NORMAN — Like any other morning, Americans woke up to a series of headlines when they unfolded their newspapers on Jan. 6, 1985.
There were reports of Soviet-United States arms talks in Geneva. Hostages had been freed from a Pan Am jet in Cleveland. Other news included critiques of Ronald Reagan’s foreign policy and reflections on Elvis Presley’s upcoming 50th birthday, eight years on from his death. From the Associated Press in Boston, a story on the treasure hunter who found more than $1 million in gold and silver on the ocean floor off Cape Cod.
One more headline, out of Utah via United Press International, appeared on pages all over the country: “Sewage swirls in ‘Switzer Bowl’”.
The 133-word news report is an artifact to a story rooted in the 1984 rivalry between Oklahoma and BYU, a post-New Year’s hand-vote in a local city government meeting and a water reclamation facility 15 miles south of Salt Lake City. Those are central pieces in the legend of the Barry Switzer sewage lagoon that supposedly sits 40 minutes north of BYU Lavell Edwards Stadium.
Nearly 40 years later, the lore of the treatment plant rages on as the Sooners visit BYU Saturday (11 a.m., ESPN), even if the lagoon with the former OU coach’s name on it — a piece of Oklahoma football mythology that’s lasted decades — may never have existed at all.
“There are people out there who are convinced that the sewage treatment plant is now the Barry Switzer Bowl,” said Dennis Randall, the former mayor of West Jordan, Utah. “It’s not and it never was. It was a joke that just got out of control.”
A war of words
For football programs with broadly incompatible backgrounds, there’s plenty of history between OU and BYU. On Saturday, the team once led by the Bootlegger’s Boy meets the program of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints again.
The Sooners and Cougars have played twice before.
Gary Gibbs suffered a 31-6 defeat to BYU at the 1994 Copper Bowl, his final game in charge of OU. Fifteen years later, Sam Bradford’s shoulder injury and a 14-13 loss to the Cougars on the opening weekend of the season marked the initial stumbling blocks for the 2009 Sooners in a promising campaign that never blossomed.
This weekend, OU visits Provo as a 24-point favorite, seeking its first-ever win over the Cougars in the first and only conference matchup between the teams before the Sooners depart for the SEC.
“I’ve got incredible respect for their program, for coach (Kalani) Sitake and what he’s been able to do,” Brent Venables said this week. “Again the passion and loyalty that the fan base has is second to none.”
Yet the most infamous battle between the schools emerged during a season in which OU and BYU never met at all.
The programs were jockeying for a national title in December of 1984. Switzer, 48 years old at the time, was waging a war of words on the Cougars. Politicking the Sooners’ case for the No. 1 ranking, he had spent weeks taking fierce aim at top-ranked BYU and the quality of its championship resume.
“They play in the worst conference in the country,” Switzer said in the days prior to the Sooners’ Orange Bowl bout with Washington. “BYU beat its schedule, but it didn’t beat the world.”
OU lost 28-17 in the New Year’s Day bowl game. BYU claimed its first national championship in program history. Switzer’s harsh words stayed with the fans in Provo and Salt Lake City.
Days later, reports emerged of a local government approving a resolution to place Switzer’s name on a large lagoon at the South Valley Water Reclamation Facility not all that far from the BYU campus, and a legend was born.
It all started with a joke within the Salt Lake County Council of Governments.
“It was a moment of absolute hilarity in a meeting,” said Randall, who served as West Jordan’s mayor from 1982-86. “It turned into something I didn’t even expect.”
Legends live longest
Meetings of the Salt Lake County Council of Governments in 1985 were about as exciting as they sound.
For the mayors of the cities in Salt Lake County and its three county commissioners, they were a place to settle budgets and forge intercity relationships. If one municipality needed to borrow a snow plow from another, this was the time to sort it out.
“It’s probably the most boring thing in the world,” Randall explained.
In the first week of 1985, the Salt Lake County Council of Governments was discussing the budget for the county jail when Randall’s mind wandered back to Switzer’s comments and an idea popped into his head.
“Barry Switzer had made a statement that BYU, which is my love, didn’t deserve to be the national champion,” Randall said. “I’m sitting there bored stiff. I thought I needed to do something to liven this meeting up.
“So I raised my hand and I said, ‘I move that we change the name of the Salt Lake sewage treatment plant,’ That was something, by the way, we did not have the authority to do.”
Randall conceived it as “The Barry Switzer Bowl” and the name drew fast laughs. One of Randall’s fellow mayors seconded the motion, then another called it to question, prompting a hand-vote.
The motion to rename the lagoon at the South Valley Water Reclamation Facility passed unanimously.
“It was a joke,” Randall said. “Everybody laughed and the chairman banged his gavel and told us to get back to business.”
To understand the particular zeal in Switzer’s shots at BYU in the fall of 1984 and the ire they stirred in Cougars fans, one must return to a time when college football’s national championship was settled not by a playoff or the BCS, but by the Associated Press.
