank said. “I wanted to give him a chance to correct the difficulties. (But) he has to, Donnie Duncan has to, and I have to make sure that we put into effect all of these recommendations or I’m sure the regents will look very carefully at the three of us and make sure they find somebody else to see if it can’t be accomplished.”

Back in the days of the legendary Wilkinson, who led the Sooners to three national championships, there was a single motto he preached to his teams: Never lose your dignity. During this recent outbreak of lawlessness, the Oklahoma program not only lost its dignity, it misplaced priorities, too.

Witness the reaction by Switzer when, shortly before last month’s national signing day, the Dallas Morning News published a story detailing the program’s many problems.

“They attacked us,” Switzer told Sooners Illustrated. “It was premeditated, doing a big story before the signing date. Obviously it was done with the intention to hurt our program.”

What Switzer doesn’t understand is that the damage was done long before the story hit the streets. When his program earned three years’ worth of probation, when a gun was fired in the dorm, when three players were accused of rape, when another player was charged with selling cocaine--that’s when Switzer and his team’s image took a nose-dive.

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But perhaps Switzer can find some odd comfort in the fact that he is not alone, that what happened in Norman also can happen at almost any college campus in the country. And sometimes does.

For instance, consider the rash of arrests involving University of Colorado football players in recent months. And how about the assault and battery charges filed against two Clemson players after a barroom fight left a student with a broken jaw?

Meanwhile, Deion Sanders, a Florida State All-American cornerback, made news by allegedly grabbing a handful of a sales clerk’s blouse and, later, hitting a security guard during a visit to a shopping mall. He pleaded no contest.

Even storied Notre Dame, its reputation as clear as distilled water, found itself squirming uncomfortably when two of its football players were ordered to appear in court after separate traffic accidents. Linebacker Michael Stonebreaker was charged with driving under the influence of alcohol, and running back Tony Brooks was accused of leaving the scene of an accident and driving with a suspended license. Both charges are misdemeanors.

So it turns out that Oklahoma hasn’t cornered the market on random violence or police reports, though you wouldn’t have known it in February.

Perhaps the most disturbing news comes from assorted sports psychologists and counselors, who contend that the incidents are bound to be repeated in one form or another. This time it was at Oklahoma; the next time, who knows where? But there will be a next time, they say.

“No system is going to be perfect,” said Dr. William Wayne, who, as OU’s director of mental health, has worked closely with school athletes, including football players. "(No system) is going to prevent occurrences of some kind in the future. It’s going to happen.”

Said Dr. Wil Miles, a clinical psychologist who is a consultant for the University of Colorado athletic department: “These are social issues. It’s a microcosm, and that’s what a lot of people don’t want to accept.”

Florida State’s Bobby Bowden is a football coach, not a psychologist. But he, too, said the potential for more incidents such as the ones at Oklahoma is a constant fear.

“I think that’s the thing that’s got us all concerned,” Bowden said. “Anytime you get 100 boys together, yes, it can happen.”

Immediately after hearing of Oklahoma’s dormitory troubles, Bowden assigned an assistant coach to begin patrolling the grounds of Florida State’s Burt Reynolds Hall, where the scholarship football players reside. He also began reassessing some of his team rules.

“It’s forcing us to put more restrictions on them,” Bowden said. “You’d like to treat them like the other students. You know, the other students don’t have anyone giving them a bed check or taking roll on them.”

Then again, the other students don’t usually receive full scholarships or represent their universities on national television, as do players from successful programs such as FSU’s.

At the University of Pittsburgh, players are now given a list of area nightspots considered off-limits. An ounce of prevention and all that.

“While I don’t condone what has happened (at Oklahoma), I don’t think in the college-age population . . . that incidents like some of these are all that uncommon on college campuses--by athletes and non-athletes,” said Pitt’s athletic director, Ed Bozik. “But I do think athletes do bear a greater responsibility than their fellow students. They are public figures.”

Or as Bowden often tells his players: “Little eyes are watching. Somebody’s watching you all the time who wants to be like you.”

In many cases, athletic programs may have themselves to blame for the increase in problems. Take, for instance, the recruiting process, where style is considered more important that substance, where illusion is valued more than reality.

In the continuing quest to sign the star athlete, some recruiters hyperbolize themselves into a frenzy, handing out gushy compliments and predictions to impressionable 17-year-olds until fiction melts into fact. Once on campus, the former high school star finds himself in a different world.

