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Looking Down the Barrel : Switzer Claims His Gun Is Loaded for His First Season Coaching the Cowboys, but Winning in NFL Might Not Be as Easy as He Thinks

TIMES STAFF WRITER

First thing you should understand about this town’s newest Cowboy:

“My gun is loaded,” Barry Switzer says, squinting across a cluttered desk. “Don’t care what you say about me, long as you understand one thing: My gun is loaded.”

And the trigger finger twitches.

“All you people think it is so daggone hard to learn a pro offense, you people drive me crazy,” he says, suddenly rising from his chair, his voice hardening with every syllable.

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“My goodness, an eighth-grader could learn our plays in just a few days,” he shouts, stalking around the side of the desk. “Heck, I could teach you our offense in three minutes! Three minutes!”

You rise.

“Sit down,” he says.

You sit.

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He is now bouncing around a white board that hangs from a wall, filling it with X’s and O’s, scrawling them in blue, speaking as if he is calling signals.

“You got the 20 counter . . . the 30 belly . . . the pitch right . . . the toss left,” he says.

He is cradling an imaginary ball one moment. He is juking past an imaginary defender the next.

Time out. He searches for an eraser. Can’t find one. Grabs a T-shirt off his desk.

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Wipes out one formation with the shirt. Draws another formation. Calls more signals.

“You got the slant right . . . the I-right, tight-end left . . . This is mental gymnastics? This is hard?” he asks.

He grabs a big blue binder, throws it down on the desk, jerks it open, points to a typewritten page listing titles such as Toss Split and Pitch Right.

Ah, the revered Cowboy playbook, handed to Switzer this spring after the most shocking NFL coaching development in years.

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Jimmy Johnson, architect of consecutive Super Bowl championships, was out.

Switzer, 56, a former college coach who had not set foot on a sideline in five years, was in.

Switzer, entrusted with leading the Cowboys to a record third consecutive Super Bowl title although he had never been closer to the NFL than his living room; Switzer, entrusted with America’s most popular sports franchise although he was ankle-deep in controversy when he left the University of Oklahoma after 16 raucous years.

Switzer, entrusted with a playbook that he is now promising he can absorb simply because, well, anybody can absorb it.

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“Look at that!” he says. “Look down there!”

You glance at the open page.

Barry Switzer’s impossible job really is written in understandable English.

Fullback start. Fullback drive. Fullback belly. Fullback jab.

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“Do you see what I mean?” he says, softer now, smiling. “Do I make my point?”

Down the hall at the Cowboy training facility, quarterback Troy Aikman is asked if he sees what Switzer means.

Aikman sighs. You have heard that sigh before, from a parent who has watched his child jump into a puddle of mud.

Aikman has been his new coach’s most important advocate in the locker room. But at this moment, his eyes are wide.

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“Well, it’s not easy,” Aikman says. “And if Barry doesn’t know that yet, he’ll find out soon enough.”

*

You can believe them both.

It is apparent that despite being out of his league, Barry Switzer is not out of his element.

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But there is some question as to how many fourth-and-longs he can handle before he goes out of his mind.

Judging from what has happened since his hiring on March 30, Switzer can certainly handle America’s most celebrated group of athletes.

If not as coach, then as curator.

He has wooed the players, charmed the fans, disarmed the media with bluntness, and most of all, he has not changed one single thing on the football field .

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Same coaching staff, except for the pre-Switzer substitution of offensive coordinator Ernie Zampese for departed Norv Turner.

Same plays. Even the same routines.

When Switzer scheduled practice in the afternoon of the last day of mini-camp this spring, Aikman gently told him that Johnson always ended mini-camp in the morning. That way, the rookies still in college could return to their campuses for Monday classes.

So Switzer changed the schedule.

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“Even the time we meet at the hotel before home games has not changed,” linebacker Darrin Smith said. “He has told us that it’s not his team, it’s our team, and our team has not changed.”

But then again, one reason Switzer is succeeding as a head coach is because the Cowboys do not yet need a head coach.

What happens when they do?

What happens when a shy defensive lineman mistakenly touches a blocked field goal in the snow on Thanksgiving and this mistake costs the Cowboys a victory over the Miami Dolphins?

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Every season has its flash point. This incident marked the Cowboys’ crisis of 1993.

How Jimmy Johnson handled it, by publicly supporting Leon Lett while challenging the rest of his team to work even harder, will not soon be forgotten by the players. They did not lose again.

What happens when Switzer realizes, as Aikman warned, that these days are coming, that it really isn’t this easy?

“It’s easy to say we know everything is going to be fine all the time, but that’s not true,” Aikman said. “Every season, you reach a tough time. And the season hinges on how you deal with that tough time.

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“During those times, Jimmy was always good with knowing what to do and what to say.”

And under Switzer?

“I’m not being skeptical here, but when those times hit this year, we’re not sure what will happen,” Aikman said.

