Berry: 50 years ago, Barry Switzer was distraught as his Sooner era debuted

Berry: 50 years ago, Barry Switzer was distraught as his Sooner era debuted

Fifty years ago Friday, after the Sooners dismantled Baylor, Barry Switzer thought only of his halfback who had suffered a massive knee injury.

Berry Tramel

By Berry Tramel

| Sep 15, 2023, 6:00am CDT

Berry Tramel

By Berry Tramel

Sep 15, 2023, 6:00am CDT

Barry Switzer’s dismay sounded through the crackling of AM radio. Switzer was distraught. His first of 190 games in 16 seasons as the OU football coach, his first of 157 wins that fed the monster, was not on Switzer’s mind.

Fifty years ago Friday, in the now-gone Floyd Casey Stadium, Switzer’s first game as the Sooner head coach arrived on an 86-degree night in Waco, Texas. Thrills and chills would become the Switzer hallmark. Great players and epic games. Memories to last a lifetime.

But after the Sooners dismantled Baylor 42-14, gridiron glory was not a Switzer priority.

Switzer thought only of his right halfback. Grant Burget, a junior from Stroud, had suffered a massive knee injury early in the game, and in the postgame locker-room interview, Switzer’s scattered thoughts focused solely on Burget.

Fifty years later, Burget remains at the forefront of Switzer’s Game 1 memories.

“The thing that comes back to me was the loss of Grant Burget,” Switzer said this week, a few weeks before his 86th birthday. “That was so disappointing.”

That night embodied Switzer’s career. Fabulous football. Great connections with his players. Empathy and celebration and leadership. Relationships that last a lifetime.

Switzer “was the best,” said Tinker Owens, a sophomore receiver on the 1973 team, who had played for and been recruited to OU by head coach Chuck Fairbanks. “I liked Chuck Fairbanks a lot. Chuck was good to me. But Chuck wasn’t a players’ coach. He didn’t like to chum around. But Switzer was just the opposite with his personality.”

Those 1973 Sooners finished 10-0-1 and No. 3 in the nation. Switzer went on to coach 31 games before his first defeat. OU, which had returned to the national spotlight in Fairbanks’ final two seasons, won three national championships in Switzer’s first 13 seasons as head coach.

But that 1973 season offered no assurance of such dominance.

The Sooners were ranked 11th in the Associated Press preseason poll, but others thought that was high. Sports Illustrated had OU No. 15. The (late great) Big Eight Magazine picked the Sooners third in the conference.

And GamePlan magazine, a cutting edge publication that focused on advanced (for the day) analytics, didn’t like OU’s chances at all. GamePlan picked the Sooners sixth in the Big Eight and omitted OU from the magazine’s top 20.

“Not since the dreadful ‘Dust Bowl’ days of the 1930s have folks in Norman suffered as much as they have this year,” GamePlan wrote.

The hits were many between the 1972 season Sugar Bowl, a 14-0 whitewashing of Penn State, and the 1973 season opener at Baylor.

Barry Switzer runs an OU practice in 1972, before being named the OU head coach. The 50-year anniversary of Switzer’s first game as head coach, Sept. 15, 1973, is Friday. (Bob Albright, Oklahoman archives/Oklahoma History Center)

Eligibility losses were heavy. All-Americans Greg Pruitt, Tom Brahaney and Derland Moore. Stalwarts Raymond Hamilton, Albert Chandler, Leon Crosswhite, Joe Wylie, Dean Unruh, Ken Jones, Dan Ruster and Larry Roach. Quarterback Dave Robertson. 

Fairbanks took the New England Patriots job in January 1973. Switzer was hired three days later.

But soon enough, the NCAA handed the Sooners a two-year probation and suspended Kerry Jackson, the heir apparent at quarterback, over a falsified high-school transcript.

“Coach Switzer’s position is an unenviable one as far as we’re concerned,” GamePlan wrote. “With an unproven quarterback and an undernourished offensive line, the Sooner attack won’t be duplicating past performances. The defense will be OK, but still a shade below last year’s. All things considered, the Sooners appear headed for a slide down the Big Eight ladder.”