Before the advent of the BCS, the sport’s national championship was bestowed by the collection of sportswriters and broadcasters that made up the voting populace for the AP Poll. In an era in which the national title hinged on individual votes — as opposed to computers or a playoff committee — campaigning became part and parcel of the job for Switzer and contemporaries like Jimmy Johnson and Tom Osborne.
By late 1984, the Sooners sat No. 2 in the AP Poll at 9-1-1 with a loss to Kansas and a tie against Texas entering their Orange Bowl matchup with No. 4 Washington. BYU had already completed its 13-0 season in a Holiday Bowl win that dropped Michigan to .500 on the season.
As voters held OU up against the unbeaten Cougars, Switzer wasn’t shy in turning up the heat.
He downplayed a BYU schedule that featured only one ranked win and propped up the strength of OU’s run through the Big Eight. Even after the Sooners lost in the Orange Bowl, Switzer made sure to call Washington “the best team” OU had played all year.
“They’re more talented,” he said. “They’re a better team than Brigham Young, I promise you that.”
Here’s how columnist Tony Kornheiser summed up Switzer’s performance in the Washington Post on Jan. 3, 1985.
“Barry Switzer, the Oklahoma coach who so obviously lusted for the No. 1 ranking, was always available to denigrate the quality of Brigham Young’s conference and schedule, while boosting his own. Switzer called BYU’s opponents ‘Puddins,’ and giggled when he said so.”
Nearly 40 years later, at the age of 86, Switzer’s passion has faded only slightly.
“To be named a national champion that year all you had to do was beat a 6-6 Michigan team,” he joked this week.
It was through the lens of that moment, days after BYU was minted national champions, that the Salt Lake County Council of Governments facetiously voted to rename the lagoon south of Salt Lake City.
The resolution, Randall says, was a joke. Reporters at the Deseret News and Salt Lake Tribune took it seriously. By the time he got home from the meeting there were local news stations reporting the story.
The legend of the “Switzer Bowl”, the sewage lagoon in Utah named for the legendary Sooners coach, has lived on nearly 40 years. Photo provided by United Press International.
Dennis Randall was the mayor of West Jordan, Utah, in 1984. He says the “Switzer Bowl” was nothing more than a joke. Photo provided by Dennis Randall.
“I had to explain that we didn’t change the name,” Randall said. “We don’t have the authority to do that.”
The Utah state legislature might have had that authority and a state legislator even introduced Randall’s motion, though it never went to a vote. Officially, the treatment plant and its lagoon have kept the name of South Valley Water Reclamation Facility since it opened in the mid-1980s.
Legends, for better or worse, tend to live longer than true stories. Once the initial news spread through wire services across the country, it became just the latest folk tale in Switzer and Sooner history, even if it wasn’t fully true.
“Most guys’ kids want to see Yellowstone on a family vacation,” Switzer told Sports Illustrated in 1986. “My kids want to go see a sewage treatment plant.”
Myth vs. reality
Randall’s term as mayor of West Jordan proved to be his only plunge into politics. He wrapped up a 40-year career as a teacher specializing in U.S. government and politics in 2015.
The lesson he learned in 1985 flowed into his teaching in the decades that followed.
“When you are in public and when you have a public title, keep your mouth shut,” Randall said. “Probably both of us could have done that. (Switzer) made a comment and it blew up out here. I made a comment and it blew up out there.”
For Switzer, the fable fit perfectly into the narrative of the coach who carved a historic run through his 16 seasons in charge of the Sooners from 1973-88.
“I thought it was funnier than hell,” he said.
Despite his words in 1984, Switzer maintained a good relationship with Cougars coach LaVell Edwards in their coaching days. Afterward, Switzer would travel together with Edwards and his wife Patti to Nike-sponsored events.
The stink of the supposed sewage lagoon and the comments Switzer slung in BYU’s direction never hardened the relationship.
“Football coaches don’t worry about shit like that,” Switzer said. “We laughed about it. He knew I was tongue-in-cheek about all that shit.”
While the lagoon was certainly never officially named for the former Sooners coach, there is contention over its signage.
Switzer has on multiple occasions told the story of friends and fans sending pictures from the treatment plant in Utah standing next to a sign with his name on it. Randall, who says the plant was not pleased when the story emerged in 1985, doesn’t believe a sign was ever placed in front of the lagoon.
Whether a sign exists or has ever existed is one question. Whether that matters is another one to consider.
In Norman, the legend of Barry Switzer’s lagoon is alive and well. In West Jordan, home of the treatment plant, it’s a foreign topic. Most residents have never even heard the story.
Reached by phone Thursday, a representative from the South Valley Water Reclamation Facility had no record of signage related to the “Switzer Bowl” on the plant site.
Bill Miller, director of the Midvale (Utah) Museum and president of the Midvale Historical Society, contributed to the reporting of this story.