Until then, Switzer is about as happy as your average middle-aged businessman who discovered football’s best team in his mailbox one afternoon.

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Seemingly unconcerned with his image, on the first day of practice he didn’t even wear a whistle.

After a month, he was still mispronouncing some of his player’s names.

By the team’s fourth exhibition, he was still referring to his days with the Sooners.

“Tonight, I challenged my team to give me one more good Wishbone drive,” he shouted at the news conference after the Cowboys’ 34-10 victory over the Denver Broncos.

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When talking about the Cowboys, Switzer is openly emotional, often raising his voice at the most unexpected times. That’s not Jimmy Johnson standing back there working the volume, is it?

This emotion also reveals itself in playful slaps and shoves. These have included a whomp on the back of owner Jerry Jones last spring that left Jones pale and breathless.

Some thought Switzer was trying to knock local TV announcer Dale Hansen to the floor during a recent on-air argument. But Switzer, by repeated shoulder slaps, says he was just making another point.

“I am who I am,” Switzer said. “I don’t give a damn what people think about that.”

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The average Dallas fan loves it. Except for the cursing, of course.

“He came in here sort of backwood, and talked to us like we haven’t been talked to before,” said Barry McCoy, a professional photographer and lifelong Cowboy fan from nearby Duncanville. “But he’s losing the rough edges. He only cusses one out of every 10 words now.

“And we don’t think he’ll have any problem coaching, not with this talent.”

The players like him for a different reason. Unlike Johnson, he doesn’t yell at them. Doesn’t threaten them. Doesn’t really do much more than hug them, ask about their families, and make them laugh.

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The veteran Cowboys, used to working more with assistant coaches anyway, think Switzer has found a nice home outside the sideline huddles. They hope he stays there.

“‘Right now, it doesn’t look like Barry will make much of a difference,” said Michael Irvin, one of Switzer’s fiercest critics last spring. “He says, ‘I know you guys can play, so just play. My assistant coaches will coach. And you just play.’ ”

Irvin said any fears evaporated when the first team stepped into the same huddle for the first time in an exhibition.

“I looked around the huddle and said, ‘Hey, I know that guy. And that guy. And that guy,’ ” Irvin said. “I realized that whatever happens on the sidelines, on the field it’s still most of the same guys who won it the last two years. You take comfort in that.”

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So, despite last spring’s uproar, nothing has changed?

“Don’t say that,” Irvin warned. “When’s the Super Bowl? On the day after the Super Bowl, you come ask me if nothing has changed.

“Only if we have won again will I say nothing has changed.”

In other words, as hard as Switzer works, not until February will he be able to claim victory. And even then . . .

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“Barry is in a no-win situation,” said Don Shula, the Miami Dolphin coach. “If the Cowboys win again, it was Jimmy’s team. If the Cowboy’s lose, it was Barry’s fault.”

But Switzer will survive, as this bootlegger’s son has always survived, by being himself and hoping nobody shoots.

He’s not afraid to call female reporters “darlin.’ ”

He was not afraid to let Irvin, still upset over the loss of Johnson, angrily stalk out of their first team meeting last spring. Didn’t chase him, didn’t discipline him.

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“I understood why he was mad,” Switzer said. “I do know players.”

He also was not afraid to acknowledge recently that he had no idea how one of his players, linebacker Godfrey Myles, performed in a game.

“Like everyone else, I was watching the ball, not him,” Switzer said.

And he’s not afraid to defer to his assistant coaches on almost everything.

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Ask him to evaluate a running back, and he will tell how running backs coach Joe Brodsky evaluated the player.

“While Jimmy never once told me how to coach, Jimmy had a tight grip on everything around him,” Brodsky said. “Barry is a little different.”

More than a little.

Switzer recently stood in front of one of the most football-wise media groups in the country--the Cowboy beat reporters--and casually mentioned something that had been bothering him.

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“Tell me,” he said, “does anybody here know whether Texas Stadium runs East-West, or North-South?”

*

Why?

The question has poked at Cowboy fans since that stunning news conference last March when Jerry Jones handed this universe’s best football coach $2 million and told Jimmy Johnson to hit the beach.

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Why break up a team on the verge of history?

Jones was asked the question again one recent afternoon. But by then, he needed to say nothing.

In yet another speech in the voice of a ringmaster, Switzer had already provided the answer.

Switzer had been speaking of the first off-field incident of the season, in which Cowboy players complained about the size of their plane during a trip to an exhibition.

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While the opposing Houston Oilers were flown to Mexico City in a 350-seat Airbus, the Cowboys were cramped into an undersized 727.

The players claimed that Jones was being cheap. Switzer discussed it with Jones, then claimed that Jones made a simple mistake by not checking the aircraft before chartering it.

He then publicly backed his owner.

“It comes down to loyal . . . and I am loyal,” Switzer said. “If I need to chew out Jerry to protect the players, I’ll do that in private. But I will not stand up on that airplane and say, ‘That damn Jerry! That cheap son of a gun!’ ”

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He wouldn’t throw the sort of tirade Johnson used to throw.

