‘He’ll be in our minds forever’: A Sooner’s enduring admiration for Barry Switzer

‘He’ll be in our minds forever’: A Sooner’s enduring admiration for Barry Switzer

John Shelley never played a down for Barry Switzer at OU. His admiration for “The King” remains today no less.

Eli Lederman

By Eli Lederman

| Sep 8, 2023, 5:13pm CDT

Eli Lederman

By Eli Lederman

Sep 8, 2023, 5:13pm CDT

NORMAN — It was a room full of former Sooners who played for Barry Switzer, the head coach.

Joe Washington was prominent within the crowd that packed into the dining room at Othello’s Italian Restaurant Thursday evening. So too were Oklahoma quarterbacks of the past such as Thomas Lott and Jamelle Holieway, a pair in the mass gathering of former players, family, friends and fans who arrived to celebrate 50 years since Switzer’s first game as head coach in the fall of 1973.

Also in the room: at least one former Sooner who overlapped with Switzer in Norman but graduated before Chuck Fairbanks left for the NFL and the reins went to his seasoned offensive coordinator. 

John Shelley never played a down under Barry Switzer, the head coach. His admiration for “The King” endures today no less. 

“He’s part of the whole university,” said Shelley, who played at OU from 1969-1971. “He’ll be there forever. He’ll be in our minds forever. He was just fantastic.” 

Shelley stepped into the Sooners’ varsity setup in the fall of 1969, Switzer’s fourth season guiding the offense. Shelley’s college career began at wide receiver. Jack Mildren played quarterback in an early iteration of the wishbone offense Switzer perfected at OU.

“We ran the ball a lot,” Shelley recalled. “Lots of blocking at wide receiver.” 

Shelley spent only that fall on the offense under Switzer. He moved to safety in 1970 and played there for two seasons before the Buffalo Bills selected him with the 417th overall pick in the 1972 NFL Draft.

Shelley remembers the practice sessions against Switzer’s unit. They often inflicted more damage than anything the Sooners defense faced on Saturday afternoons. “They just ran us into the ground,” he said.

John Shelley, during his OU football playing days. (Provided)

The hits and hard blocks still radiate 50 years later. So do the little moments that burned Shelley then and make him laugh now. 

“When we were watching film we would split up offense and defense,” he said. “Barry’s guys would spend 30 minutes and they’re out. He let ‘em go because they averaged 75 points a game. Defense was there for three hours. It just pissed me off.”

Switzer was an innovator of offense and remains an appreciator of football. Good defensive football was never lost on him. 

More than five decades on, Shelley couldn’t tell you what he did to catch Switzer’s attention in a 55-29 win at Pitt during his junior season in 1971. He does remember how the then-offensive coordinator made him feel about it at halftime. 

“(Switzer) came into the locker room and just clapped in my face,” Shelley said. “He was so excited by what I’d done.”

The Switzer Shelley knew as a coordinator was a presence throughout the program, not just within his own offense. That Switzer wouldn’t take over at OU until two years after Shelley graduated didn’t obscure the clear path the well-rounded assistant was on.

“You could tell where he was going,” Shelley said. “There wasn’t any question about it. When coach Fairbanks left there wasn’t any question. I don’t think they spent 15 minutes on who was going to replace him.”

The impressions Switzer left on Shelley during his playing days are permanent. The mark he’s left on Shelley since may be just as strong.

Switzer, of course, still resides in Norman. He remains a regular around lunchtime at Midway Deli. He’s been an ambassador for the city of Norman, the university and the program for most, if not all of the 35 years since he left the Sooners in 1988 after 16 seasons.

“He’s in the spotlight,” Shelley said. “He’s simmered down a little bit with age. But he’s out in the public. He represents the university exceedingly well. And he cares. And that’s the main thing.”

That care has extended most crucially to those who played under Switzer at OU. He never forgets a name, a face or story. That much was evident among the crowd inside Othello’s Thursday.

It’s why Shelley, a Sooner who knew Barry Switzer before he was Barry Switzer the head coach, made a point to be in that dining room, too.

“He appreciates these players,” Shelley said. “He appreciates the guys and that’s what attracts us to him.”

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Eli Lederman reports on the University of Oklahoma for Sellout Crowd. He began his professional career covering the University of Missouri with the Columbia Missourian and later worked at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette before two years writing on the Sooners and Cowboys at the Tulsa World. Born and raised in Mamaroneck, New York, Lederman grew up a rabid consumer of the New York sports pages and an avid fan of the New York Mets. He entered sportswriting at 14 years old and later graduated from the University of Missouri. Away from the keyboard, he can usually be found exploring the Oklahoma City food scene or watching/playing fútbol (read: soccer). He can be reached at [email protected].

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