Seems quaint to read that now. One of the worst analyses in pigskin prognostication history. The Sooner defense — with all three Selmon brothers, and three-time all-American linebacker Rod Shoate, and super safety Randy Hughes — was the best in OU history. Steve Davis became the quarterback and forged a career record of 32-1-1.

But cut GamePlan some slack. The concern was widespread. Even to the head coach.

“Here I have a team that’s pretty good,” Switzer said. “The quarterback position bothered me some. I didn’t know how Steve Davis would perform.”

So down to Waco went the Sooners. Baylor was yet to be a breakout program under Grant Teaff, who in 1973 was in his second season with the Bears.

The Sooners failed to score on their first possession. Then Davis directed touchdown drives on five straight series. OU led 35-0 at halftime.

Davis didn’t play perfectly. He went the wrong way on one play. Stumbled in the open field in another. Even fumbled going into the end zone, though teammate Eddie Foster fell on the ball for a touchdown.

But Davis had shown enough. Switzer had found his quarterback.

“Everybody on the team was obviously elated for Steve, the way he played,” Owens said. “Kind of unexpected to us. We figured out he was a little better than we thought, after that first game.”

That OU defense held Baylor to 11 first downs and 233 total yards. In late November, that OU defense held mighty Nebraska to 174 total yards and zero points. The Cornhuskers never snapped the ball in Sooner territory.

GamePlan and others didn’t know what Switzer had. But Switzer knew.

“Hell yes, I did,” Switzer said. “Hell, I had the Selmons. Shoate, David Smith.” Plus four defensive backs who made the National Football League — Hughes, Clyde Powers, Tony Peters and Kenith Pope.

That Baylor game unveiled new stars. Junior-college transfer Waymon Clark moved from defensive end to fullback and rushed for 113 yards on 11 carries, including a 50-yard touchdown. Washington and Davis joined him as 100-yard rushers against the Bears.

Baylor committed six turnovers, but the Sooners lost three fumbles themselves, because that’s what the OU wishbone did back then. High risk, high reward.

The Sooners rushed for 480 yards on 72 carries.

Meanwhile, Baylor scored on a 21-yard drive after a Tim Welch fumble and a TD with 11 seconds left in the game.

It was the launch of a majestic era. Switzer’s record: 157-29-4. Average Switzer season: 10-2.

But Switzer didn’t celebrate that first win. Even in a raucous locker room, he was distraught. Switzer was thinking of Burget.

Burget was a fourth-year junior who had rushed for 244 yards as a 1972 sophomore. He won the starting job at halfback going down to Baylor. And gained 30 yards on four carries before the injury.

“It was a pretty devastating deal,” Owens said. “Everybody expected him to have a great year.”

Surgery clearly was needed, and the players knew what that meant.

“Gotta have surgery back in those days, usually wasn’t a good thing,” Owens said. “More guys had surgery that never played again than played again.”

Burget, who died in 2021 at the age of 69, would return in 1974 and share the right halfback spot with freshman Elvis Peacock. Burget scored eight touchdowns on the 1974 national championship team.

But in Waco that night, there was no assurance that Burget ever would play again. And Oklahomans, listening on the radio back home, heard their new coach not joyous, but distracted and distressed.

Game 1 of the Switzer was the archetype for the 189 games that followed. A coach dedicated to his players on his way to huge success.

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Berry Tramel is a 45-year veteran of Oklahoma journalism, having spent 13 years at the Norman Transcript and 32 years at The Oklahoman. He has been named Oklahoma Sportswriter of the Year by the National Sports Media Association. Born and raised in Norman, Tramel grew up reading four newspapers a day and began his career at age 17. His first assignment was the Lexington-Elmore City high school football game, and he’s enjoyed the journey ever since, having covered NBA Finals and Rose Bowls and everything in between. Tramel and his wife, Tricia, were married in 1980 and live in Norman near their daughter, son-in-law and three granddaughters. Tramel can be reached at 405-760-8080 or at [email protected].

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