“To do that would have been disloyal, vindictive and irresponsible,” Switzer said. “And that is exactly why (Johnson) is not here. Not because of all those other things you read about, but because he was disloyal.”

Funny, but players say those tirades against Jones and other “outside” forces are what unified the locker room.

“Sure, some of us thought, this problem with the planes would never happen if Jimmy was here,” guard Nate Newton said.

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Johnson, of course, was not exactly fired. About the same time Jones was going to dump him, he was going to leave.

Remember those infamous quotes from Jones late one March evening in an Orlando bar? Those statements that 500 other coaches could have won the Super Bowl and that Johnson should be fired and Switzer hired?

“That had nothing to do with our decision that we part ways. . . . I had already made up my mind to do something,” Jones said. “I’d been thinking about doing something for two years.

“We hadn’t had our annual meeting yet, when I could discuss it with him. But I was making a change.”

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By the time he heard those barroom words, Johnson had also made up his mind. He said he could never coach for a man who gave him such little respect.

Within a week, five years of sniping and backbiting finally ended.

Johnson became free to coach for an owner who didn’t want to receive at least half of the credit.

And Jones became free to seek a coach who would give him some.

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But Switzer?

After winning three national championships in 16 seasons at Oklahoma, he resigned in June of 1989 when it was obvious that his program had collapsed into chaos and lawlessness.

Among other things, there was a shooting and a gang rape in the athletic dormitory, and starting quarterback Charles Thompson was heading to jail on a cocaine rap.

Switzer separated himself from the program while working at several businesses in Oklahoma, but the memories remained.

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Among other reasons the entire NFL gasped at his hiring was the fact that, according to court documents, Switzer admitted he had had an affair with the former wife of respected Cowboy scouting director Larry Lacewell.

That, of course, didn’t stop Jones from picking up the phone and calling his former coach at Arkansas.

The way Jones tells it, Switzer was not merely the best choice, he was the only choice.

Unlike candidates such as Lou Holtz and Mike Ditka, Switzer came without a staff, without an entourage and without a chance in the world of ever coaching again.

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In Switzer, for $1 million a season, he purchased instant loyalty, affection and continuity.

In these turbulent NFL times, it was a bargain.

“He was the perfect man for the job,” Jones said. “The only man.”

And of his inexperience with the pro game?

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“To have a coach who never thought he would have this chance again, giving him a two-time defending Super Bowl champion . . . I think the way Barry has gone after this offsets any inexperience,” Jones said.

His players did not initially agree. Irvin even publicly swore he would never play for the new man.

“All I was saying was, no matter how bad things are between a coach and an owner, for the sake of back-to-back championships, you deal with it,” Irvin said. “We should have been savoring this moment forever!”

Nerves were calmed by Aikman, who played briefly for Switzer at Oklahoma before suffering a broken leg and transferring to UCLA in 1986.

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Contrary to reports, Switzer did not run him out of town by reneging on a promise to change the Wishbone offense to a pro set.

“He did not lie to me,” Aikman said. “I knew what kind of coach he was, and I was comfortable with him being here.”

So is Jones, as cameras have already caught him and Switzer standing together on the sideline late in an exhibition.

You can guess who was doing all the talking--the one with all the money.

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Not that this didn’t happen with Johnson. In fact, players say Johnson was sometimes not much more involved in the actual play-calling than Switzer.

“I bet Jimmy couldn’t name you five pass plays,” Aikman said. “But there was nothing wrong with that.”

Still, until Switzer wins a few games, image is everything.

That is why Switzer publicly derided Hansen after hearing the sportscaster’s report, based on unidentified sources, of a power struggle among assistant coaches.

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When Hansen’s radio partner, Brad Sham, stood up for Hansen, Sham was fired by Jones from his job as the host of Jones’ television show.

“I don’t care what anybody says about me, just don’t do it on my time and money,” Jones said. “What’s different about this organization is that it’s unified.”

Meanwhile, Johnson watches all of this from his home in the Florida Keys and chuckles. This fall, that laugh will be heard by nearly everyone.

Johnson will be commenting not only on Fox and HBO television this fall but also in a syndicated column in a Dallas newspaper.

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For now, he simply tells reporters, “With that team he has, Switzer should do just fine.”

Based on what the Cowboys’ first-string offense produced the first time it played together this summer--a game-opening touchdown drive against Denver lasting 10 minutes 26 seconds--it appears Johnson is right.

Irvin acknowledged later that he and some teammates were inspired by a pep talk before the Bronco game.

“We were told that hey, for a lot of us, this could be our last year together,” Irvin said. “We were reminded that this could be our last chance to be really great. It was a great talk, really made you think.”

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It was quite a speech by . . . Emmitt Smith.

What the heck. It’s early, and the newest Cowboy still has several rounds on his hip.


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