“We tell them, ‘Hey, you’re going to be courted to no end right now. You’re going to have coaches who are millionaires waiting on you.’ Hey, only in America,” said Dr. Thomas Hill, who began work a month ago as OU’s assistant athletic director for academics.

“You’re going to have a guy who has resources to no end waiting on a kid who can’t afford a bus ticket home. He doesn’t have carfare to get downtown from home. Then you got this guy who’s making hundreds of thousands of dollars waiting on him hand and foot. I mean, this is the only time in your life this is going to happen.

“So it’s not real. It’s an illusion, that’s what it is. And the illusion will just vanish as soon as you step foot on that campus. ‘We got you now. Let’s cut it out. You’re dog meat.’

“In the recruiting process, we try to tell them that. ‘Hey, we’re going to wait on you, but it’s not this way. This is the courting process.’ ”

Too often, the recruit doesn’t listen.

“They don’t believe it,” Hill said. "(They say), ‘Not me. It’s going to be great forever.’ ”

It isn’t, of course. Scholarship athletes, like all students, are forced to adjust to college life. “But what is demanded of the athletes is doubly tough,” Wayne said. “They have to conform to an awful lot of rules.”

The result is a sense of isolation, a feeling that psychologists such as Miles said is especially prevalent among black college athletes.

“They feel alienated,” he said. “They don’t feel welcome. The athletes feel that they’re there to play football and then hide. People need to realize that you’re not just getting an athlete, but you’re getting a kid with many cultural differences.”

Bowden: “I think there could be something to that. It is an adjustment for a lot of (players). But to me, it’s no excuse for the crime.”

Still, if isolating the student-athlete is such a concern, then why do many major college athletic programs house their football players in a single dorm? Why not do what Stanford does, put its scholarship athletes in housing with the rest of the student population?

“I would be in favor of not having (an athletic dorm), if everybody else will do the same,” Bowden said.

Bowden shouldn’t hold his breath. Coaches like the idea of knowing where their players live. They like the idea of having them centrally located. It supposedly makes it easier to control any potential problems.

But at the same time, said Miles, an athletic dorm may help breed these same feelings of isolation as well as impede the transition from recruit to college student.

Others, such as Hill, aren’t so sure. “I think we can accomplish some of the same things by living in an athletic dormitory,” he said.

Hill may know. To gain a better understanding of the Oklahoma situation, he lives in a dormitory room at Bud Wilkinson House.

Oklahoma is doing what it can to regain its lost stature. It hired Hill, which is a start. He comes from Tulane University, where he helped put the pieces together after a basketball point-shaving controversy nearly felled the school’s athletic department several years ago.

Hill has all sorts of plans, but one of his more ambitious is to interview every football recruit during official visits to the school next fall.

“We can be smart on the front end,” he said.

Hill already has made it clear that if a recruit doesn’t fit the mold of the “new” Sooner student-athlete, then he won’t be accepted into the program--no matter how many times a recruiter asks otherwise. The policy has been given unquestioned support by Swank.

“We call them student-athletes and I expect them to be students, No. 1, and athletes, No. 2,” Swank said. “I think that if they come with that perception, then there’s less likelihood of trouble.

“There are some people who may just want to come to participate in sports and not be a student. I don’t want them here. If that’s what they want, then let them go somewhere else.”

Does the change in philosophy come too late? Not if it prevents a recurrence of the events of February on the Oklahoma campus.

Are the new methods foolproof? Not exactly. “You can screen as carefully as you want to,” Hill said. “But you’ve got spies in the CIA who defect. I mean, they screen those folks.”

Meanwhile, Switzer’s power has been curtailed by Swank. No more questionable recruits. Fewer second chances for first-time offenders. More accountability for his actions.

All well and good, said Oklahoma’s Wayne, but don’t stop there. Push for a closer involvement between coaches and players. Better supervise the athletes whereabouts. Focus on academics. And change the emphasis of what the players do with their spare time. Do this and Oklahoma’s athletic department has a chance to scrape some of the mud from its image.

Wayne said the school is trying.

“I think it’s a genuine effort,” he said. “But we’re not a drug treatment program. We’re not running a prison.”

And then he said something else, something more sobering than a slap in the face.

“On the other hand, if (Oklahoma) goes 1-10 next year, they’re going to forget about all that,” he said. “That’s the reality of it. The reality is that you have to win.”

Too bad it couldn’t have been something more important, such as preventing tragedies, tragedies Oklahoma knows all too well.


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